Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hoiberg Stressing Simple Plays, Ball Movement after Rough Offensive Start to Season

November 16, 2021

Through two games, Nebraska’s offense hasn’t looked anything like what we saw in the two exhibition games.

Against Peru State and Colorado, Nebraska averaged 89.5 points on 56-47-75 shooting splits with 21.0 assists on 33 field goals per game. Exhibition basketball is certainly a different beast than games that count, and one of those games was against an NAIA team, but the style is the point more so than the results.

Through two games that actually count, Nebraska is averaging 74.0 points per game on 40-21-73 shooting splits with just 8.0 assists on 22.5 field goals. The Huskers showed some signs of improvement in the second half against Sam Houston, enough to get a win, but that’s not going to cut it moving forward, especially with the Huskers first high-major opponent visiting Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday night.

“We just need to go out and, first of all, be better than what we’ve been so far this season,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We can build on some of the things that we did in the second half the other night against Sam Houston. When the ball moves we’re a pretty effective team. When when we get dribble-happy and dribble air out of the ball, which we’ve had too many of those possessions. So far this season, we get stagnant, we get ourselves in trouble and we’re susceptible in transition on the other end because we don’t have any movement.

“It’s been a big emphasis in practice the last couple days and our guys have done a really good job getting into paint and making plays as opposed to getting in there, shifting, shooting contested mid-range shots.”

The primary culprit of the possessions Hoiberg was describing there is Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. After wowing fans in the preseason with his quickness and playmaking, Verge reverted to the kind of tunnel vision he often displayed with the Sun Devils.

Verge scored 26 points on 24 shooting possessions (9-of-20 from the field and 7-of-9 from the line) with five assists and three turnovers in the one-point loss to Western Illinois, and he forced up a tough shot on the final possession instead of kicking out to an open teammate. He followed that up with 13 points on 20 shooting possessions (4-of-16 from the field, 5-of-8 from the foul line) with seven assists and three turnovers.

After the Sam Houston game, Hoiberg said he planned to sit down and go over the film with Verge.

“He took it very well and I think understands — those film sessions are not about taking away aggressiveness,” Hoiberg said. “Alonzo, obviously, is a kid that can really get into the paint and he’s got a scorer’s mentality, and that’s what he’s played, really, for the last four years, going back to junior college and then at Arizona State. He has played more off the ball and has been asked to score the basketball. He’s fallen back on that a little bit, especially when things weren’t going great on the floor, to almost try to take the game over by himself. He had some great opportunities at the rim that he missed and it might be a completely different game if he makes pretty much uncontested layups. He missed three of them in the first 10 minutes.”

According to Synergy, Verge is scoring 0.796 point per possession (35th percentile, average) while leading the Huskers in possessions used at 49. Twenty of those possessions have come in the pick-and-roll and he’s converted them into just 0.75 points per possession (45th percentile, average). Those possession numbers only include plays he ended himself, though. If you look at his pick-and-roll passing numbers, they’re actually “very good” and in the 77th percentile as his passes have produced 1.25 points per possession. The problem is that only includes 12 total plays, and only one of those passes have led to a bucket from the roll man despite the chemistry he and Derrick Walker showed and talked about during the preseason.

The key for Verge is finding the right balance between making plays and giving the ball up, because he’s definitely Nebraska’s most dynamic player off the bounce.

“I’m not taking away Alonzo’s aggressiveness, but what I am asking him to do is when he gets in there, he’s got to survey the floor because when we hit the paint and we spray it out, we’re a very efficient team,” Hoiberg said. “We look at numbers all across the board when we started this thing a couple months ago. He took it well, and now it’s about carrying it over and doing it in game action, especially when times get tough, and he admitted he got in his own head a little bit because you miss those easy ones at the rim and then you start pressing.

“I thought the second half was better the other night, he finished better, he found Bryce [McGowens] on a couple plays where he came under control. And the biggest thing I showed him is when he makes a simple play early in the possession, whether it’s hitting the pocket, throwing a shake pass, getting the ball moving, creating that chain reaction, we have really good possessions.”

Verge isn’t the only problem with the offense, though. Freshman Bryce McGowens is 5-of-13 from 3 while the rest of the roster is a combined 4-of-29. C.J. Wilcher and Keisei Tominaga, two players brought in primarily for their shooting prowess, are 2-of-7 and 1-of-7, respectively. Some of that is limited opportunities because of the ball sticking, as mentioned above, but some of it is them simply missing shots.

Hoiberg said he believes the shooting will come around if they get back to making simple plays and sharing the ball, and Trey McGowens, Nebraska’s other primary ball-handler besides Verge, said that has been a focus in practice since the Sam Houston game.

“Yesterday, I talked to Zo, I was like, ‘We’ve got to get shooters involved these next two days of practice,’ just because they haven’t seen a lot of looks in a game,” Trey McGowens said. “Because I know with our shooters, once they see it go in they’re not going to do a whole lot of missing, especially with Keisei. So just getting Keisei the ball, just keeping him in good good spirits, because he probably hasn’t struggled like this in a long while. I’ve just been talking to Keisei a lot, because he kind of pump fakes a lot. I’ve just been telling him just to shoot the ball, we believe in you, just stuff like that. He shot it really well the past two days.”

To get back to the way Hoiberg wants his team to play, the Huskers will have to handle the emotions that accompany a rivalry game like Tuesday’s against in-state foe Creighton, part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games this season. Pinnacle Bank Arena will likely be as full as it’s been in a long, long time, and Creighton has dominated the series over the last decade-plus. However, the Bluejays have almost an entirely new team and are starting two freshmen. They’ve had their own offensive struggles this season, so Tuesday’s game should serve as a valuable measuring stick for both squads.

“Trey, he’s talked a lot about it, being a part of this game a year ago,” Hoiberg said. “C.J. we have on our roster who was in the Big East last year, had two really competitive games against Creighton when he was at Xavier. Our guys understand, they understand the importance of what this game means. We have talked about it to them. The one thing about these games, sometimes you go out there and you’re almost too hyped up. Just thinking back on experience from playing in those games and coaching in those games, you almost get a little too hyped up.

“So for us, it’s about going out there and doing the things that have made us a good team this year and limiting the things that have caused us to struggle, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 6 p.m. on FS1.

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