Fresh off a loss to Wisconsin, the Nebraska men’s basketball team will look for a reprieve on Saturday when it plays at home against Rutgers.
The Huskers probably won’t get it.
On one hand the Scarlet Knights are doing poorly. After pulling off a supremely ugly win against Iowa less than 10 days ago, Rutgers has since lost to two bad teams in Minnesota and Maryland.
On the other hand, Nebraska is easily the worst team in the Big Ten. Still without a win in nine conference games, a team filled with hope at the start of the season has since then floundered and looks about as lost as ever.
For even more context: when the two faced off in Piscataway, New Jersey earlier in the season, Rutgers decimated the hapless Huskers. A team with the 292nd-slowest tempo in all of NCAA basketball per kenpom.com won 93-65, the most points the Scarlet Knights have scored all season.
Rutgers senior forward Ron Harper Jr. was the standout player last time the two teams met, scoring 29 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Though the Huskers have found modest success defensively closing down on ball-dominant big men, they struggle exceptionally in dealing with smaller forwards or guards who can get into the lane quickly and convert.
Harper, despite his designation as a forward, falls more so into this latter camp, and benefitted from this key deficiency in the Nebraska defense in the teams’ last matchup. Of his 29 points, 10 came from the free-throw line, another hole in the Huskers’ defense.
Senior guard Geo Baker is another player who could give Nebraska trouble, exploiting its primary weakness. That being said, Baker had a poor game against the Huskers earlier in the season, where he only scored five points. Regardless, a team-leading 25 points against Minnesota and another 16 against Maryland has Baker on a hot streak going into Lincoln.
Thankfully for the Huskers, junior guard Trey McGowens may be able to help. McGowens has made steady progress since a foot injury at the start of the season kept him out, and his lockdown defensive presence is a key talking point for head coach Fred Hoiberg.
When Nebraska played Indiana before its COVID-19-instigated pause, McGowens played well in his 21 minutes and no Hoosier guard scored more than nine points.
At the same time, Rutgers’ low tempo and corresponding high-assist rate plays into the Huskers’ game slightly, with Nebraska relatively adept at forcing turnovers. More passing naturally means more opportunities to find the steal as well.
Offensively, things get trickier for the Huskers. The strongest part of Rutgers’ game defensively is its defense inside the arc, where it holds its opponents to a 45.5% 2-point completion rate, 40th-best in the nation.
Nebraska’s offense at any level of the court is bad, but the team is certainly better inside the arc than outside. The Huskers’ 2-point completion percentage ranks 84th in the nation, while its 3-point completion rate is 316th-worst in all of college basketball.
Overall, Nebraska’s chances look grim against the Scarlet Knights. Though there are serious concerns defensively, the Huskers remain unable to prosecute games due to seemingly inevitable, enormous cold streaks that continue to sink them.
Hoiberg has tried so far this season to account for them in a number of ways. He moved junior forward Derrick Walker into a more central offensive role at first and though that helped offensive flow, it didn’t stop the rigidity and predictability of the cold spells.
He also tried to keep players disciplined, pulling them if they took poor shots or missed their assignments. This too helped the offense, but by no means unlocked it. In the first half against Wisconsin, the Huskers were playing good offense until they hit 28 points. With five minutes left in the half, Nebraska would only score one more time, and the lead the Badgers opened up in that time proved insurmountable.
Cold spells are inevitable in basketball, but their magnitude and velocity are each different. Along with these other more facial issues, exclusive to the game, if the Huskers can’t solve this problem they will have serious problems winning a Big Ten game at all this season.