The Huskers were short-handed in their loss to Rutgers on Saturday as Alonzo Verge Jr. did not suit up. On Monday, Coach Fred Hoiberg provided an update on the senior transfer, who was at the game and on the bench in street clothes.
“Alonzo, about an hour before the game, found out a very close family member passed away,” Hoiberg said. “He was going to be in uniform for that game; we decided it was best that he did not. We talked about him getting out of there and going either home or back to his apartment to grieve. He wanted to be there for his teammates. He has been back in practice, he was back today. We anticipate him being in uniform tomorrow.”
Derrick Walker said the team appreciated Verge being there and the support he gave them, even if he wasn’t on the court.
“When people go through stuff outside the court, man, you can only ask them do their best throughout the time,” Walker said. “It was a tough time for for him. During the game you would look and see him smiling. So just for him to be able to go through those emotions and still be there with us, I commend him for that because it takes a strong person to do that. So even though he wasn’t out there playing with us, he was still cheering for us and he was still with us.”
With Verge not in the lineup, Nebraska ran a lot of offense through Bryce McGowens, having him run the point by himself at times as well as initiating offense when he shared the court with Kobe Webster and Trey McGowens. He finished with 29 points on 6-of-17 from the field (3-of-7 from 3) and 14-of-18 from the free-throw line, seven rebounds, two assists and two turnovers in 38 minutes, earning his fourth Big ten Freshman of the Week honor.
“He has not played, really, with the ball in his hands like that very much this year,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve run a lot of live pick-and-roll type actions, meaning he’s got a live bounce on the catch. So to bring the ball up the floor and run different actions to get him in the middle of the floor where we had a lot of success with he and Derrick in the pick-and-roll, whether it was Bryce getting to the rim, whether it was hitting Derrick in the pocket against their ice defense. Bryce is just, again, making huge strides in that area now as a playmaker with the ball in his hands, which again, he has not had a lot of opportunity.
“But late in the game, we put in his hands and we trusted him. That’s a big responsibility for a freshman in this league when you’re trying to get over the hump for the first time. His teammates trust him, we certainly trust him as coaches and I thought, for the most part, he made good decisions all night long.”
The Huskers led 58-54 after a 3-pointer from Trey McGowens with 3:30 remaining, but the Huskers scored just three points and didn’t make a field goal the rest of the way as the Scarlet Knights really keyed in on McGowens, sending double-teams and help side defense his way on every possession. The Huskers struggled to find a counter in the moment but it should serve as a valuable learning experience for the freshman moving forward, especially with Verge returning to the lineup to take some pressure off of him.
“We’re talking about exchanging a little bit, maybe putting Alonzo off the ball some as well and getting him some of those live pick-and-roll type actions and letting Bryce initiate a little bit more,” Hoiberg said. “So we’re playing around with that right now within the system and we’ll see how we execute with it tomorrow.”
Tuesday’s trip to Ann Arbor will be Nebraska’s second game against Michigan this season. The Wolverines ran the Huskers off the floor in Lincoln back in December, 102-67. Verge was the one Huskers who found some success offensively in that game, finishing with a season-high 31, but Hoiberg is more worried about the other end of the floor.
“It was just one of our poorer performances of the year,” Hoiberg said. “Transition is where they really hurt you. Sixteen 3s they hit on us with different double teams. [Caleb] Houstan went off on us; he’s having a great year right now, especially in league games where he’s shooting the basketball. They’re a very difficult team to beat at home. So it’s going to be important, we’ve got to take care of the basketball. We have to do a great job of getting back and reacting on turnovers. We can’t go in there and challenge at the rim against [Moussa] Diabate and against [Hunter] Dickinson. They’re too long in there and that’s what fuels their break. So we have to do a good job of taking care of it, being selective at the rim, getting back in transition and then rebounding.”
The Huskers made Michigan’s star 7-footer, Hunter Dickinson, work for his points in the first meeting with 15 points on 14 shots, but others stepped up. Caleb Houstan, one of Michigan’s 5-star freshman, shot 4-of-7 from 3 and scored 16 points. The other, Moussa Diabate, did not make the trip to Lincoln. Brandon Johns Jr. started in his place and scored a season-high 20 points while reserve forward Terrance Williams III added 22 points off the bench. The 6-foot-11, 210-pound Diabate has scored double figures in five of his last seven games and has 22 offensive rebounds during that stretch.
“You’re obviously playing against one of the better bigs in the country with Hunter and then they’re posting Diabate a lot right now as well,” Hoiberg said. “So we just have to do a good job trying to mix coverages, get in there and show a crowd and then make sure we have good urgency on our closeouts, which obviously the first time around was not acceptable with how we did that. We’ve been better the last couple games as far as guarding the line. We have to continue to do that. We’ve just got to play a complete game.”
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Walker has matched up with many of the best 7-footers in the country already this season including Dickinson, Auburn’s Walker Kessler, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Purdue’s Zach Edey. After scoring 11 or more points in five straight games, Walker has been in single digits in his last four with foul trouble playing a big part in limiting his opportunities against Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin even though Nebraska tweaked some things in its offense to play through him more.
“I need like two more inches of height,” Walker joked. “But no, I found throughout those games where I would pick up just stupid, just physical fouls. I just realized that I have to be more mental than physical, especially when playing big dudes like that. So to prevent myself from being in foul trouble I’ve just got to be smarter and make better decisions.”
The Huskers were missing a key piece in the first meeting with Michigan as well as Trey McGowens was still rehabbing his broken foot. He’s made a significant impact on the defensive end of the floor since returning to the lineup.
“Trey’s aggressive,” Walker said. “He’s a guy that’s just going to stick to his man like rice and he’s not going to let him do anything. He’s going to get off-the-ball steals, he’s going to play hard, he’s going to pick up a couple of fouls playing hard and you just know he’s going to go 100 miles per hour every time, and he’s vocal. He just plays hard. He just does the right things.”
The Wolverines have had some head-scratching losses and stand at just 10-8 overall including 4-4 in Big Ten play, but Michigan is 33rd in KenPom including 21st in adjusted offensive efficiency and 78th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They’re 332nd in the country in opponent turnover rate.
Tipoff for Tuesday night is set for 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Stephanie White on 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.