Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

2021-22 Nebraska Basketball Preview: Lead Ball-Handlers

October 24, 2021

The Fred Hoiberg Huskers, version 3.0, will take the court for the first time this coming week as Nebraska opens the season with a pair of exhibition games.

To get you ready for the season, Hail Varsity is going position group by position group through the roster to introduce you to the 2021-22 Cornhuskers. First up: the point guards.

Alonzo Verge Jr. (SR, 6’3”, 163 pounds)

2020-21 stats (at Arizona State): 14.0 PPG, 39.1% FG (33.3% 3FG), 80.9% FT, 3.9 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.4 TPG, 1.2 SPG, 29.8 MPG

Hoiberg said the Huskers were lucky to land a player of Verge’s caliber late in the cycle after Dalano Banton decided to keep his name in the NBA Draft. The former JUCO guard racked up 729 points and 150 assists in 51 games during his two years at Arizona State.

Verge played alongside a ball-dominant, shoot-first point guard in Remy Martin in Tempe, but the Huskers recruited him to play point guard in Lincoln. The 2019-20 Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year, he’s probably most known for his 43-point explosion during his junior year, but he impressed his teammates with his passing ability throughout preseason workouts and practices.

“He brings a great energy to practice, and he’s got good energy off the floor as well with the guys,” Hoiberg said last week. “Great for team chemistry. He’s just one of those guys who’s got a really infectious personality, and the one thing I’ve really told him that people are looking for is how we can lead a team. He played a lot off the ball last year with Remy Martin handling a lot of the point guard responsibilities. He really can score the ball and make tough shots.

“We’re just really talking about making simple plays which he’s done a great job of. He got guys a lot of wide open looks today in practice; we didn’t make them, but he’s making the right play, and then that’s all we’re asking of him right now. I’ve really been impressed with his on-ball defense he can really get into the ball, pressure the ball. We need consistency across the board with our entire team in that area but just as far as what he’s brought us at the point guard position, I’ve been very impressed with Alonzo.”

Decision-making will be the key for Verge. He was not an efficient player during his two seasons in Tempe. He was a sub-par 3-point shooter (31.2% on 3.1 attempts per game) and he shot 41.4% inside the arc las year as well. He will have to find a good balance between making plays and not doing too much

“You don’t want to take away instincts and he’s he’s got great instincts as a basketball player,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a good finisher, he’s got a nice floater in the paint — shots that are not considered high-percentage shots, but he makes them. If you show over time you can make a high percentage, you have to live with some of those, and he’s a guy that can really get going. When he gets hot, he’s he’s a hard guy to stop and then he’s a hard guy to keep in front, and then sucking in the defense, with the shooting that we’ve added to this year’s team, it can make some for some pretty tough lineups to defend, a lot of that because of Alonzo’s playmaking.”

Trey McGowens (JR, 6’4”, 196 pounds)

2020-21 stats: 10.7 PPG, 39.1% FG (36.7% 3FG), 65.7% FT, 3.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.3 TPG, 1.4 SPG, 28.4 MPG

McGowens actually has a lot in common with Verge. He’s played as a combo-guard throughout his career, but believes he’s a point guard. He’s a dynamic athlete but has struggled with efficiency. Their personalities have meshed on and off the court as well, and Hoiberg took both of them with him to Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis.

“It’s fun, honestly,” McGowens said. “He’s a lot like me, energetic. Our personalities just match up so much. Since the first weekend he got here, we kind of spent a lot of time together. Whether we want to go get a pedicure, just anything, we’re a lot alike. I feel like that’s that’s kind of what’s going to be the difference-maker this year. I feel like we’re going to have one of the best backcourts in the country, especially the Big Ten.”

McGowens said he transferred to Nebraska in part because he wanted to develop as a point guard, but Dalano Banton ran the offense most of the season. Down the stretch, however, McGowens took on more playmaking responsibilities and showed some growth there with 19 assists in Nebraska’s last five games. He finished with 63 assists to 62 turnovers on the season, though, and that ratio will need improvement. McGowens said his goal is to be one of the best passers in the country this season, and he’s been watching a lot of film with the coaching staff to make that happen.

Besides the passing, McGowens highlighted finishing around the rim and being more confident in his perimeter shot as areas he’s been focusing on for improvement. McGowens shot 40.2% on 2-pointers last season including 49.1% at the rim. He shot a career-best 36.7% from 3 last season, but only attempted 2.9 per game.

Nebraska will likely rely on McGowens to defend the opposing team’s best perimeter player once again, as his size at 6-foot-4 and athleticism give him the flexibility to defend guards and some wings.

The amount of shooting Nebraska may be able to put on the court around their dynamic guards could lead to improved numbers for both as well.

“We’ve got shooters everywhere,” Trey McGowens said. “That just makes it so much easier for me, Zo. We like to drive, can shoot it, can get to the basket whenever. It just takes so much stress off us.”

One thing that will be worth tracking is how much McGowens and Verge play together, and how much Hoiberg staggers them. They have a lot of similar strengths and weaknesses, and Hoiberg might be best served to have one of them on the court at all times. Having Verge run the offense with the starters while McGowens leads the second unit could help maximize both players.

Kobe Webster (SR, 6’, 176 pounds)

2020-21 stats: 8.1 PPG, 38.2% FG (38.0% 3FG), 65.4% FT, 1.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.9 TPG, 0.6 SPG, 23.1 MPG

Webster chose to spend his grad transfer year in Lincoln last year, but because of the pandemic, he never got the chance to experience the true Pinnacle Bank Arena atmosphere (at least in a Nebraska jersey; he played against the Huskers with Western Illinois in 2018-19).

However, Webster decided to take advantage of his extra year of eligibility and will now get a second chance at having a memorable senior year.

“I’m super excited,” Webster said. “Like I’ve been saying, the momentum that we that we got last year at the back end of the season was a big part of me coming back and I think that momentum is going to carry over and having the fans back, a packed house, is definitely going to be even more of a driving force.”

Webster led Nebraska in 3-point percentage at 38% and was second in made 3s last season. After taking some time to adjust to the high-major level (33.3% from deep in Nebraska’s first 10 games), he found a groove and shot 40.5% the rest of the way on 4.6 attempts per game.

At the Big Ten level, Webster is probably better suited to space the floor more than run the offense, which is why I’d be in favor of a stagger for Verge and McGowens.

“At the end of the day, I feel like I can score the ball, and I’m about winning,” Webster said. “So whatever role it is I have to play, whether I’m on the ball, off the ball, coming off screens, pick-and-roll. If I need to be a defender, I can be a defender, I’ll go take a charge. Whatever the case may be, I just want to win. Whatever role I have to play, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Quaran McPherson (FR, 6’3”, 199 pounds)

McPherson is a big, strong guard who spent last year at Link Year Prep in Missouri. He impressed his teammates with his defensive intensity and how vocal he is during preseason practices.

Nebraska is deep in the backcourt, and McPherson’s most significant contributions may happen on the practice court this season, but he’s taking advantage of his situation to learn as much as he can from the veteran guards.

“I feel like Trey’s more explosive than me, but we play the same way,” McPherson said. “We’re downhill type of guards so I can learn. I just watch how Trey moves, how fluid he is and in transition, it’s really hard to stop him in transition. If you don’t stop him, there’s nothing you can really do. Then Kobe, he’s s smart and he’s deceptive with his speed. So it’s just helping me defensively and offensively — this is what you can do, this is what you can’t do, this is what you should do, this is how you learn. Communicating and they also help me a lot as a freshman. They want me to do well and be great.”

Walk-on: Sam Hoiberg (FR, 6’, 183 pounds)

Fred’s son chose to walk on and play for his father after a two-year standout career for Lincoln Pius X. He’s a powerfully-built guard with good athleticism who is working on refining his perimeter shot.

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