Nebraska to Test Ohio State’s Improvements in Perimeter, Halfcourt Defense

By Andy Anders on February 29, 2024 at 7:00 am
Felix Okpara and Dale Bonner playing defense
Nick King/Lansing State Journal/USA TODAY Network

The hopes for an NCAA Tournament appearance from this year’s Ohio State team are suddenly alive again, but that’s not where Jake Diebler can allow the focus of his bunch to rest.

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Value City Arena
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That’s because a Big Red-hot Nebraska team is coming to Columbus on Thursday, one that defeated the Buckeyes 83-69 in Lincoln earlier this season.

“As long as there’s a Big Ten Tournament, we’re not out of the picture,” Diebler said on Wednesday. “Our guys have done a great job in the last couple weeks of not looking too far ahead, being in the moment. But we’ve also talked about each opportunity as it’s presented itself. And, listen, tomorrow night is a huge opportunity.”

The Huskers are on a four-game winning streak and boast a 20-8 record. They’ve struggled away from Pinnacle Bank Arena with a 2-7 road mark, but took their last contest in a hostile environment at Indiana on Feb. 21.

For its part, Ohio State is fresh off a buzzer-beater win at Michigan State on Sunday, one that saw a massive improvement in a key area for the Buckeyes – halfcourt defense. It's the main reason why the Spartans only managed 57 points.

Maintaining those gains and its aggressive mentality will be key in tackling a Nebraska squad that shot a gaudy 14-of-26 (53.8%) from three last time out against the Buckeyes.

“We talked about yesterday, ‘They’re playing really well and they’re a really good team – and so are we,’” Diebler said. “We’re not the same team we were at that time. Now neither are they, but we need to continue to be about the stuff that we’ve been about these last couple weeks. Guarding the ball, keeping the ball in front, our ball-screen defense, all of that’s going to be really, really important. And we need to guard the three-point line. They shot it extremely well at their place against us, and some of that was some breakdowns we had.”

Center Rienk Mast proved the most problematic perimeter threat the last time the Buckeyes and Huskers met, shooting 6-of-8 from downtown and racking up a career-high 34 points.

Mast averages only 1.3 made triples per game and shoots 34.3% from behind the arc, but it demonstrates the Huskers’ prerogative to take and make three-pointers under fifth-year head coach Fred Hoiberg. Six different Nebraska players average at least 2.9 three-point attempts per game.

As a team, Nebraska is 26th nationally in made threes per game with 9.4 and 65th in three-point field goal percentage at 36.1%. Eighth-man C.J. Wilcher is the most accurate of the bunch, knocking down 40.9% of his attempts from outside.

“Nebraska has, probably, five different players that are capable of scoring 20 or more points on a given night,” Diebler said. “They have some real offensive firepower, but our defense is improved.”

Star guard Keisei Tominaga is the most potent offensive threat the Huskers possess, scoring a team-high 14 points per contest and hitting 37% of his team-high 5.9 three-point attempts per game.

Mast and guard Brice Williams each pitch in 12.9 points per contest while forward Juwan Gary adds 12.1. Shooters and scorers will be all over the floor in Value City Arena, so Ohio State will need to stay attached and disciplined.

“In order to win moving forward, we have to be consistent in that area (of half-court defense),” Diebler said. “So we talked a lot about that post-Minnesota in film, in practice, and our guys deserve a ton of credit for making the adjustment.”

Projected Starting Lineup
No. Player Position Height Weight 2023-24 Stats
30 Keisei Tominaga G 6-2 179 14.0 PPG, 1.3 APG
3 Brice Williams G 6-7 213 12.9 PPG, 2.4 APG
4 Juwan Gary F 6-6 221 12.1 PPG, 6.0 RPG
53 Josiah Allick F 6-8 231 6.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG
51 Rienk Mast F 6-10 248 12.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG

Their previous meeting with Nebraska isn’t the only time shoddy perimeter defense has hurt the Buckeyes this season. Northwestern and Michigan each hit more than 50% of their distance attempts whilst defeating Ohio State earlier this year. Illinois, Indiana, Penn State and Minnesota each shot better than 41% from three in their wins against the Buckeyes.

When the Buckeyes allowed the Gophers to go 8-of-19 from deep as part of an 88-point offensive outpouring, it seemed the team’s old defensive demons were unrelenting. But even then, Diebler saw growth.

“Even going back to the Minnesota game, I felt like our halfcourt defense was really good for stretches,” Diebler said. “We just didn’t finish plays with a rebound or a loose ball, maybe an end-of-the-shot-clock assignment. Against Michigan State, we grew from that. We were significantly better.”

The Spartans started 3-of-5 from three against Ohio State and three makes came from wide-open shooters, but the Buckeyes clamped down and held them to 1-of-11 shooting the rest of the way, including an 0-for-7 second half.

Expecting to force Nebraska to go that cold could be a little ambitious, but it’s the approach the Buckeyes will need when they tip off against the Huskers at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

Ohio State expects to get back the services of its own top sharpshooter, Jamison Battle, after he missed the Michigan State game with an ankle injury.

“It’s an NCAA Tournament team, it’s a really good team coming into our building,” Diebler said. “It’s a team that beat us once already this year. So there’s plenty of motivational elements to this game, and we’re not shying away from whatever that reality may be. But we’re not spending a lot of time and energy on talking about some of these what-if scenarios, it’s more just focusing on handling this opportunity as best as we possibly can, then we’ll prepare for the next one after that.”

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