Heading into Saturday’s matchup against Northwestern, Nebraska men’s basketball has lost all 11 of its Big Ten games.
If head coach Fred Hoiberg and his team can’t pull off a win against Northwestern, a bottom-dwelling team similar to the Huskers in stature, then there’s a serious chance Nebraska will repeat an unsavory achievement it managed last season as well.
On March 1, assuming the Huskers can’t win any one of their intervening six games, Hoiberg’s team will have gone a full year without winning a single conference game. Last season, Nebraska’s first conference win came against Penn State on Feb. 14, 2021, over a year after its 2020 win against Iowa on Jan. 7.
Unfortunately for Hoiberg, the context indicts, instead of vindicates, the current iteration of the squad. After all, that 2020-2021 team suffered a month-long layoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak and, on paper, was also worse.
There are few saving graces for Hoiberg’s team, but if any exist they likely have to do with the strength of schedule Nebraska has faced up to Saturday’s game. Few would have predicted wins against Illinois, Purdue and Ohio State, all teams Nebraska has played in recent weeks.
For the winnable-on-paper games, like against Rutgers last Saturday, the Scarlet Knights still have a positive Big Ten record so far this season. Excluding Nebraska, of the bottom five teams in the Big Ten, the Huskers still have yet to play any of them.
Playing Northwestern at home is, in combination with the follow-up game against Minnesota at home, Nebraska’s most winnable game all season in Big Ten play. Without wins in both, or at the very least one, the team will more than likely undershoot last season’s three conference wins.
This is not to understate the magnitude of the task facing Hoiberg and his team on Saturday. Such is the problem of being on the extreme polarities of a conference. Just as a top team can technically be infinitely better than its next best competitor, so too can the bottom team be infinitely worse than any of its potential safety rafts.
So far this season, according to kenpom.com, the Wildcats have the 59th best offense in the nation per offensive efficiency. Illinois, the Big Ten’s leading team at time of writing, has the 19th. The Huskers, by comparison, hold the 198th-best offense in all of college basketball. The difference in place between the two teams offensively is nearly three times the separation between Northwestern and one of the best teams in college basketball.
One particular realm where the disparity may be gruesome is offensive rebounding. Currently, the Huskers are exceptionally bad at keeping their opponents from rebounding the ball, ranking 321st in the nation in this regard.
Nebraska is so bad at rebounding that even rather average teams in that regard, like Wisconsin, can nearly eclipse the Huskers by double-digits on the offensive glass. Currently, the Badgers have the 218th-worst offensive rebounding percentage in college basketball. When the two played on Jan. 27, Wisconsin still grabbed 13 offensive boards to Nebraska’s two.
Northwestern sits right around where Wisconsin plays. The Wildcats have the 214th-lowest offensive rebounding rate in NCAA basketball currently. As the game against Wisconsin proves, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that the Huskers will do very well on the glass.
At the same time, the Wildcats are rather exceptional in that they are notoriously resistant to turnovers. The Wildcats currently hold the sixth-lowest steal percentage on offense in all of college basketball and the 24th-highest non-steal turnover percentage.
As in previous years, a fair bit of the Huskers’ defense relies on getting steals and other such turnovers in order to break in transition. That’s going worse this year than others, with Nebraska holding by far the Big Ten’s worst defense according to kenpom.com, but it’s still the team’s overall defensive philosophy.
The closest example in the field of turnover percentage may be Michigan, a team Nebraska took to the wire on Tuesday night. The Wolverines hold the 32nd-lowest steal percentage in all of college basketball, but gave up 11 turnovers overall to the Huskers.
Of those 11 turnovers, six were steals and half of said steals came from freshman guard Bryce McGowens. If the back half of Nebraska’s losing run has any positives, it has been McGowens’ performance.
McGowens’ run began against Indiana on Jan. 17, with the freshman scoring 20 points on good free throw efficiency. He followed that up with a 23-point outing against Wisconsin with similarly promising results.
Two games on from that loss, McGowens broke the record for most consecutive 20-point games from a Husker freshman, and will look to continue that form against the Wildcats.
Nebraska goes in on Saturday against a better team. Regardless, in order to save Hoiberg’s season, that can’t be an excuse.