McGowens Northwestern 2.5

Nebraska’s Trey McGowens (white) dribbles the ball during the game against Northwestern at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Lincoln, Nebraska

Nebraska lost 87-63 to Northwestern.

In a home matchup against a team tied for second-worst in the Big Ten, this was on-paper the best chance Nebraska would have all season to win a game in its own conference. Perhaps, even, the Huskers were unfairly maligned in conference play due to only playing the conference’s best hitters so far this season.

Now, blown out at home by even a Big Ten basement dweller, not even the staunchest Nebraska defender can deny the disaster that is Husker basketball.

Here’s three takeaways from the game: 

Nebraska plays pitiful defense in the first half

It’s hard to contextualize how poor Nebraska’s defense was in the first half against Northwestern.

To start, the Wildcats shot 43.5% from the 3-point line against the Huskers in the first half. On its own, this isn’t necessarily all that remarkable. It’s bad, but it’s not incredible. By comparison, heading into the game, Northwestern shot 35.1% from the 3-point line according to kenpom.com.

What makes Northwestern’s 3-point shooting exceptionally problematic is the sheer volume of 3-pointers it attempted and converted. In the first half, 62% of the Wildcats’ shots were 3-pointers. Even if the Wildcats were a high volume 3-point shooting team, this number is still absurdly high.

Incredibly, the Wildcats don’t on average shoot that many 3-pointers. Heading into the Pinnacle Bank Arena blowout, a mere 36.9% of their shots were from behind-the-arc. That’s below average in all of Division I basketball. 

If Northwestern is, in reality, a rather average 3-point shooting team, what accounts for their 30 points from behind the arc in the first half?

The fact is Nebraska played barely anything one can recognize as defense in the first half. Yes, the players were out on the court, this is true, but beyond that they played exceptionally little defense.

And, in that defense, one can’t even blame the usual culprits. The Huskers did give up eight offensive rebounds in the first half, but only gave up four second chance points. Another Hoiberg pressure point, the transition defense, was also poor, but Northwestern scored only three fastbreak points in the first half.

If either of these two factors implicate the defense’s performance , it’s likely the transition defense. Though the Wildcats only scored three fastbreak points, part of the reason for that is Nebraska’s defense was so wild it could look set up and ready while leaving glaring holes all around the perimeter.

From there, all it’d take was a basic skip pass off a drive into the lane, sometimes even less than that, for the defense to unravel.

If any specific moment in the match stands out, it’d likely be Northwestern’s run eight minutes into the game. Hoiberg gave two of his starters, senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. and freshman guard Bryce McGowens, a break. In their stead he brought on senior guard Kobe Webster and sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga.

From there, things deteriorated. Already losing 19-13, Nebraska lost the ball and Northwestern senior forward Elyjah Williams converted the opportunity. Wildcat Senior guard Ryan Greer then scored a 3-pointer where he was barely covered and followed that up with a runner in the paint. 

In the span of a minute, Northwestern’s lead ballooned to 26-13, and the Wildcats forced Hoiberg to call another timeout. In fact, less than a minute passed between the two timeouts.

These flaws resulted in an insurmountable 22-point deficit with a full 20 minutes left to play. The deficit, at halftime, was only five points away from the number of points Nebraska scored in the half.

It was abhorrent.

Wilcher, the only noteworthy Husker

Freshman guard C.J. Wilcher has had a solid first year as a Husker in his limited minutes. For a bench player who is used in less than 15% of Nebraska’s possessions, his tidy stats have earned him a progressively larger role in the team.

Against the Wildcats, he was the only player who played well for the Huskers. He had 15 points while going 6-of-10 from the field with three 3-pointers. Most of his points, too, came in the first half, when Northwestern was still playing at full intensity. 

His made 3-pointers even kept Nebraska in the game early, before things started to go wrong. It wasn’t much in the end, but Wilcher is a good young piece to have on the team in the future overall.

Bryce McGowens stifled

McGowens’ four-game 20-point streak ended Saturday afternoon, and his final point total of 10, in truth, rather flattered how the player ended up performing.

All but one of McGowens’ points came in second half garbage time. In the first half, McGowens only took five shots and missed all of them. Nebraska’s talisman played poorly, but much of the reason for his impotence comes down to exceptional Northwestern game planning.

Specifically, the Wildcats denied McGowens, and the rest of the team, easy entries down the lane and in the paint. By keeping him out of this key area, McGowens was unable to draw the fouls so crucial to his production.

Verge, also forced into the perimeter, was unable to draw defenders to open up the space McGowens needed for his 3-point shooting, which tends to be rather poor otherwise. On top of that, junior forward Derrick Walker Jr. couldn’t command any space in his usual areas, specifically around the low post, so his impact was also muted.

Given Nebraska’s poor defensive play, Northwestern’s defensive gameplan likely wouldn’t’ve mattered much regardless of circumstance, but the Wildcats did well there too. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com