So far, the Nebraska men’s basketball team has found little success since moving up in competition.
All five of Nebraska’s wins on the season have come against teams ranked below No. 200 nationally, according to kenpom.com. When head coach Fred Hoiberg’s team has played anybody above that threshold, the Huskers have failed to come out on top.
This isn’t to say that Nebraska hasn’t been competitive when the stakes are raised. In fact, the exact opposite is true. In losses to Creighton, North Carolina State and Indiana, Hoiberg’s squad has been agonizingly competitive yet unable to consistently make enough winning plays.
Last Saturday’s defeat to Indiana was the perfect example of this.
Through six-and-a-half minutes, Nebraska led 14-4 and was playing the up-tempo basketball becoming of a Hoiberg-coached team. Nebraska had repeatedly burned the Hoosiers in transition and had limited the effectiveness of Indiana sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Then, inexplicably, it all stopped. The Husker offense reverted back to old habits, relying on one-on-one creativity in largely stagnant offensive sets and settling for highly-contested 3-pointers. Nebraska scored just eight points over the final 10:21 of the first half and trailed 26-22 entering the locker room.
Indiana worked its way to a quick seven-point advantage early in the second half, bookended by a stolen Nebraska inbounds pass for an easy layup, and the Huskers couldn’t get closer than that for the remainder of the game.
In truth, the story reads similarly to other Big Ten losses of Hoiberg’s tenure. The Huskers were out-rebounded, extremely poor from 3-point range and stalled offensively all too frequently.
Nebraska will need to find some way, any way, to change that on Tuesday night against Michigan. If the Huskers want to spring the home upset of the Wolverines, a Final Four squad last season picked to finish at the top of the Big Ten, the recipe is simple. It’s an area of play that, through nine games, necessitates immediate improvement: 3-point shooting.
Under Hoiberg, the Huskers have never been world-beaters from 3-point range. Nebraska’s struggles have been particularly odd considering that, according to kenpom.com, Hoiberg never had a season in which his team finished below the top-100 nationally in 3-point percentage back at Iowa State University.
The Huskers have yet to finish above No. 196 nationally under Hoiberg, and things appear to be bottoming out this year. As a team, Nebraska’s 27.1% clip from 3-point range ranks No. 325 of 358 Division I teams. Ironically, through Dec. 5, Nebraska leads the Big Ten in 3-point field goal attempts with 221, but ranks dead last in the conference in 3-point percentage.
Hoiberg revealed on Monday that he’s begun taking more drastic measures in order to help his team regain its shooting confidence.
“Sometimes, I think [the rim] looks like a little thimble up there, which right now it does,” Hoiberg said at Monday’s media availability. “I put two balls. They both fit in the rim. That’s a big-ass hoop, and our guys need to understand that.”
Performative gestures aside, there’s plenty of reason to believe that things won’t get much better against the Wolverines. Head coach Juwan Howard’s Michigan is stout defensively, ranking No. 12 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. In addition, the Wolverines are effective in limiting opponents from behind the arc.
Michigan ranks No. 34 nationally in 3-point defense, holding opponents to an average of 27.2% from distance.
While the Wolverines have posted some absolute clunkers themselves from 3-point range in their three losses this season — a 7% performance against Arizona and a 20% effort against Seton Hall being the lowlights — Michigan enters Tuesday’s game on the heels of an impressive nonconference victory that featured a quality shooting performance.
In Michigan’s 72-58 victory over San Diego State last Saturday, 3-point shooting spurred the Wolverines to their 14-point triumph. Freshman forward Caleb Houstan led the way in perhaps the best performance of his young Michigan career, with 17 points on 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. Senior guard Eli Brooks knocked down multiple efforts from behind the arc, with 10 points to go along with a team-high five assists against the Aztecs.
Michigan knocked down 11-of-20 3-pointers as a team against San Diego State.
Perhaps the most surprising performance in the Wolverine win came from sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, not known as a reliable outside threat. The 7-foot-1 center is normally more of a threat in the pick-and-roll game and when he has his back to the basket, but Dickinson drilled 3-of-3 attempts from behind the arc against San Diego State.
Even though, on a normal night, Dickinson won’t take a game over from 3-point range, he does have the ability to dominate on both ends of the floor. For Nebraska, it represents the second consecutive game facing such a talent after butting heads with Jackson-Davis on Saturday.
Jackson-Davis was productive against Nebraska, but it was a far cry from some of his more dominant efforts against Hoiberg’s squad. Nebraska ultimately limited him to 14 points and seven rebounds. According to Hoiberg, Michigan plays through Dickinson in a similar way that Indiana plays through Jackson-Davis. If Nebraska can limit Dickinson’s impact, it has a real shot at emerging victorious.
To some extent, the odds are in Nebraska’s favor ahead of Tuesday’s game. Michigan is just 1-2 away from home so far this season, the most recent a 72-51 loss at North Carolina on Dec. 1, and have alternated wins and losses since mid-November. In front of a raucous Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd, there's an opportunity to extend Michigan’s road woes.
If Nebraska’s outside shooting doesn't rectify itself, though, none of that will matter.