This season, fans have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of Nebraska basketball under head coach Fred Hoiberg.
They’ve seen the Huskers unravel at the seams and fail to respond to adversity in a season-opening defeat to UC Riverside, seen them unable to close out multiple 14-point leads in a double overtime loss to Southern Utah and seen a dominant first half propel Nebraska to a comfortable victory over South Dakota State.
This is a reality that Husker fans are going to have to accept this season, with an overhauled roster that may not experience full cohesion until the Huskers get into the swing of Big Ten play. There’s talent on this roster, but getting 14 players to buy into Hoiberg’s system is still a work in progress.
It’s been talked about ad nauseam since his hiring last spring, but Hoiberg’s offensive philosophy is to attack opponents with pace and use ball screens to generate easy baskets. Hoiberg wants his offense to operate at full speed, all of the time, meaning that he wants the ball pushed up the court quickly after a made or missed basket.
Take Nebraska’s first basket of the game against South Dakota State, for example. After a missed Jackrabbit jumpshot, junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. grabbed the rebound, made an outlet pass to sophomore guard Cam Mack and senior guard Haanif Cheatham finished a picture-perfect Mack pass to give the Huskers a 2-0 lead.
That sequence took four seconds — an ideal Hoiberg possession.
When Nebraska gets out in transition and knocks down open looks, it’s a team that is hard to match up against. Against the Jackrabbits, the Huskers converted on a season-high 20 fast break points and 46 points off layups.
Against UC Riverside, the Huskers scored 47 points in the whole game.
It’s common knowledge that scoring in transition is easier than operating out of half-court sets, and the Huskers could pull some conference upsets once it buys into the concept that moving the ball quickly results in easier opportunities to score.
In the first two games of the season, the Huskers went through long scoring droughts in which the offense failed to create quality scoring opportunities. Lengthy droughts against UC Riverside and Southern Utah enabled the visitors to either extend leads or come back in games.
With an inexperienced roster in the first month of the season without a bonafide go-to scorer, the Huskers cannot afford to slow down the offense if they want to win games. In addition, the Huskers need to finish games better.
A “closer” to pick Nebraska up in times of adversity will come as the season progresses, but Nebraska’s inability to finish games is a troubling trend that will inevitably come back to hurt them.
And when the offense slips, the defense does too.
Against UC Riverside, Nebraska trailed 32-28 at halftime. That start isn’t ideal, but the game wasn’t over by any stretch of the imagination — no matter how poorly the Huskers had played up to that point. In the second half, the Huskers shot an abysmal 23% from the field while allowing the Highlanders to shoot 43%.
The Huskers improved between the first and second halves against Southern Utah, but the defense allowed the Thunderbirds to shoot 56% in the second half after holding them to 40% from the field in the first half. After the game went to overtime, the offense fell apart in both overtimes with a 3-13 display over both extra periods.
Second half defensive problems revealed themselves against South Dakota State as well, except Nebraska was up by enough that it wasn’t as noticeable. The Huskers came out flat in the second half as the Jackrabbits shot 54% from the field — a 13% increase from the first half.
Nebraska, meanwhile, saw its offensive efficiency fall by 15% between halves with a 41% shooting performance to close out Friday’s game.
“The second half was not very good for us,” Hoiberg said. “We allowed them to get in the paint too easily and didn’t do the same things that got us that lead.”
So far, Nebraska has yet to put together a complete game on both offense and defense. There have been flashes on both ends, but Husker fans have yet to see 40 minutes of Hoiberg’s fast-paced offense complemented by aggressive defense.
Progress, especially with this roster, will be measured by how this team looks in January and February — not in November and December.
It may take some time to get the team flowing exactly how Hoiberg wants it to, but once the Huskers get rolling, more performances like the “thing of beauty” Hoiberg stated that Husker fans witnessed in the first half on Friday night are to come.