Nebraska Basketball vs. Maryland Photo No. 2 (copy)

Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens (5) goes for a layup during the game against Maryland at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

On Feb. 24, Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts made a public display of support for embattled third-year men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg, who had led the Huskers to a 7-20 record up to that point. 

The move came after Hoiberg received heaps of criticism in the midst of what appeared to be another single-digit-win season spent in the Big Ten’s basement. However, after Alberts announced Hoiberg’s return and restructured contract for 2022-23, something funny happened. 

Nebraska started winning.

Not instantly, of course, as the Huskers dropped an 88-78 decision at home to Iowa on Feb. 25. But after that came a winning streak so unfathomably out-of-place that it defied any and all conventional logic and even made a bit of college basketball history.

The cherry on top was the team’s most recent victory, a 74-73 stunner at then-No. 10 Wisconsin that denied the Badgers an opportunity to claim sole possession of the Big Ten regular season championship. Nebraska was without freshman guard Bryce McGowens due to injury and lost junior guard Trey McGowens early in the second half with a flagrant two foul. 

Wisconsin built a second-half advantage as great as 10 points, but Nebraska leaned on stout late-game defense and a brilliant second-half effort from senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. to leave the Kohl Center victorious. 

Now, things are a touch more interesting for Hoiberg’s squad. Instead of entering the Big Ten Tournament on a losing skid, as has been the case for the past two seasons of Hoiberg’s tenure, Nebraska will enter Indianapolis on a three-game winning streak — with all three wins not coming from Pinnacle Bank Arena. Only Illinois, the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament bracket, enters the week with a winning streak as lengthy as the Huskers’.  

What’s more, Nebraska’s late surge actually vaulted it out of last place in the conference. Both Nebraska and Minnesota finished with a 4-16 record in Big Ten play, but Nebraska beat the Golden Gophers head-to-head on Feb. 9 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. So, despite Nebraska having a worse overall record (10-21) than Minnesota (13-16), the win gives the Huskers the No. 13 seed heading into Wednesday night’s opening round for the first time under Hoiberg. 

The reason for Nebraska’s late-season surge can be identified rather simply: Hoiberg’s team is making a concerted effort to get to the basket. Against Wisconsin, Verge and the rest of Nebraska’s backcourt blew by Badger defenders with ease to get consistent looks at the rim. Even junior forward Derrick Walker beat his defender off the bounce multiple times in the first half of Sunday’s game. 

Nebraska converted an incredible 24-of-36 2-point attempts against the Badgers, with a majority of those looks coming at the rim. In wins over Ohio State and Penn State, Nebraska shot 56.2% and 54.3%, respectively, from inside the 3-point arc. The Huskers’ recent 2-point production and emphasis on attacking the basket has boosted their 2-point production to No. 97 nationally.

Making a concerted effort to get to the rim might seem like a simple adjustment, but it’s a stark comparison for past Hoiberg-coached Nebraska teams. Nebraska finished No. 272 nationally in 2021 and No. 299 nationally in 2020. Given how well-documented Nebraska’s 3-point shooting woes have been this season, it must be noted that the Huskers’ rapid turnaround comes due to the fact that they’re finally playing to their strengths. 

Hoiberg’s best Iowa State teams displayed these characteristics too. From 2012 through 2015, Hoiberg’s Cyclone squads ranked No. 75 or better nationally in 2-point conversion rate, peaking with his 2014 team that made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. 

Unfortunately for the Huskers, their first-round opponent in Indianapolis, No. 12 seed Northwestern, is one of the better teams in college basketball at defending inside the arc. Entering Wednesday night’s contest, the Wildcats rank No. 65 nationally in 2-point defense, allowing opponents to convert just 47.1% of their 2-point opportunities. Nebraska shot 50% and 48.5% in two matchups with the Wildcats this season, both of which were Husker losses.

Northwestern’s outside shooting also contributed heavily in its consecutive comfortable victories over the Huskers. In Northwestern’s 87-63 thumping of Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Feb. 5, the Wildcats made 13-of-31 attempts, led by six 3-pointers from junior guard Boo Buie. Then, on Feb. 22, the Wildcats made 13-of-32 3-point attempts in a 77-65 victory over Nebraska. 

Nebraska’s perimeter defense has since tightened ever-so slightly. The Huskers have held its last three opponents below 35% from 3-point range, with their best defensive effort coming against Wisconsin. Nebraska held the Badgers to just 5-of-23 from 3-point range, a feat it will likely need to repeat in order to find success in Indianapolis. 

Aside from more solid performances from Verge, Walker and freshman guard C.J. Wilcher, the Huskers could very well use a healthy Bryce McGowens. Early reports indicate that he could be available to play in the Big Ten Tournament, which would be an overall massive boost for a streaking Husker squad. 

At any rate, Nebraska’s current form indicates that the team has real potential to win its first Big Ten Tournament game since 2019. The Wildcats enter Indianapolis in significantly worse form, losing five of their last seven contests — the lone wins coming over Nebraska and Minnesota. 

Looking ahead, the winner of the Nebraska/Northwestern matchup will face No. 5 seed Iowa. The Hawkeyes, who are ranked No. 24 in the most recent AP Top 25, closed the regular season winning eight of their last 10 games and carry an impressive 22-9 record into the postseason. 

Of course, a potential second-round matchup can’t pose much concern for Hoiberg’s squad given past Big Ten Tournament failures. However, the Huskers are in the position to make a multi-game appearance in Indianapolis for the first time.

If Nebraska’s recent form is any indication, multiple games might be the floor for what Hoiberg’s squad can accomplish amidst the madness of March. The Huskers and Wildcats tipoff at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9.

sports@dailynebraskan.com