After a season of empty arenas, COVID-19 pauses and a jam-packed schedule, Fred Hoiberg and the Huskers are looking forward to a more normal 2021-22 season, starting with Thursday’s appearance at Big Ten Media Days.
“The best thing about an event like today is to have some normalcy back in our lives and hopefully carry that over throughout the season,” Hoiberg said. “Still understanding that we are living in a pandemic and I’m proud of our group for buying into being 100% fully vaccinated with our group, but we’re still taking it cautious … Thankfully we have not had a positive case to this point.
“But I think an event like today just brings some normalcy back to our lives and in the world that we live in and hopefully we can continue through that. I know all of us — as coaches, as players — are excited about getting fans back in our building. We feel we’ve got a great homecourt advantage. Our fans have been extremely patient throughout the rebuild that we’ve had, and I know they’re excited about this group.”
Returning starter Trey McGowens and graduate transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. accompanied Hoiberg to Indianapolis to represent the program. Hoiberg has praised the leadership of McGowens on multiple occasions, including on Thursday.
“Led by Trey and some of our other older players, we really played our best basketball through that adversity, what Trey has done is helped the newcomers along — Alonzo, certainly our freshman class who we feel great about in Bryce [McGowens], Wilhelm Breidenbach, Quaran McPherson, and Oleg Kojenets,” Hoiberg told Dave Revsine on the Big Ten Network. “So when you have older established players that can help the young guys and talk to them about the system where we had some success late in the year, it makes life easier, certainly on the coaches, when the players can look at each other in the eye, have an honest conversation and hold each other accountable.”
The older McGowens said he brought the whole team over to his apartment before he and Verge left for Indianapolis for a team meeting to discuss roles and how they need to come together and win games in order for them to achieve their individual goals.
As for Verge, Hoiberg said it was “unbelievable” for Nebraska to land a player of his caliber when they did.
“Dalano Banton kept his name in the draft — happy for him signing a guaranteed contract with the Raptors — but bringing a player of Alonzo’s caliber late in the process has been phenomenal for us,” Hoiberg said. “A guy that can get into the paint, make plays. Our big challenge right now is making sure we continue to make the right play, make simple plays. I think the biggest upgrade is with our perimeter shooting on this year’s team, so sometimes the single is better than the home run, getting in there and making the right play.”
Verge said he has a different role from his previous stop at Arizona State. He’s playing point guard for the Huskers and is looking to lead by example as a fifth-year senior.
Hoiberg said he likes the mix this year’s roster has of returners, older transfers and newcomers, bother transfers and high school recruits. Verge provides some on-ball playmaking equity while the other transfers — C.J. Wilcher, Keon Edwards and Keisei Tominaga — all provide needed floor-spacing.
“The biggest area I think of improvement for our team is perimeter shooting and also playmaking,” Hoiberg said. “When you have that shooting, especially in the world of analytics and taking away the 3-point line, what that does for our team is open up driving lanes. We had a shot profile last year that we want to continue with — 82% of our shots were in the restricted area and behind the 3-point line — and we feel that we’re much better equipped now to take advantage of those situations, hopefully, knock down those shots and finish better at the rim and if we do that we’ll take a huge step in the right direction on the offensive end of the floor.”
Bryce McGowens, the program’s first 5-star recruit, provides both floor spacing and playmaking ability. Trey McGowens said what he’s most proud of and impressed by with his younger brother is Bryce’s work ethic and drive to improve. Hoiberg provided a more extended scouting report of the younger McGowens.
“First of all, it’s his God-given talent. I’ve talked about this in the past, Trey and Bryce, they have unbelievable parents that raised them the right way. What makes Bryce unique as a basketball player is he’s very fluid on the floor, he’s got a great stroke, he’s got unlimited range and his athleticism is something that sets him apart from a lot of players. Great length — he’s got a good wingspan. At the same time, we all need to understand there is a learning curve for all kids that come … when you come into college and make that jump, you’re going to have highs and lows, ups and downs. That’s a great thing about having Trey and some older leaders that have been through it, they can help navigate our freshmen through those tough times.
“But as far as from a talent perspective and some of the things Bryce does, it just wows you at times what he does out there on the floor and how we can take over portions of a practice. We’re grateful that we have him. The McGowens family and how they helped throughout that process was phenomenal. So we feel great about Bryce’s future and about the future of our program.”
Hoiberg reiterated the message from his previous press conference in Lincoln, that sorting out a station will be his biggest challenge this season. The Huskers have 14 scholarship players plus four walk-ons on the team this year.
“It is going to be my single most difficult part of the job this year is figuring out a rotation, who starts and, more importantly, who finishes games, who we can trust those late-game situations,” Hoiberg said. “The biggest thing that you have to stress to your team is role acceptance and going out there and, whatever role you’re given, star in it. We’ve got three weeks to figure it out, and what we start with with our rotation may not be what we finish the year with, but we’re doing our best to put the best players on the floor, the best five that fit together to give us the best chance to win, and that’s ultimately the goal.
“Coming from a guy that played every role, from being a bench guy, behind a bench guy and a starter, to go out there and accept it, do the best job you can, take advantage of the minutes when they come and also practice situations. But again, that creates great competitiveness in your practices, and I’ve been impressed with our group for the way they’ve gone out and are fighting for those very valuable minutes. We’ve got, I think, 12 that I can put on the floor right now in certain situations. At the beginning of the year we’ll start probably nine or 10 in a rotation and then go from there.”
Hoiberg has three weeks of practice and two exhibition games to sort everything out. The season officially tips off on Nov. 9 against Western Illinois.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.