After the Baylor game Wednesday evening, an unsettling fact hit me: If Nebraska does not win another conference game this season, they will end up just one win better than last years team. A team that recorded what is, by most accounts, regarded as the worst season in the modern Husker Basketball era. (Last season the Huskers finished 2-14 in regular season conference play).
This is only strange to me, because the overall sentiment in 2010-11 has been that Nebraska Basketball is on an upswing. Slight? Yes, that would be fair to say. But an upswing nonetheless.
With the addition of several new players to the roster, and the return of just as many large contributors from last year's team, many (including myself) had reason to believe that 2010-11 would see the Huskers with a shot at doubling their win total. At the very least.
What's happened however, is turning out to be the same ol' story. Just a different set of faces, and a different list of reasons as to why the Husker wins seem to melt away along with the late winter snow and ice. Seven conference games remain, so the fat lady has not quite entered the building. But she's found the front door, and time is definitely running out.
Oklahoma State 16-7 (4-5) @ Nebraska 15-8 (3-6)
So what gives?
On paper, Nebraska seems able to compete with any team they face. Stout defense has been their calling card, and senior experience has been present in each of the most recent seasons. Doc Sadler's players give 100%, and they are seemingly coalescing into a tight unit much quicker than one might think possible.
That's on paper. So let's take a quick look at what has actually occurred since conference play started on Jan. 8th.
Defense | The hallmark of Doc's teams, tough Nebraska-style defense. Physical, and intense. While this may be true, check out the truth on the rare stat that we Husker basketball fans have been able to hang our hats on : PPG Allowed.
Nebraska started league play with the top national ranking in points allowed, and continued to hover in the top 3 nationally with around 54 ppg. This is a great number. Best in the Big 12, and second only to a few teams from minor conferences. The Huskers rarely allowed a team to reach 70 points, which quickly became the magic number for any team looking to upend the Big Red. I'm not so sure defense is Nebraska's bag anymore. Including the last-second heartbreaking loss in Lubbock versus the Red Raiders, Nebraska has allowed 70 points or more in 3 of 5 games, while also allowing 69 to Kansas State in yet another road loss.
Explanations for the recent drop in defensive effectiveness? I'm unsure. It may be that our guys are a bit fatigued. (note- Nebraska held #13 Texas A&M to just 48 points following a full week of rest.) Or, maybe the opposing teams' coaches have started to find holes in Nebraska's style. They've adapted, and we haven't? On paper, we've looked good. In actuality, we're slipping.
Bench Production | This has been a white-hot category for this year's Husker team. The Big Red are averaging 27.6 points per game from their bench players. This is crazy. In fact, it's double what the opposing teams have averaged against us. One of the great things about this statistic, is that it basically renders the starting lineup as meaningless. When the bench scores as much as your starting five does, you are extremely unpredictable and hard to scout against. Who do you key against? McCray? Jeter? Beranek? Neglect one of these guys, and he could very well end up killing you.
Example: Toney McCray drops 23 points in a flurry of both good and bad, last Wednesday versus Baylor. So, I'm Coach Travis Ford, and I start telling my guys to watch this McCray guy. Meanwhile, Doc maybe decides not to start McCray as punishment for turning the ball over 47 times during that same game. Instead, Caleb Walker starts in his place at the 4 spot and out-hustles your Cowboy en route to 10 points before halftime. Walker and McCray have two different styles of play, so maybe that initial strategy you had to defend McCray doesn't quite work versus Walker until he's already scored 10 points on you.
The bench has come through for us. It did last year, and it's even better this season. On paper, this has been every bit as impressive as it has been on the court.
Turnovers | This has been our biggest weakness in my opinion. The ball looks downright greasy sometimes when Nebraska plays. Diaz, McCray, Ubel, Almeida....they've all had their moments. The funny thing is, when you listen to the media (both ours and national) during games, you hear a lot about how Lance Jeter leads the Big 12 in assist/turnover ratio. (Currently, Jeter is 3rd in the Big 12). Okay, that's great. Lance is safe with the rock.
The rest of the team is another story. Despite having one of (if not the best) turnover/assist guy in the conference, Nebraska has managed to rank a dismal 180th nationally in turnovers per game, and 160th in assist/turnover ratio. Sorry Lance, you've done a great job with the ball. But Nebraska sucks in this category right now. I can remember two games that would've gone our way had it not been for handing the ball over, and that's two games we desperately need right now.
Yes, the season has gone from one of high hopes and expectations...to well, just the same old crap. At least it's starting to look that way.
So here we are. Two teams in OSU and Nebraska that really need this game. For the 'Pokes, it's to stay alive in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid. For us, it's to stay alive...period. Night game in Lincoln, so the atmosphere should be great. Praying for Diaz to man-up, McCray to stay hot, Almeida to eat someone (seriously, I want him to just flat out destroy somebody just to prove he can do it. What the hell, he can't score anyway!), and the Cornhuskers to come out with a joyous win to get back on track.
Tipoff: 6:07pm CST
Location: Bob Devaney Sports Center - Lincoln, NE
Television: ESPN Fullcourt and ESPN3.com / FOX Sports Midwest (DirecTV Ch. 680, Dish Ch. 451, Ch. 37 on Time Warner Cable; Ch. 47 on Cox Cable)
Radio: IMG Husker Sports Network / Kent Pavelka and Matt Davison on the call.
Internet Radio: Huskers.com
Internet Stats / Gamecast: ESPN.com
GO BIG RED!