Devaney Center | Lincoln, NE | Tip: 12:45 P.M. | TV: Big 12 Network (affiliate list)/ESPN Full Court
At 11-0 in the Big 12 and a full two games ahead of the Kansas Jayhawks in the league standings, the Texas Longhorns now have their eyes on bigger prizes ahead. The Longhorns are still firmly in the discussion for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and are jockeying for preferential placement in the nearby San Antonio regional.
To reach those goals, Texas has to win the games it is supposed to win on paper. They will likely be favored in each of their last five regular season games, but the three remaining road tests certainly provide the biggest danger of tripping up the streaking Longhorns. This afternoon, Texas will tackle the first of those road challenges as they face a Nebraska team that is looking desperately for marquee wins to pad their tournament résumé.
For the fans, there’s also an element of intrigue with Nebraska’s impending move to the Big 10. There was a fair share of political stumping going on during the off-season realignment, with the Huskers receiving a large chunk of the blame for fracturing the conference. Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osbourne scoffed at the notion, instead pointing his finger at the six teams, including Texas, who were considering a retaliatory move to the Pac 10. It’s fairly safe to say there is no love lost between the two schools.
By the numbers
Since arriving from UTEP, Doc Sadler has coached his Cornhuskers into a defensive machine. In terms of defensive efficiency, Nebraska’s 0.892 points allowed per possession is 14th in the nation. In conference play, that number has ballooned to 1.013 points every time down the floor, but the Huskers are still 2nd in the Big 12. The only team ahead of them, of course, is Texas and its nearly impenetrable defense.
Offensively, it’s a completely different story for Nebraska. They rank near the bottom of the conference in three of the four offensive factors, and are even near the bottom nationally in offensive rebounding and free-throw rate. Against Big 12 competition, the Cornhusker offense turns the ball over 20.2% of the time, grabs rebounds on just 28% of their missed shots, and posts a free-throw rate of only 34.7%.
The low offensive rebounding numbers are very interesting, because the Cornhusker defense does a great job cleaning the glass and limiting opponents to one-shot possessions. They are holding opponents to a 26.3% offensive-rebounding mark on the season, a number that is actually 5th in the entire country. If the Cornhuskers could translate that rebounding performance to even a slightly better output on their own end, they would be a much tougher team to beat.
Meet the Cornhuskers
Just like last season, the team Nebraska has on the floor is nothing like the one they anticipated having back in August. Oregon transfer Kamyron Brown was suspended 10 games for undisclosed reasons before ultimately being dismissed from the team. Big man Christopher Niemann has taken longer than expected coming back from his third surgery, and has played only a handful of minutes in conference play. And in January, German forward Christian Standhardinger — arguably the best player on the team — elected to transfer to La Salle.
Even with all of the departures and the slow pace that Nebraska employs, Coach Sadler still has a deep rotation that spreads the minutes out. The Cornhuskers typically play 10 different guys, with no players averaging more than 30 minutes a game. The roster isn’t full of stars, but it is full of interchangeable parts, something which works well in Sadler’s fundamentally-sound system.
The unquestioned leader of Nebraska is senior point guard Lance Jeter. Short and stocky, this former football player is truly a coach on the floor, and knows how to use his strength to finish inside. He’s currently leading the team with 11 points per game, but it’s his solid 2.4-to-1 assist-to-TO ratio that keeps the Nebraska offense churning. On the defensive end, he has really quick hands, and can swipe the ball at a moment’s notice. His steal percentage of 3.6% is 65th in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy.
The other main man for Nebraska is 6’11” Jorge Brian Diaz. With Standhardinger’s mid-season departure, Diaz is now the best post option that the Huskers have. They often run a four-out, one-in look rotating around the big man, which is part of the reason why they struggle so much on the offensive glass. Diaz is a quality scorer, who can knock down jumpers out to 17 feet, has a nice hook shot, and can easily post up against opposing bigs.
In the backcourt, former JuCo All-American Caleb Walker is making a quick impact. At 6’4″, he’s second on the team with 4.8 rebounds per game. He also brings athleticism and the ability to drive to the rim, along with an average three-point shot. The Huskers have been abysmal from behind the arc so far this season, so Walker’s 34.8% three-point mark is actually one of the best on the team.
Junior guard Brandon Richardon was the leading scorer to return from last year’s team, but this year has seen his output dip from 8.9 to 6.3 points per game. Richardson earns his minutes with hard-nosed defensive play and hustle, two attributes that are highly valued by Coach Sadler. Don’t look for the junior to light up the scoreboard this afternoon, but he will likely make his impact doing the little things.
Houston product Toney McCray is back on the court for Nebraska this season after elbow surgery caused him to miss all but three games last year. He’s the only true three-point threat for the Huskers, having knocked down more than 42% of his long-range attempts this year. He’s a catch-and-shoot guy with an incredibly quick release, so Texas must work hard to fight through the screens set for him. McCray is also athletic and can attack off the dribble, so having the bigs switch on those screens could provide some less-than-stellar results.
Off the bench, Nebraska has a pair of big men to compliment Diaz in Brandon Ubel and Andre Almeida. Ubel is a tall, skinny guy who brings some range to the four spot, but his lack of heft has made it tough for him to play solid defense inside. He’s constantly had his minutes limited by foul trouble this season, and will probably have issues against the likes of Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson this afternoon.
Almeida has also struggled with foul trouble, but his is certainly not an issue of being undersized. After needing an appendectomy just before the season, the 6’11” Almeida reported to campus at a hefty 310 pounds. Even at Nebraska’s slower pace, he has a hard time keeping up for extended minutes, and he’s often fouling opponents when he gets out of position and can’t recover in time.
In the backcourt, Drake Beranek is providing about 18 minutes per game off the bench. A transfer from Division II Nebraska-Kearney, Beranek is a quality shooter who also plays fiesty defense. This year, he’s made 38.5% of his three-pointers, and he sank more than 42% in his previous season at the D-II level. Although the Huskers hardly ever get to the foul line, Beranek is nearly automatic when he does make it there. He was 82% at the line in D-II, and is 81.8% from the stripe so far this season.
Coach Sadler also has a pair of guards in Ray Gallegos and Eshaunte Jones who are chipping in 13 minutes each per game. Jones was a madman behind the arc last season, where he hit 43.5% of his attempts. This season, the book is out on Jones, and defenses have held him to just a 31.7% three-point mark.
Gallegos, meanwhile, is still learning the game as a sophomore. He has issues turning the ball over and has made just six of his 41 three-point attempts. If he can find his long-range shot, he’ll be a great role player for Nebraska. As it is right now, he’s simply a guy who can give the starting guards a quick breather.
Keys to the game
As they did against Oklahoma State on Wednesday night, the Longhorns need to attack the Huskers inside-out. This serves two purposes, as it can lead to a lot of fouls on a thin Nebraska frontcourt, and also opens up the perimeter for the Longhorn shooters. Kansas absolutely decimated Nebraska in the second half of their last meeting by employing this attack. The Huskers love to double down on the blocks, so if the Texas bigs are ready to make the quick pass back out, it should lead to a bevy of threes.
On defense, Texas will want to force Diaz off the blocks. He can certainly knock down the midrange jumper, and even has a salty turnaround in his aresenal. But, he’s much more difficult to defend if he’s catching the ball in or near the paint. In addition, Diaz is one of just two consistent offensive rebounders, so having him away from the blocks when the guards put up shots should make it even easier for Texas to dominate the defensive glass.
Finally, the Longhorns need to reclaim their own misses. The biggest part of Nebraska’s defensive success is their ability to clean the glass and force opponents into one-shot possessions. If Texas can take advantage of their greater talent inside, they can really cripple a typically-stout Husker defense.
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