Nebraska shot under 41% from the field in each of its first three games this season. The Huskers lost two of those games and looked pretty rough in the process. Bigs weren’t touching the ball, shooters weren’t getting high quality looks and the primary initiators were getting tunnel vision.
The level of competition has dropped off over the last two, but Nebraska’s cohesiveness on offense picked up as the Huskers beat Idaho State and Southern while shooting better than 52% from the field and dishing out 18 assists in each game.
What has changed?
“Me,” Alonzo Verge Jr. said. “It starts with me. I’m the floor general, I’m the point guard, so it starts with me getting my teammates involved and getting guys like Bryce [McGowens] going, guys like C.J. [Wilcher] going. It was a just a struggle with the first few real games, I struggled with that. And now I’m just slowly but surely getting back to my groove and seeing my guys and getting them open shots and easier buckets.”
Verge was the biggest culprit in Nebraska’s lack of ball movement early in the season as he looked to make a play seemingly every time he brought the ball up the floor rather than giving it up and getting the ball moving to keep others involved.
Verge has been mostly a score-first player throughout his career, though he did post high assist totals during his time at the junior college level. He played with two other shoot-first guards in Remy Martin and Josh Christopher last year and looked to make the most of his touches whenever he got them. Now, Fred Hoiberg is asking him to be a point guard.
Verge said he was overthinking things early and was making the game harder than it needed to be.
“My role has changed a lot,” Verge said. “I’ve got the ball in my hands 90% of the time and these guys rely on me to get them the ball and get them shots. So it’s a big role, a different role than I had Arizona State, which, I’ve just been willing to take it head on and just get better and better every day.”
In the season-opener against Western Illinois, Verge took 20 shots from the field and nine from the foul line. He took 16 shots and eight free throws against Sam Houston. He attempted 15 field goals against Creighton, and Hoiberg benched him for the final 12 minutes of the first half against the Jays while the Huskers made a run. He had 16 assists in those first three games, but he got those assists largely by dominating the ball.
Hoiberg also kept his minutes low against Idaho State as he played a season-low 21 minutes. Some of that was late garbage time, but some of it was also Hoiberg pulling him after a questionable possession or two. It’s been a game of give-and-take as Verge and Hoiberg have tried to feel each other out, but they’ve both expressed confidence in the other.
“I just try to keep my head,” Verge said about those trips to the bench and Hoiberg’s instruction. “I don’t try to stay too down and stay too high. Coach trusts me so when he does things like that, I don’t really let it get to me. I just take it to the chin and just move on.”
The last two games, Verge has attempted just 15 field goals and six free throws and has dished out eight assists as the Huskers have spread the ball around more often. With Trey McGowens on the shelf with a broken foot, Verge has even more responsibility on his shoulders than he already did heading into the year, and he’s still figuring things out.
“Alonzo’s an amazing player,” Bryce Mcgowens said. “He’s able to get guys open and create for himself. So, the way he handled it has been great. He’s continuing to grow and we have a lot of season ahead of us, so it can only get better.”
Nebraska had 18 assists on 27 made buckets despite only shooting 4-of-23 from deep against Southern on Sunday. The Jaguars played a switch-everything style of defense, much like Western Illinois did in the opener, but this time Verge and his teammates attacked it more efficiently despite the 3s not falling.
“This was the same defense we saw on opening night and you saw how much that got us stagnant,” Hoiberg said. “And tonight again, a few possessions early it looked like the same, but once we got it moving — you see different defenses every night and how you go out there and prepare and execute against it obviously will determine your success. Tonight we were much better, obviously, than we were on opening night, to take advantage of the switch more inside. We call it our Beast possession and try to get the ball to the big and then take advantage of them in there where the first game I thought we tried to retreat, didn’t get the ball moving side to side, and they were able to just sit in there and lock on the ball. The shot didn’t go in that night as well and we could not take advantage and get points in the paint like we did tonight.”
Starting center Derrick Walker scored a total of 11 points on 3-of-7 shooting in Nebraska’s first three games. In the last two, he’s scored 29 points on 12-of-13 shooting including a career-high 15 points against Southern. The level of competition certainly played a role, but the guards also did a much better job of looking for him.
“We’ve got D-Walk down there battling and working hard every game, so when we get changes like this to get him the ball and feed him, we try to get him the ball as much as possible because we know how much he he bangs down there and he does all the little things for us,” Verge said. “So when there are games like this that he has mismatches and things like that, we try to feed him as much as possible.”
Walker also had three assists against Creighton and Southern, half of which went to Bryce McGowens on cuts to the rim. The younger McGowens called it “major” to have a big like Walker who can initiate offense from the low or high post and find both cutters and shooters.
Ultimately, Nebraska’s recent offensive success has come down to one of Hoiberg’s recurring themes: making simply plays. Nebraska has done that much better recently.
“We’re getting there,” Hoiberg said. “We still have moments where it’s not exactly where we want it, but we’re going to continue to go back and watch and learn and try and get better where we need to, especially those offensive possessions where we don’t get the ball moving. When we don’t move it, we’re not very efficient. When we do, we generally get good possessions; 18 assists is a solid number on 27 baskets. Our assist percentage has been much higher the last couple nights and we need to continue with that.”
The Huskers will get two more home games to continue tinkering with things before they hit the road for the first time next week. First up is a game against Tennessee State (1-3) on a quick turnaround.
“We’ve got to keep getting better,” Hoiberg said. “It’s another one-day prep, it’ll be a lot of mental. This will be the third game in five nights, so a lot of mental preparation for this third one in a short amount of time and hopefully go out and play well and play a complete 40 minutes. That’s what we’re striving to do and we’ll have a little time after that to prepare for our game on Saturday before we hit the road. We talked about it, take it one game at a time and just keep trying to grow and get better.”
Tipoff on Tuesday night at the Devaney Center is set for 8 p.m. on the Big Ten Network. Lisa Byington and Rapheal Davis will have the call.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.