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How Did The Nebraska Cornhuskers Regress From The NCAA Tournament To No Postseason?

A look back at the 2014-15 season for the Cornhuskers through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations for the season.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 BTPowerhouse Recapitulation Series will look back at the season of each Big Ten team through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations in 2014-15.  The series will be released during early summer in reverse order of conference standings, meaning the last place team will be reviewed first and the Big Ten champions will be reviewed last.

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The 2014-15 season was a disappointing one for Nebraska.  Despite coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and a top four finish in the Big Ten the year before, the Huskers struggled to play consistently and were unable to replicate their past success under head coach Tim Miles.  Nebraska had some good performances and periods where they looked like a solid team, but ultimately, they were still left with little to show for the 2014-15 season.

Let's look back at it it in its entirety.

1. Preseason Expectations

Unlike the previous teams in this series up to this point (Penn State and Rutgers), the Huskers had relatively large preseason expectations.  Nebraska was coming off a season where they went 19-13 overall, 11-7 in the Big Ten and finished 4th in the conference.  Over their final 14 games of the 2013-14 season, their only loss to a non-NCAA Tournament team was on the road against Illinois and even the Illini were a bubble team.  That final stretch included a sweep of Indiana, wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, and a huge win over eventual Final Four team Wisconsin.  Even if Nebraska overachieved, they were still a good team.  Plus, the Huskers didn't lose much over the offseason.  Due to these factors, in my Big Ten preview, I had Nebraska slated to finish #4 in the Big Ten.  My reasoning was based on the fact that this roster was proven, experienced, and returned virtually everything from the year before.

Here was my preseason storyline for Nebraska:

The biggest storyline of the coming season for Nebraska is the fact that this will be the first season with expectations for the Cornhuskers in quite some time.  Not only is Nebraska coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, but it's also the first time that Nebraska finished in the top half of a conference since 2006.  This is an unusual spot for the Cornhuskers to be in recent history and what's significant is that their team could be every bit as good in the coming season.  Considering that Biggs was dismissed from the team before Nebraska made their NCAA run later in the season, Ray Gallegos was the only real loss for the team in in-court contributions.  Gallegos was certainly a solid player for the team last year, but he was just 4th on the team in total win shares, 11th on the team in win shares per 40 minutes, and was 8th on the team in usage rate.  In short, Gallegos' contributions were important, but last year's Nebraska team was certainly not built around Gallegos.  With another year under Tim Miles, more experience for the younger players, and a big group of new additions to the program, there are a lot of reasons to have high expectations for this team.  Whether Nebraska can live up to these expectations is unknown, but this will be the biggest story of Nebraska's 2014-15 season.

Outside of my projection, the Big Ten writers also saw Nebraska as a serious Big Ten contender.  In their preseason poll, they put the Huskers at #2 in the conference behind just Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State respectively.  There were some concerns about Nebraska potentially overachieving in 2013-14 and there were some losses before to graduation and to injury, but this was a team that had "been there" before and already showed they could compete in the Big Ten.

2. Non-Conference Play

With Nebraska coming off its NCAA Tournament appearance, most thought that the schedule lined up pretty nicely for the Huskers in non-conference play.  Outside of a trip to Hawaii where Nebraska could potentially face Wichita State in an early season tournament, the only significant challenges on paper were Cincinnati, Creighton, Florida State, and Rhode Island.  With three of these games coming at home, it didn't seem all that unlikely that the Huskers could race through non-conference play with possibly two losses or fewer.  Winning a road game against Rhode Island and a neutral site game with Wichita State would be tough, but the remainder of the schedule looked manageable for a team that had knocked off Wisconsin in its last home game of 2013-14.  Here is how things ended up playing out.

Nebraska 2014-15 Non-Conference:
  • Win (1-0): Northern Kentucky, 80-61
  • Win (2-0): Central Arkansas, 82-56
  • Loss (2-1): Rhode Island, 66-62 OT
  • Win (3-1): Nebraska Omaha, 80-67
  • Win (4-1): Tennessee Martin, 75-64
  • Win (5-1): Florida St., 70-65
  • Loss (5-2): Creighton, 65-55
  • Loss (5-3): Incarnate Word, 74-73
  • Win (6-3): Cincinnati, 56-55, 2OT
  • Loss (6-4): Hawaii, 66-58
  • Win (7-4): Loyola Marymount, 50-42
  • Win (8-4): Ohio, 71-58
It would probably be a bit too harsh to label Nebraska's non-conference performance a disaster because it did include wins over Cincinnati and Florida State, but it wasn't much above a disaster.  Before the season, fans had been optimistic about potentially having a two loss - or better - non-conference performance.  By time the Huskers finished non-conference play, they not only had four losses, but had two disappointing losses and one loss that was downright awful.  Plus, due to their loss against Hawaii, Nebraska didn't even get to face Wichita State, removing a quality game from their schedule.  Instead of at least one of their projected losses coming against a really good Wichita State and possibly one to a team like Cincinnati, Creighton, or Florida State, the Huskers dropped four games to teams that would all miss the NCAA Tournament.

As most know, making the NCAA Tournament  is largely about the resume that a team can show the committee in March.  They look at things like quality wins, bad losses, and a team's overall record.  At the close of non-conference play, Nebraska was 8-4 with one good win, one decent win at home, one respectable road loss, and three losses that would damage a potential NCAA Tournament resume.  In all reality, outside of a double overtime win over Cincinnati, Nebraska had almost nothing to show for non-conference play.

3. Conference Play

Despite a rough start to the season, many fans still held out hope.  After all, Nebraska had opened the season at 9-9 the year before and still managed to make the NCAA Tournament.  As long as they could get back on track in Big Ten play, all the team's goals were still in front of them.  Winning in the Big Ten is certainly not a given, but they did have plenty of marquee games including Iowa, Maryland, and Wisconsin all twice.  The quality wins were there for the taking and there were more than enough opportunities to overcome their disappointing performance in non-conference play.  Here is how they performed.

Nebraska 2014-15 Big Ten Play:
  • Loss (0-1): Indiana, 70-65
  • Loss (0-2): Iowa, 70-59
  • Win (1-2): Rutgers, 65-49
  • Win (2-2): Illinois, 53-43
  • Loss (2-3): Wisconsin, 70-55
  • Win (3-3): Minnesota, 52-49
  • Win: (4-3): Michigan State, 79-77
  • Loss (4-4): Michigan, 58-44
  • Loss (4-5): Minnesota, 60-42
  • Win (5-5): Northwestern, 76-60
  • Loss (5-6): Penn State, 56-43
  • Loss (5-7): Wisconsin, 65-55
  • Loss (5-8): Purdue, 66-54
  • Loss (5-9): Maryland, 69-65
  • Loss (5-10): Iowa, 74-46
  • Loss (5-11): Ohio State, 81-57
  • Loss (5-12): Illinois, 69-57
  • Loss (5-13): Maryland, 64-61
Nebraska had a really interesting performance in Big Ten play.  Not because their performance was necessarily that great, but because of the significant differences between its first 10 games and its final 8 games.  Nebraska was certainly not a great team in its first 10 Big Ten games, but its 5-5 record wasn't all that bad either.

In the first 10 games, the Huskers had recorded wins over Michigan State and Minnesota and all of its losses came on the road outside of a narrow loss to eventual NCAA Tournament team Indiana.  Even though the Huskers lost to Michigan and Minnesota, neither the Wolverines or Gophers were bad enough to really damage a resume.

Again, Nebraska was far from a perfect team in its first 10 games of Big Ten play, but they had at least held their own and pulled off one big upset.  However, over their final eight regular season games, Nebraska not only failed to win a single game, but they lost three home games and had losses to underwhelming Illinois and Penn State teams on the road.  Nebraska was a stretch for the NCAA Tournament even after their first 10 Big Ten games, but the string of losses in their final eight games removed any doubt.

There are plenty of explanations for Nebraska's reversal of fate between the first 10 games and the last eight games of Big Ten play, but perhaps the most significant factor was the difference in opponent strength.  Take a look at how Nebraska's opponents compared.

2014-15 Nebraska Opponent Strength:

nebraska schedule transition

It's undeniable that Nebraska took a significant step up in average opponent strength which coincided with Nebraska's eight game losing streak to close Big Ten play.  To put this jump in perspective, the #69 ranked team on KenPom this season was Illinois and the #38 ranked team was Oregon.  Essentially, Nebraska went from an averaging games against Illinois for its first 10 conference games to averaging games against Oregon for its final eight games.  Instead of averaging a #2 seeded NIT team, they were averaging a #8 seeded NCAA team.  That's not necessarily worlds apart, but it's definitely a significant rise.

Still though, an 0-8 record to close the regular season was disappointing to say the least.  Nebraska was not favored by KenPom prior to tip-off in any of the final eight games, but with games against Illinois, Penn State, and Purdue on the road and three home games, Nebraska still had opportunities to find an upset win.  Unfortunately for the Huskers, they were unable to grab a single win and as a result had to put all their hopes on the Big Ten Tournament to have a chance to put a positive finish on the season.

4. Postseason Play

Following Nebraska's 5-13 performance in Big Ten play, the Huskers were locked out of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and had very slim hopes of an NIT bid.  The only chance that Nebraska had for a non-CBI postseason was to reel off some wins in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.  Unfortunately, due to Nebraska's underwhelming Big Ten record, it would be an uphill battle from the #12 seed and require five straight wins to grab the Big Ten Tournament title.  Here is how things went for Nebraska:

Nebraska 2014-15 Postseason Play:
  • Loss (1st Round Big Ten Tourney), Penn State, 68-65

The Huskers had the unfortunate task of making history as one of the first four teams to ever play on Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament history - thanks to the conference's additions of Maryland and Rutgers.  Nebraska would face off against #13 seed Penn State where the Nittany Lions had a 60% chance to win according to KenPom.  The game was largely perceived to be a "pick 'em" with neither team being expected to go far.

Thanks to big performances from Penn State's Shep Garner and DJ Newbill, the Nittany Lions were able to narrowly move past Nebraska and into the next round.  Penn State would actually pull off an upset against Iowa in the next round before falling to Purdue in the quarterfinals.  Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields both put up big games, but the offensive ineptitude outside of those two was simply too much to overcome.

When all was said and done, Nebraska finished the season with an overall record of 13-18.  The Huskers closed the season with nine straight losses and with losses in 11 of its final 12 games.  Outside of a home win against Northwestern in mid-February, Nebraska lost every game after January 24th.  Regardless of the level of competition, it was a dreadful close to a season that started with much hope.

Before its loss to Penn State, some had held out hope that Nebraska could slide into the NIT with a win or two in Chicago, but with its early exit against the Nittany Lions, the Huskers really had no realistic chance of a postseason bid outside of the CBI.  Nebraska opted to decline an invitation to the event, concluding its season.

5. Strengths

Nebraska was far from a perfect team last season, but they were actually one of the most efficient defenses in the Big Ten last season despite only winning 5 games in Big Ten play.

Overall, the Huskers ranked #25 in defensive efficiency last season, which actually led the entire conference.  Within conference play, Nebraska only ranked 9th in efficiency, but their performance over the season was actually quite impressive.  They forced turnovers (76th nationally) and prevented interior looks (63rd nationally).  It was the type of defense that got pressure on opponents and simply smothered them.

The unique thing about Nebraska's defense is that it did so well over the course of the season without a great rim protector.  In fact, Terran Petteway was the only Nebraska player to finish in the Top 20 in the conference in block rate, which was was behind 10 other Big Ten teams.  It's not often a team can finish with a Top 25 defense and also be without a legitimate rim protector.

Nebraska was also able to pressure the ball well and as such, finished 4th in steal rate during conference play being led by Benny Parker and Tai Webster in the backcourt.  Parker ranked 8th in the conference  in steal rate and Webster came in at 19th.  Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio State were the only other Big Ten teams to have two players in the top 19 in steal rate this season and considering Minnesota's use of the press, that's a solid performance for the Huskers.

The other aspect of Nebraska's defense that made it particularly interesting was the fact that it did not rely on preventing 3PT look.  The Huskers ranked 12th in conference play in defensive 3PT defense, which is traditionally a relatively unpredictable stat.  Essentially, Nebraska's lower numbers in Big Ten play were largely due to opponents shooting better from outside and not because of regression.

Though the Huskers had their fair share of struggles last season, their play on the defensive end of the floor was really solid and carried what otherwise would have been a downright bad team.

6. Weaknesses

Of course, defense is just one side of the ball.  During the 2013-14 season, Nebraska finished the season with their offense ranked #112 in efficiency.  It wasn't a great offense, but it really wasn't terrible either.  In fact, it was good enough to finish at the 7th in the Big Ten and allowed their defense (25th nationally, 3rd in the Big Ten) to carry the team to the NCAA Tournament and a 4th place finish in the Big Ten.

Being an unbalanced team is certainly not the preferred scenario, but it can work as long as the team's isn't so bad on the other side of the ball to prevent the team from winning games.  Look at Wisconsin this season.  The Badgers were not a great defensive team, but they were good enough to allow their elite offense to carry them to both the Big Ten title and the Final Four.  In fact, Maryland was actually a more balanced team than Wisconsin, but the offense for the Badgers was so much better than Maryland's offense that it didn't matter.  Wisconsin didn't need to be balanced, they just needed a good enough defense to let that offense win games for them.

Most figured that Nebraska would use a similar formula in 2014-15 to get back to the NCAA Tournament except with their defense carrying them.  They would have to rely on a strong defense to carry them and hope that their offense would be good enough to win games for them.  Unfortunately, the massive regression between seasons doomed the team's chances and cost them a ton of games.  Just look at how the offense regressed.

2014-15 Nebraska Offensive Regression:

neb off regression

Nebraska regressed in virtually every major offensive statistical category last season.  They were a less efficient shooting team, turned the ball over more, hit less perimeter shots, and even had a lower free throw percentage.  The only significant category they went up in was offensive rebounding rate, which was likely due to the fact that they missed more shots and thus, had more opportunities to rebound their misses.  No matter how you break it down, the offense got way, way worse.

As mentioned above, a team doesn't necessarily have to be perfectly balanced to be a good, but teams do generally need to be at least decent on both sides of the ball.  Indiana did make the NCAA Tournament with the #214 rated defense this season, but they also had a top 10 offense, were a bubble team in arguably a weak bubble year, and relied on a good hunk of close wins to get their bid.  Things had to fall just right for the Hoosiers to make the Big Dance and their offense was better than Nebraska's defense and Indiana's defense was also better than Nebraska's offense.  Essentially, this is not an easy model to replicate and Nebraska was not good enough to do it last season.

One specific area that was a struggle for Nebraska last season was in passing the ball.  They ranked #288 overall in assists per field goals made and Terran Petteway was the team's only player in the top 30 in assist rate in the Big Ten.  Considering that Petteway had two or fewer assists in half of his Big Ten games this season, it's pretty easy to see that Nebraska was not a great team at moving the ball.

Of course, Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields were relatively productive offensive players.  Both players were in the top 15 in the conference in total points, possessions used, and shots used.  Unfortunately, outside of these two, there simply wasn't enough production to carry the offense.  Despite Petteway and Shields being in the top 15 in total scoring in the Big Ten, the next highest scorer for Nebraska was Walter Pitchford at #63 and after him was Tarin Smith at #89.  The lack of third and fourth options doomed what otherwise might have become a decent offense.

7. Top Player

Though Nebraska had their share of struggles during the 2014-15 season, they still had a group of playmakers that independently performed quite well.  Not only did they return All-Big Ten player Terran Petteway, but they also had key contributors in Walter Pitchford and Shavon Shields.  In total, all three proved to be valuable pieces despite a season that many will want to forget in Lincoln.  Both Pitchford and Petteway opted to leave Nebraska following the season and both will go down as some of the better players in the program over recent years.  Still, seeing who contributed the most is a tough comparison for this roster.

Let's take a look at the roster.

Nebraska 2014-15 Stat Leaders
  • Minutes - Shavon Shields
  • Field Goal Attempts - Terran Petteway
  • Points - Terran Petteway
  • Rebounds - Shavon Shields
  • Assists - Terran Petteway
  • Blocks - Terran Petteway
  • Steals - Benny Parker

Here's how the advanced stats held up.

neb ws start

neb per start

Of course, advanced numbers may not necessarily be a perfect reflection compared to how a player performs in big games and whether he can push them over the top.  To help assist in this, KenPom does an analysis of an MVP in each game and awards it to the best player on the winning team.  Here is how Nebraska stacked up.

neb kp mvps

This is a really tight battle between Petteway and Shields.  Both guys had a lot of contributions and had a great deal of separation from anyone else on the roster.  Normally in this series, only the above comparisons have been used, but considering that it's so incredibly close between these two, there seemed to be one two more advanced statistics that could be useful in comparing these two players.  Take a look below.

neb usage

As much credit and attention as Petteway has received during his career at Nebraska, the chart above is a pretty strong argument for why Shields may actually have been the best player for the team last season.  Shields was right with Petteway in traditional stats and held up well in big game performances, but when you compare how much each player used offensively, Shields very well could have been more valuable to the team.  There's certainly an argument on the defensive end, but statistically, Shields very likely was the best player for Nebraska last season.

8. Sixth Man

The offense was a major rough spot for the Huskers, but the bench was also a weak spot for the team.  Nebraska ended up being ranked #279 in bench minutes.  Having a productive bench isn't a requirement to have a successful team (Wisconsin ranked #344 in bench minutes), but for a team that finished 5-13 in Big Ten play, having a more productive bench might have meant the difference between a few more wins and losses.

Last season, Nebraska's most started lineup was Benny Parker, Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford, David Rivers, and Shavon Shields.  That leaves the biggest bench contributors as Moses Abraham, Nick Fuller, Leslee Smith, Tarin Smith, and Tai Webster.  The comparison is a bit flawed because Leslee Smith missed significant time due to injury, but his limitations were the reality for the team.  Here is how they broke down in traditional stats.

Nebraska 2014-15 Bench Leaders
  • Minutes - Tai Webster
  • Field Goal Attempts - Tarin Smith
  • Points - Tarin Smith
  • Rebounds - Moses Abraham
  • Assists - Tai Webster
  • Steals - Tai Webster

Smith holds up well in the advanced stats comparison.

neb bench ws

neb bench per

There's no denying that Nebraska's bench production was relatively weak this season.  It was a rotating cast of players that had significant trouble producing offensively.  Tarin Smith was the leading scorer off the bench and scored double-digits in just a single game all season.  He did progress as the season went along and had four games with offensive ratings over 100 in the final eight games, but his contributions were still limited.

Other players like Leslee Smith and Tai Webster had their moments, but Leslee's injury to start the year and Webster's rough January really derailed both players from having productive seasons.  Leslee ended up playing just 17.0% of the team's minutes over the course of the season and Webster scored double-digits in just three games last season.  Regardless of circumstances, neither provided a consistent boost off the bench.

Abraham and Fuller also both saw the floor, but with them only playing 17.9% and 10.2% of the team's minutes respectively, calling either significant contributors would probably be a stretch.  Abraham did play at least 10 minutes in each of the team's first seven games, but once Leslee Smith returned, Abraham's contributions dried up pretty quickly.  Along with this, to put Fuller's contributions into perspective, just consider that 44.4% of the his minutes all season came during a two game stretch in mid-February against Maryland and in a blowout loss to Iowa at home.  As such, it's pretty safe to say that Fuller was not a key contributor off the bench.

Nebraska had plenty of guys come off the bench over the course of the season, but Tarin Smith was likely the most consistent contributor of this group in 2014-15.  He may have rarely had breakout games, but he was on the floor for every game and had at least 10 minutes in 28 of the team's 31 games.  Unfortunately for Nebraska, Tarin opted to transfer from the program after the season, so the Huskers will likely be losing their best bench player.

9. Top Storylines

There really was one storyline that dominated Nebraska's 2014-15 season and that was how the Huskers regressed from a 4th place finish in the Big Ten and an NCAA Tournament berth in the season before to a team that finished near the bottom of the conference and failed to make the postseason.

Preseason expectations were high for Nebraska and for good reason.  This was a team that was returning just about everyone significant from a good team that finished the season well outside of Ray Gallegos.  Nebraska was never a legitimate Big Ten title threat in 2013-14, but they were a quality unit that won some big games and was very consistent during the second half of the season.

Unfortunately, the inability to develop a third scoring threat and the massive regression offensively took what otherwise might have been a decent team and pushed Nebraska to finish 12th in the Big Ten and #133 overall in KenPom rating.  The Huskers had virtually the same defense as they did the year before, but without the offense to get them by against some of the middling Big Ten teams, there was no second half comeback to save the season.

The team desperately needed a player like Walter Pitchford or David Rivers to raise their offensive production, but 7.2 and 4.3 points per game respectively was not going to cut it.  Other players had games here and there where they put up big performances, but the lack of consistent offensive production outside Petteway and Shields pushed Nebraska to 5-13 in the Big Ten and no postseason.

milezzz

10. Final Verdict

Perhaps it's unfair to judge a team based on their performance from a previous season.  After all, every team is different, the team dynamic's change, and every player has a slightly different role.  However, it's also the reality of how teams are evaluated.  If a team has a great deal of success one year and returns much of that production going into the next season, fans are going to reasonably expect success.  It's just how things work.

Nebraska returned a lot from a good team last season.  Even if the Huskers overachieved and lost some productive pieces, it was completely reasonable to expect the team to at least be decent and be in NCAA Tournament contention.  Unfortunately, the team eventually limped to a 13-18 overall record and a 5-13 record in the Big Ten.  The team's offensive regression, lack of effective passing, and lack of multiple true scoring threats prevented what was a really good defensive team from finishing with a solid record in the Big Ten.

The Huskers may have had unfair expectations in 2014-15, but for a team with so much returning, the season was a step back a program that has shown plenty of promise.  The defensive consistency prevents too harsh of a grade, but overall, it's tough to view this season as a successful one.

Season Grade: D-