IOWA CITY — Nebraska’s venture into Big Ten basketball has produced difficult, yet hardly unexpected, results this season.
Nebraska finished 19-13 (7-9 Big 12) and advanced to the NIT last year. The Cornhuskers lost their top scorer in Lance Jeter, but more than made up for it with LSU transfer and top scoring threat Bo Spencer.
But Nebraska (12-15, 4-12 Big Ten) has struggled to gain traction into the Big Ten, Coach Doc Sadler admits. The Big Ten’s defense-is-vital philosophy is unlike the Big 12′s uptempo offensive attacks. It’s not necessarily better, just different.
“It has been an adjustment,” Sadler said. “It’s a totally different style of basketball than what we played in the Big 12. I think the teams 1-12 are much more deeper, much more basketball players than athletic athletes.
“As I’ve said, if you’re talking about individual talent, I’m not for sure that the league has as many draft picks as the Big 12 had in the five years that I was in it. But the teams to me are so much better.”
Nebraska’s numbers echo Sadler’s thoughts in three pivotal areas. With virtually the same players — outside of injuries, of course — the Cornhuskers average 8.6 points a game fewer in Big Ten play than what they scored last year in the Big 12. Nebraska grabs 5.7 fewer rebounds (27.4) than it did in the Big 12 last year (33.1). Its field-goal percentage also plummeted from 46.1 percent to 41.6 percent (4.5 percent) in league play.
“Possessions mean so much more (in the Big Ten),” Sadler said. “You’re not going to get very many easy baskets. It’s a fun league to compete in as a coach because you know that you’d better screw it down real, real tight and understand that possessions are going to be so, so important. It has been different, but I’ve also enjoyed it.”
Sadler was known as a defensive strategist in the Big 12, and he slapped a second-half zone against Iowa (15-14, 7-9 Big Ten) in the teams’ first meeting this year in Iowa City. The Cornhuskers’ 79-73 win had numbers reminiscent of Nebraska’s Big 12 semi-success last season.
Nebraska scored 48 second-half points, shot nearly 52 percent and picked up 34 rebounds, seven more than Iowa. Iowa shot just 44.4 percent in the second half and watched a seven-point lead with 11:22 left in the game vaporize into defeat.
“The interesting thing about the first Nebraska game we were in position to win; we didn’t attack their zone,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “They went zone, and we did a very poor job against it. We got decent looks, not good looks.
“What I said at the time and it still holds true, is the reality was that was a game either team could have won. They played better than we did in the last three or four minutes.”
The game sticks out for both programs. For Nebraska, it was the first road win as a Big Ten school. For Iowa, the loss was one of two Big Ten pockmarks on an improving resume. That defeat, along with a five-point loss at Penn State, cost Iowa dearly in RPI and virtually doomed the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
Nebraska also surprised Iowa with the play of Brandon Richardson, who hit six 3-pointers and scored 25 points on 9-of-10 shooting. Richardson has just 11 3-pointers in Nebraska’s other 15 Big Ten games.
“The thing about him, he’s a really good player,” McCaffery said. “I wouldn’t say he wasn’t shooting the ball well; it really wasn’t what he was he doing at the time. He wasn’t the player who was going to take seven 3s. He was going to run the offense, he was going to drive the ball, he was going to shoot it when he was open. He hit a couple early and really caught fire and really was the difference in the game.”
An Iowa win keeps the Hawkeyes in contention for an NIT berth and earns a 16th win, the most overall since 2007. A loss evens Iowa’s overall record and gives the Hawkeyes a losing Big Ten record for the fifth straight year.
“We need it; it’s huge,” said Iowa senior Matt Gatens, the co-Big Ten Player of the Week. “We need to get them back. Hopefully, we’ll get a good crowd over there. A lot of Hawkeye fans (live) on the western side of the state, so it would be great to see some black-and-gold in the arena and go get one.
“It’s definitely a big game for us. We need to get back to 8-9.”