Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Preview: Kansas at Nebraska

Conventional wisdom seems to think that Nebraska is much better in the absence of Joe McCray. Tonight in Lincoln, Kansas will have the benefit of neither the seven horrible shots McCray missed in Lawrence nor the four turnovers he committed. Though I have no way to quantify it, I feel safe in assuming that the Nebraska players have more fun playing five-on-five than watching a fat man ignore his four teammates in order to freelance unsuccessfully.

In the three games following McCray's suspension-turned-dismissal, Nebraska has scored 1.08, 1.02, and 1.02 points per possession. In the five conference games in which McCray played, the Cornhuskers averaged 0.92 points per possession. I would not credit McCray’s absence with the entirety of the offensive improvement. Those last three games have been played against Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. In conference play, those teams give up 1.09, 1.10, and 1.16 points per possession, respectively, to conference opponents other than Nebraska.

Thus, it’s an open question as to whether Nebraska’s offense or its schedule has improved over the last three games especially when you consider that Baylor held Nebraska to 35.1 eFG% in their game at Lincoln. Missouri, last night, is the only other Big 12 team to shoot less than 51 eFG% against the Bears, and the Tigers still managed to shoot 48.4 eFG%.

Furthermore, Nebraska doesn’t match up very well with Kansas. The Cornhuskers shoot 43.4 eFG% and allow 51.4 eFG% in conference play. Kansas shoots 53.6 eFG% and allows 43.1 eFG%. Nebraska doesn’t make up much of that difference at the free throw line. Kansas has maintained a decent-sized advantage at the free throw line in conference play. Nebraska's good offensive rebounding performances have come in the three games in which they’ve shot below 40 eFG%. Kansas, even after Taj Gray's domination of the offensive glass, are the third-best defensive rebounding team in the conference. Both teams generally break even on turnovers.

Individually, Nebraska's best offensive player, Wes Wilkinson, has thus far failed to maintain the excellent three-point shooting he demonstrated during the non-conference schedule. Jeff Hawkins and Christian Moody are the only players in the Kansas rotation who haven't improved their shooting percentage in conference play. Charles Richardson is the only Cornhusker with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1 in conference play. Of Kansas's four primary ball-handlers, only Brandon Rush has an assist-to-turnover ratio worse than 1 in conference play.

There is a tremendous talent gap between Kansas and Nebraska, but I think everybody agrees that the gap isn’t 42 points. The question entering tonight’s game is, how much of that 42-point gap can Nebraska eliminate tonight in Lincoln?

Based just on each team’s season averages, Nebraska could be expected to eliminate about two-thirds of the margin of their defeat in Lawrence. In conference play, Kansas is +19 points per 100 possessions. Nebraska is -2. Nebraska has struggled to slow down the tempo against the better teams they’ve played (Kansas, Colorado, Iowa State) that prefer a faster pace. If Kansas can get 68 possessions out of the game, they would, on average, score 14 more points than Nebraska. Factor in the home-court advantage which most quantify as roughly four points, and the Jayhawks are still a ten point favorite.

However, if Nebraska figures out a way to slow the game down significantly (reduce the pace by 15% or more from Kansas’s 72 possession average in conference play), the can narrow the Kansas advantage to eight points. That’s the range wherein a hot or cold shooting night by either team or a couple of fortunate breaks can affect a game’s outcome rather than the margin of victory. Nobody in the Big 12 has managed to limit Kansas to fewer than 63 possessions so far this year and Oklahoma needed 22 offensive rebounds to do that. As long as Kansas rebounds a respectable number of Nebraska’s misses, they will create enough chances for their superior offensive players to post a point total that Nebraska cannot match.

Prediction: Kansas 71 Nebraska 60

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