By Patrick Vint on January 7, 2020 at 12:09 pm
Where's my tie?
© Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

IOWA (10-4) VS. NEBRASKA (6-8)

DATE: January 7, 2020
TIME: 8:00 p.m. CT
LOCATION: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln
RADIO: Learfield Sports
LINE: Iowa -8.5
KENPOM: Iowa -10 (Iowa 81% win probability)

Usually, these posts are focused on the opponent.  If this one was focused on Nebraska, it would probably be about how Nebraska is bad.  Like, historically, unbelievably bad.

Fine, let's talk a bit about Nebraska's badness.  As you probably know, Fred Hoiberg took over in Lincoln last spring.  He then did what Fred Hoiberg does: Melted down the roster to sell for scrap, and replaced everyone with transfers.  Here's what he came back with:

  • Cam Mack (6'2", 175), a point guard from Salt Lake City Community College;
  • The aptly-named Haanif Cheatham (6'5", 195), who transferred from Marquette to Florida Gulf Coast last year only to come to Lincoln this year as a grad transfer;
  • Dachon Burke (6'4", 180), who actually transferred to Nebraska last year from Robert Morris;
  • Jervay Green (6'3", 210), a guard from Western Nebraska Community College;
  • Yvan Ouedraogo (6'9", 260), a French dude;
  • Matej Kavas (6'8", 200), a Slovenian forward who had been playing at Seattle and we ain't talking about the Supersonics;
  • Kevin Cross (6'8", 240), a freshman center from Arkansas.

Only the excellently-monikered power forward Thorir Thorbjarnarson (6'6",  remains from last year's Nebraska squad.  He's been arguably the team's best player, and unquestionably their best three-point threat, so naturally he didn't start until six games ago.

Here's how bad Nebraska has been: There are currently eight players in the Big Ten getting significant (more than 15) minutes per game with an offensive efficiency rating below 94.  Nebraska has three of them: Burke, Green, and Ouedraogo, the last of which is maybe the least efficient starter in the conference. 

It's Hoiberg, so seven players are averaging more than two three-point attempts per game, but only two Cornhuskers -- Mack and Thorbjarnarson -- are shooting better than 34 percent from behind the arc.  And while one of the great benefits of the all-threes all-the-time offense is long rebound attempts, Nebraska is one of the worst rebounding teams in the country at both ends of the court.  They shoot a horrendous 59.5% at the free throw line, they have one of every eight shot attempts blocked, and they play at a pace so high that the inefficiencies metastasize over the course of the game.  It's bad basketball.  It's really bad basketball.

The results are what you'd expect from basketball this bad: Home losses to UC Riverside, Southern Utah and North Dakota.  George Mason beat them by 19, Creighton by 19, Rutgers by 17, Georgia Tech by 17.  They did take Indiana to overtime in Bloomington; Indiana's Kenpom rank immediately dropped six spots.  But Indiana has that Tyler Cook Iowa thing going this year where they just get to the line at an absurd rate, and the one thing Nebraska does well is not fouling.  The Huskers also beat Purdue at home on a night where the Boilers shot 6/35 from three.  Purdue did something similar Sunday night at Illinois.  That's just Purdue this year.  And if Iowa gets fast and loose with the ball and misses open shots, sure, this game could be in doubt.

If you're looking for a better comp, though, Iowa looks a lot like a mix of Rutgers's size and Creighton's defense-optional philosophy.  Creighton didn't really need to defend Nebraska; the Huskers shot just 27/65 from the field against them regardless.  And Rutgers outrebounded Nebraska 48-31; the Scarlet Knights only needed 15 three-point attempts because the interior game was so fruitful.  Both of those teams barely broke a stride to smash Hoiberg's team, and neither of those teams had The Peacock. 

If Iowa plays at its usual offensive efficiency, Nebraska doesn't really have an answer, and the best ways of breaking Iowa's offense -- crashing the boards or forcing turnovers -- aren't really Nebraska's thing.  And while Iowa is still shaky on defense, Hoiberg's system makes defense sort of irrelevant; Nebraska's going to chuck from deep, and if they make them, it will be a game.  They just don't make them that often, no matter the defense.

The bigger issue Tuesday night is whether Iowa can even cobble together a team deep enough to handle what will be a breakneck game.  Nebraska plays fast, and Iowa is at its best when it does the same.  But Iowa's talent advantage could vanish if foul trouble, injury or simple exhaustion leads to significant time for walk-ons (Fran has flat-out said he expects Riley Till and Co. to receive significant minutes Tuesday).  Because as inefficient as Nebraska's parade of transfers has been, the far end of Iowa's bench has been worse.  That's the nightmare scenario, the one way that Nebraska wins this game.  And because it's plausible due to simple bad luck, we'll be watching closely.

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