The Huskers face George Mason on Tuesday in the Cayman Islands Classic. Here's a preview of the matchup:
When: 6:30 p.m.
Where: George Town, Grand Cayman
Radio: 590 AM (Omaha), 1400 AM (Lincoln)
2018-19 record: 18-15 (Current record: 6-1)
Offensive efficiency (KenPom): 186th
Defensive efficiency (KenPom): 131st
Trending: Up. Dave Paulsen is in his fifth season at George Mason. The Patriots were 11-21 in his first season and improved to 20-14 in his second, and now they appear to be a contender again for the Atlantic 10 this season. Paulsen is what you love to see in college basketball. He started at St. Lawrence, a Division-III school, in 1994. He then moved to Le Moyne, then Williams College in 2000. That’s where he broke out, named Division-III coach of the year in 2003 and 2004. After winning the D-III national title in 2003 and going 30-2 the next season, he jumped to Bucknell in 2008. Within three years, he won the Patriot League, going 13-1 in conference that season. He took Bucknell to the NCAA tournament twice and the NIT twice. He’s trying to capture some of that D-III magic now at George Mason, a program that made the Final Four in 2006 but has just one NCAA tournament appearance since. His teams run a 1-2-2 press, defend the 3-point line well and crash the boards. Four Patriots score in double digits this season. It’ll be no walk in the park on Tuesday night.
Players to watch
» George Mason has a trio of terrifying guards. Jordan Miller might be the most lethal. The 6-foot-6 sophomore averages 13.8 points per game, with 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists. He shoots 51.7% from the floor and has scored more than 20 points twice. He had 25 against LIU and 23 against Loyola-Maryland. He’s a rebounding wing, with just seven points but nine rebounds against Old Dominion.
» AJ Wilson, a 6-foot-7 junior, has scored in double digits in all but one game this season. He had 16 against ODU, making 5 of 10 shots and 8 of 12 free throws. He had nine rebounds, too, and three blocks. Wilson scored 19 against Maryland, one of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten. He averages 12.3 per game, with a team-high 8.3 rebounds.
» Javon Greene is a pretty good shooter, but a great distributor for George Mason. The 6-foot-2 junior averages a team-high 3.3 assists per game with 12.7 points and 7.3 rebounds. He scored 19 against ODU, with seven rebounds. Green had a season-high four assists against Maryland.
Three keys for Nebraska
1. Keep this 3-point shooting thing going. Nebraska’s shooting an unreal 53% from 3-point range in the past two games. That’s not sustainable. But it proves Fred Hoiberg’s point. Before leaving for the Cayman Islands, he told the media his team was due for a breakout 3-point performance. He’s now gotten two in a row. Nebraska will be playing in the same gym, with the same shooters, with 24 hours rest (as opposed to about 21, but that does make a difference). If Nebraska makes 10 or more 3s, you can count on a win. But, legs get heavy in day two of a three-day tournament. If they don’t have the legs, that could hurt.
2. OK, let’s talk about the 1-2-2 press. Nebraska hasn’t really gotten pressed this year. Southern Utah tried it in a trio of defenses, but it wasn’t the Thunderbirds' primary defense. Presses are generally to turn teams over and speed them up. But Nebraska is actually one of the least turnover prone teams in the country, and speed is its fuel. Nebraska turns the ball over on 15.2% of possessions, which is 22nd best in the country. And when they go fast is when they’re unlocked. So, really, Nebraska’s two passes — one to a guard, one at mid-court or one to the wing — away from a a 3-2 or 2-1 transition. This press should open up transition 3-pointers, which Nebraska hasn’t made a ton of this year, actually. So this game could rely on Cam Mack being calm and being smart on his first pass in this press, and Nebraska knocking down wide open 3s in transition.
3. Fun fact: NU is 345th in the country in free throw percentage. The Huskers have made 54.9% of their shots from the free throw line. That’s truly terrible. And, yet again, here comes a game in which Nebraska is only a 1-point favorite. You have to make free throws to win games. Nebraska only missed three in the second half, which is one of the reasons why they beat Washington State. You. Have. To. Make. Free. Throws. If you don’t, it’ll bite you again. Nebraska’s lucky it hasn’t since the loss to Southern Utah.
KenPom: Nebraska wins 68-67.
Chris Heady’s take: I think one of the worst ideas you could have playing a Fred Hoiberg team is pressing. Cam Mack is one of the fastest guards in the country. Jervay Green and Dachon Burke know what they’re doing handling the ball. They can break a press in two passes, and by then, it is too late. You want to beat Nebraska, make them force a shot. That's when it breaks down. So, I’m curious how long George Mason actually does press Nebraska. I don't imagine for very long. This smells like a game Nebraska takes a lead off its hot shooting, then has to battle in the final minutes. I like George Mason’s size and rebounding ability. I don’t think Nebraska can continue its hot streak from deep. I think this is another close one, but one where Nebraska’s free throws catch up with them. I’ll take George Mason 71-68. But Nebraska's in the winners bracket. That's progress.