Nebraska came into this season with high hopes, but so far has failed to produce. I don't want to say I can't stand Nebrasketball because they haven't ever done anything worth a damn for me to care about them, but going into this year, I was pretty tired of hearing about how they would be amazing. Not to toot my own horn, but I just didn't see it. They have Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, but honestly, what else? They play great, disciplined team defense, but their offense is terrible and I've always thought Petteway was a bit overrated anyway. I'll get to that a little more below, but my main point is that Nebraska isn't all that good this year. A hot streak to end last season had everyone picking them as a popular dark horse to begin the season (basically the opposite of Iowa's meltdown to finish last season), but after losses to Rhode Island, Incarnate World (LOL WUT?), and Hawaii in the non-conference portion of the season, the dark horse stuff has all but dropped from the conversation.
However, despite all the insults I just hurled Nebraska's way, Iowa could still lose this basketball game tonight. Nebraska's offense may be little more than Terran Petteway dribbling off of ball screen after ball screen, but their defense is legitimately good. They held Indiana -- the #9 ranked offense, according to Kenpom, Indiana -- to 1.03 points per possession (PPP), when Kenpom has their true talent level at something closer to to 1.15. That's good. Iowa's offense is not anywhere in the same stratosphere as Indiana's this season, so that's a bit worrisome. Nebraska is going to try and slow this game down, similar to what Northern Iowa did, and hope they can win a game in which neither team can make it out of the 50s. If Iowa's offense is able to be smart with their shots, like they were against Ohio State, they could easily do away with an offensively-challenged Nebraska team at home. But, if they look disjointed and clunky on the offensive side of the ball, we could be in for an ugly win or even a disappointing loss in Carver-Hawkeye Arena Monday night.
When Iowa Has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Sunday (when I was writing this), so if they are slightly different at the time you are reading this, that is why. Also, a reminder on how to read this chart: 100 = Division 1 average. Anything above 100 is above average, while anything below 100 is below average. The bigger the number, the better.
We are all familiar with Iowa's offense this season. Outside of the first half against Ohio State, shooting is not this team's forte and they don't get to the free throw line all that much (outside of the freakish Aaron White) either. Instead, Iowa's offense usually stays afloat by limiting turnovers and relying on offensive rebounds to get them extra chances at putting the ball in the basket.
What we are less familiar with, is Nebraska's defense. They aren't flashy and they aren't going to pressure you relentlessly the way Minnesota's tries to do this season, but they are extremely disciplined and they do a great job of working together. Opposing teams tend not to shoot the ball very well against them, nor do they find themselves at the free throw line very often. The Cornhuskers have done a great job of creating turnovers this year, and if they have one area that they aren't exceptional in, it's probably at limiting offensive rebounds. And that category is probably the most clear advantage for Iowa in this match up.
The key for Iowa in this game is to show that they can repeat the same shot selection against man-to-man defense that they did against the Ohio State zone. The 2-3 zone that the Buckeyes ran forced the Hawkeyes to work the ball to the baseline for high-percentage baskets, or to move the ball around and take open threes. Walter Pitchford is the only big guy who plays meaningful minutes for Nebraska, and he's not all that dangerous near the basket. Aaron White should have a big game down low playing garbage man, and Jarrod Uthoff should be able to get his fair share of looks from outside. I also think this could be a big game for one or both of Gabe Olaseni or Adam Woodbury. I don't think Nebraska has anybody on their roster that can guard Woodbury if he establishes position in the paint, and, after watching the Huskers play Indiana, I see the opportunity for Olaseni to have some success in the pick and roll and cleaning up on the offensive glass.
Will Iowa have success on offense, though? I have no idea. I think they can, but they have to show that they have a game plan on offense. Against Ohio State, the offense looked like they knew what they were doing against the zone. If they come out and look lost in the half court offense against this defense, then it's going to be a long day. I'm intrigued by how they played at Ohio State, but until I see that type of thing on a more consistent basis, I'm going with the defense here.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Even if Iowa's offense bogs down against Nebraska's stingy defense, Iowa still may be able to win an ugly slobber-knocker of a game because Nebraska's offense is just that terrible. They are average when it comes to shooting the ball and they actually do a nice job of getting to the free throw line, but keep in mind that we are still talking about numbers that are mostly from playing non-conference cupcakes and Indiana's "defense." The Huskers have yet to score more than a point per possession against a Kenpom top 100 team this season, and the one top 100 team that Nebraska has beaten (#43 Cincinnati) they averaged only 0.75 PPP against. Iowa's offense has been bad this season, but they have yet to sink to quite that level on a consistent basis.
And, as we all know, Iowa is a good defensive team this season. They do just about everything well, outside of hauling in defensive rebounds, and even in that they are basically average. Nebraska's biggest strength is getting to the free throw line, and Iowa's specialty just so happens to be not allowing their foes to get there.
The Nebraska offense has some nice players in Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, but that's about it. If this unit manages to average a point every possession against Iowa's defense, we should be worried about the remainder of the season.*
* That's an exaggeration. Nebraska could average more than a point per possession against Iowa because college basketball is crazy and we shouldn't get upset over small sample sizes. It's still a scenario that isn't very likely, though.
Team Shooting Tendencies
Yeah, Iowa's not a great shooting team, but, on the bright side, neither is Nebraska:
This seriously has all the makings of a defensive slugfest.
Offensively, both teams are equally bad from long range. Where they differ, is that Nebraska has made their two point shots at a higher clip, but Iowa has made their free throws at a higher rate.
Defensively, opposing teams haven't shot their threes all that well against either team, but Iowa's bigs have made it a bit tougher for other teams to score inside the arc against the Hawkeyes than against Nebrasketball.
Style-wise on offense, Iowa has attempted slightly more two point field goals than the average Division I team, while Nebraska has averaged slightly fewer.
On defense, Nebraska's opponents have taken about 4% more threes than the average team, while Iowa's opponents have a fairly normal shot distribution.
When we look at scoring, Iowa shoots their free throws so well (and shoots so badly from the field) that they get about 3% more of their points from charity stripe than the average team even though they don't get to the free throw line on a regular basis. If we look at Nebraska's defense, though, opponents are getting more points than normal from three point shooting because they take so many shots from distance.
On the opposite side of the ball, Nebraska gets to the free throw line so often and shoots them so well, that they get way more points than average from there. But, like Iowa, part of that also has to do with the fact that they can't shoot from the floor. Iowa's defense, on the other hand, never lets the other team get to the free throw line and is good at blocking two point attempts, leaving opponents to get an above average amount of points from downtown. Something Nebraska does not want to do.
Opposing to Players to Know
Let's talk Terran Petteway, shall we? Now, before I get too deep into discussion about him, let me preface this by stating that I'm not saying he's terrible. Far from it. He's a damn good ball player. I just happen to think he's a bit overrated by the media because he's the most visible guy (due to the sheer number of shots he takes) on the court for Nebraska. Yes, he's averaging 19.5 points per game, but his offensive rating is below 100 this season and was just barely over 100 last season. He is your quintessential chucker, meaning he shoots from anywhere on the floor, anytime he feels like it, and he's not the most efficient scorer.
Now, like I said earlier, a huge chunk of Nebraska's offense comes by way of teammates setting ball screens for Petteway and letting him "facilitate" the offense. A good portion of the time, him "facilitating" the offense is basically him attempting to drive to the rim or pulling up for a long jump shot. Needless to say, Iowa wants to keep him from doing the former, and would love for him to settle for long jumper after long jumper tonight. The Hawkeyes will do their usual aggressive hedging of screens to make sure they take away Petteway's path to the basket, first and foremost. Here's an example from last year of what not to do:
Zach McCabe (not exactly known for his defensive prowess) did not attempt much of a hedge on the screen, which allowed Petteway to get around Jarrod Uthoff and drive all the way to the basket for a layup.
Let's look at an example of what Iowa needs to do to keep Petteway under control.
In the second Vine, we see Adam Woodbury do an excellent job of hedging on the screen and pushing Petteway to dribble the ball laterally, rather than get up the court. This allows Peter Jok time to get through the screen and forces Petteway to pass the ball off. In this case the pass was picked and dunked home by Aaron White, but Iowa at least just wants to force Petteway to settle for a long jumper or to pass the ball to a less dangerous teammate.
Outside of his scoring ability, Petteway is the leading assist man on the team. He doesn't blow you out of the water with his assist rate, but some of that has to do with the fact that Nebraska doesn't have a lot of shooters and not just because he loves to shoot the ball so much. One thing to be aware of, though, is he will take advantage of the pick and roll and pick and pop when it's there. The 6'10" Walter Pitchford is probably the most lethal player to worry about when setting a ball screen for Petteway since he can pop out and hit the three if Iowa's big men don't recover from their hedge quick enough.
Iowa needs to first hedge and take away Petteway's lane to the rim, but they also need to be prepared to recover on their man (especially, Pitchford), as well.
Besides Petteway, Shavon Shields is the other important piece for this Nebraska offense. These two average 37 of Nebraska's 67.5 points scored per game. Shields is the more efficient scorer of the two guys, but averages fewer points per game because Petteway takes so many shots. Shields is not a great three point shooter, but he knows his limitations and mostly sticks to shooting from inside the arc.
He's actually been a very good mid-range jump shooter this season, but he's really at his most dangerous when he's attacking the rim. He's finishing near the basket at a high rate this year, and when he's not doing so, he's usually drawing fouls.
Fran didn't look to assign anyone special to these guys last season, instead preferring to allow whoever was playing the position opposite of them to guard them. That means Peter Jok and Josh Oglesby will likely get the honors of guarding Petteway. And when Shields is playing small forward, Jarrod Uthoff and most likely Jok and Oglesby again (if they play any small forward) will be tasked with stopping him. Sometimes Tim Miles puts shields at the four spot, so Aaron White and Dom Uhl could see some time guarding him there, too. But when Nebraska is in their usual offense (Petteway at the the two spot and Shields at the three) it might not even be a bad idea to go with a big lineup, putting White at the three to cover Shields and Uthoff at the two to cover Petteway. And if Iowa struggles to keep both men in front of them, it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Hawkeyes use some zone against a Nebraska offense that struggles from long range.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rank: Iowa #34, Nebraska #100
Projected Outcome: Iowa 65 (83%), Nebraska 57 (17%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.98, Nebraska 0.86
Projected Possessions: 66
Who can really argue with that projection? Kenpom likes a relatively slow, defensive struggle to the death in this one. And with these two offenses, who can blame his numbers?
Iowa can win this game with a poor offensive performance, but it won't be pretty. What I'm hoping to see instead, is Iowa look to have a plan of attack on offense and actually execute it. Work the ball down low and use their height advantage to get some high-percentage looks at the basket and hopefully draw some fouls. When Nebraska starts to collapse the defense to take that away, kick the ball out to the shooters on the perimeter for open looks at threes. And hopefully the threes will fall.
On defense, Iowa needs to be prepared for ball screens and make sure to keep Petteway and Shields away from the rim. Force them both to take long jumpers or to pass it off to less dangerous teammates. Both guys are likely going to get their points in this one. The key, though, is to ensure that it takes them an enormous amount of shots to do so, leaving Nebraska with a ton of empty possessions.
I like Iowa to win this game, especially at home. But, what I'm interested to see, is if they can do it in impressive offensive fashion, or if it will be a defensive slugfest. A win is a win either way, but a nice offensive performance against Nebraska might be the sign of Iowa finding a rhythm on offense as the season goes on.