This year’s Nebrasketball team has its sights set on making program history. The newcomers openly talk about it, and Bryce McGowens said that opportunity is one of the things that drew him to Lincoln.
Going from back-to-back seven win season to winning an NCAA Tournament game is no small task, however. The Big Ten lost some of the best players in college basketball, such as Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu, but the league should be plenty tough once again, especially for a program that has won five conference games in two years.
Derrick Walker saw what it takes to be a successful program up close during his previous stop at Tennessee, and he was in Lincoln for each of Fred Hoiberg’s first two seasons in Lincoln. Walker said it’s going to be the little things that determine whether or not the Huskers are able to get over the hump and compete in the Big Ten.
“It’s not about talent, it’s not about how high you can jump, because we have that, everyone has that,” Walker said. “It’s the little things. It’s being in the right spot on time. It’s trusting your brothers, it’s having that trust factor. Communication. Handling adversity. All those little things that go into winning a game, we need to learn those things outside of the talent part.”
If Kobe Webster didn’t believe the returning group was capable of taking care of those little things, he wouldn’t be returning for a fifth year of college. What he saw down the stretch played a big part in his decision to take advantage of his extra season of eligibility.
“The decision was really pretty easy,” Webster said. “The momentum that we had the last 10 games of the season, both individually and as a team, definitely sparked that interest and like I said, it was fairly easy. I talked to my parents, talked to coaches and that was that. Now it’s about being consistent, bringing that momentum that we had into these workouts, showing the new guys the ropes, being patient with the new guys as well, making sure that they’re learning the plays, learning the reads, communicating with them. But it’s been fun.”
Down the stretch of the season, Nebraska beat Minnesota by four and Rutgers by 21 and lost to Northwestern by just one in a 10 game stretch, and in those three games they racked up 59 assists on 84 field goals. That’s the way Hoiberg wants his team to play, and Webster said this year’s team has shown glimpses of that so far this summer.
“I think we’ve got to start communicating a little better,’ Webster said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces, so once we get the chemistry, once we sort of figure out that anybody can score, anybody has that opportunity, making extra passes, just doing little things like that and committing to our principles and the offense that the coaches put in place, we’re going to be really successful.”
The Huskers have gotten the chance fast-track that chemistry with plenty of team activities that were not possible last season because of COVID-19 protocols, and Walker said that will make it easier trust guys on the court and to hold each other accountable.
“It’s a lot of energy, it’s a lot of personalities, it’s a lot of guys that want to learn,” Walker said about the practice court so far. “Not to say we didn’t have that last year, but with the incoming group a lot of guys want to learn, a lot of guys want to be really good. Everyone’s soaking everything in. I’m not going to lie, everyone has their days, but this group is pretty good about bouncing back. A lot of new things have been thrown at us and we’re pretty good at absorbing it and handling it really well and moving forward and getting the job done.”
The team is not yet complete. Freshman center Oleg Kojenets just arrived on Wednesday and Ranger College transfer Keisei Tominaga should making his way to Lincoln from Japan before too long. But Alonzo Verge Jr., a grad transfer from Arizona State, already sees the pieces coming together despite only practicing for a couple weeks himself a late arrival.
“I feel like we’re a very talented team,” said Verge, putting the emphasis on that last word. “We have individuals that are talented, of course, but altogether we’re a great team. I’ve seen a lot of teams that have very good talent individually, but I feel like as a team we’re stronger than just us being good as individuals.”
Verge was part of a team at Arizona State last year that had plenty of individual talents that didn’t mesh, resulting in an 11-14 record despite entering the season as a top-20 team.
On paper, the Huskers have added plenty of size and shooting this offseason, which should help them hold their own better in one of college basketball’s toughest conferences. None of that will matter if they don’t take care of the little things, however, and that’s what the Huskers are focusing on this summer.
Things like ball movement, communication, cohesiveness on defense will go a long way towards determine whether or not this team is able to do what no Nebraska team has done before.