But this year, the 'Huskers have added a quality that Texas coach Rick Barnes would be proud of: a lock-down, frustrating defense.
Nebraska fielding a high-quality defense is nothing new. In fact, the Cornhuskers experienced the most success of the Doc Sadler era when they were able to marry a slow tempo to a strong defense. In 2007-2008, the Cornhuskers went 20-12 and made it to the second round of the NIT thanks to Sadler's best defense, one that ranked 13th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and allowed just .883 points per possession according to Ken Pomeroy.
The next year, Nebraska was just slightly worse on defense, allowing .907 points per possession and finishing 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Cornhuskers took a slight step back in terms of overall record, falling to 18-13, but put up the best conference mark — 8-8 — of Sadler's tenure.
Then came last year, a defensive abomination under Sadler. The Cornhuskers allowed .964 points per possession, and (not surprisingly) fell to last in the Big 12 with a 15-18 (2-14 Big 12) record.
So what's the lesson? Nebraska will always play at a crawling tempo. The Cornhuskers haven't put up a tempo ranked faster than 272nd in the country in the past five seasons — this one included — and see an average of three possessions fewer than the average Texas game.
(ASIDE: Texas, interestingly enough, plays at the country's 133rd fastest tempo at 67.6 possessions per game, slightly faster than the D-1 average.. Missouri has the Big 12's fastest tempo, playing at a pace of 72.7 possessions per game. Nebraska is the second-slowest, playing at 64.6 possessions per game. Texas A&M is the slowest, at 62.5 possessions per game, though the Aggies aren't special defensively.)
But the Cornhuskers haven't always fielded an upper-echelon defense the way they have this year. Nebraska has again put together a top-15 unit, and at allowing just .892 points per possession, the second-best effort of a Sadler team. And not surprisingly, the wins are back on track, with Nebraska sitting at 17-8 with five games remaining and a very real shot at 20 victories.
They've done that largely the same way Texas has: playing in-your-face man-to-man defense that holds down the opponent's shooting percentage— Nebraska is in the top-20 in both effective field goal percentage defense and two-point field goal defense — and cleaning up the defensive boards. The Cornhuskers do an especially great job of the latter, using a big lineup — they're the biggest Big 12 team in terms of effective height*, and the fifth-biggest team in the country — to sweep up 73.7 percent of the available defensive rebounds, the fifth-best percentage in the nation.
Nebraska has also done an outstanding job of protecting its home court, losing just once at the Devaney Sports Center this year, a loss to Kansas on Feb. 5.
Still, in a game between two great defenses, it's often the team with the best offense that wins. And that statistic isn't even close. Texas scores an average of .112 points per possession, good for 35th nationally. The Cornhuskers score .104 points per possession, placing them 119th overall. A big part of that is Nebraska's inability to fire from the outside. The Cornhuskers rank 305th nationally in three-point shooting percentage, hitting just 30.8 percent of their bombs. That goes a long way to cancel out an offense that ranks in the top-10 nationally in two-point shooting percentage (54.6 percent).
In that way, the fingerprint for beating the Cornhuskers is set. Texas should use patience offensively against what can be a frustratingly slow pace, and use its athletes to get out and run at any opportunity. From there, it's just a matter of eliminating easy two-pointers — the Cornhuskers are a horrific offensive rebounding team — to get stops.
* One of my favorite KenPom stats, effective height is the measure of a team's average playing height, weighing a player's height and minutes played. In that way, it's more effective than just looking at a roster and saying, 'oh, well they have four 6-foot-10 guys,' because two of those players might not play hardly at all.
It's a somewhat accurate measurement of how tall a team actually is, though Pomeroy is quick to insist that it's not a perfect stat, and I agree. A more worthwhile look would be a team's length, taking into account wingspan, as that matters in a more significant way. Unfortunately, as Pomeroy notes, teams don't generally list the wingspan of their players on the roster page, making such a calculation difficult, at best.