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Huskers Ready to Hit the Road for First Time for Big Ten/ACC Challenge

November 30, 2021

After seven straight home games to open the season, Nebraska is hitting the road for the first time to face North Carolina State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday.

The trip to Raleigh begins a four-game stretch against high-major opponents after the Huskers faced just one (Creighton) in their first seven, and C.J. Wilcher said the team is excited for the step up in competition.

“We’re all excited, man, to get to play against some high level competition,” Wilcher said. “No disrespect to the teams we’ve played, but it’s just you get in conference play and we play some SEC, ACC team, we’re excited for that.”

Nebraska’s early Big Ten games — at Indiana (receiving votes in the AP Poll) and at home against No. 24 Michigan — and a game against No. 21 Auburn in Atlanta await, but first the Huskers will test themselves against the Wolfpack. North Carolina State is 5-1 with the lone loss coming in a neutral site game against Oklahoma State, 74-68.

“We’ve got a heck of a stretch coming up, obviously, starting with tomorrow’s game against North Carolina State,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I’ve been really impressed with that group, how hard they play, the pressure that they apply. We’ll be pressed for 40 minutes, and we have to be able to handle that if we’re going to have a chance to stay in and win the game. If we do handle it, get the ball up the floor, make simple plays, we will have a chance. And then on the other end, we’ve got to do a good job keeping them out of the paint, contesting their shooters … Once that ball goes up, we have to hit, just with their length and athleticism, and really try and compete with them on the glass.”

The Wolfpack are top-100 nationally in steals per game at 8.2 and will show full-court pressure with guard-heavy lineups all game, something the Huskers have not yet seen. However, Nebraska is among the better teams in the country in limiting turnovers at 10.4 and Hoiberg said he feels good about how the team has handled whatever pressure its faced thus far.

Like the Huskers with Trey McGowens, NC State has faced its own injury adversity this year as it lost its second-leading returning scorer and top big man in Manny Bates (9.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game last year) to a season-ending shoulder injury in the first minute of its season opener.

“They’re a really good team,” Hoiberg said. “I know that. That kid’s a heck of a player, obviously. But they’ve done a really nice job with the bigs that they have. Like we’re dealing with Trey, you’re not going to make up for that type of absence with one player. So they’ve done a good job building it with a couple younger players that have done a good job going in and playing their role.”

Dareon Seaborn, a 6-foot-7, 180-pound sophomore wing, has made a big leap this season and is leading the team in most statistical categories, averaging 18.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.7 steals while shooting 60.3% from the field including 67.2% inside the arc.

“Very unique player, can really get downhill, and he’s one of those guys that is a right-handed player but he really drives it well with his left,” Hoiberg said. “He can certainly knock down a shot but what makes him special and who he is, is his ability to get downhill and finish at the rim.”

NC State’s top five scorers are all perimeter players with four guards and a sharp-shooting wing in Jericole Hellems, a 6-foot-7 senior who is averaging 14.8 points and shooting 48.1% from 3. Casey Morsell (12.0 points per game, 39.1% from 3) and Cam Hayes (11.7 points and 2.8 assists per game) are averaging double figures as well.

“It’s always going to be the number one thing on that end is to is to get the possession started with communication, to be able to execute our coverages,” Hoiberg said. “The way they shot the ball in the last game, Hellems hitting six threes on eight attempts. Their freshmen, [Terquavion] Smith, has an unbelievable mentality as far as confidence and stepping up and shooting shots. So they’ve got really good guard play and when you have good guards, you’re going to have a chance most nights.”

Nebraska dropped two of its first three games and looked disjointed offensively in doing so. Since then, the Huskers have dished out 18 assists per game and shot better than 45% from the field in each, all against low-major opponents. Wilcher said they’ve “turned in the right direction” as it relates to getting a feel for playing together, and now that newfound chemistry will be put to the test on Wednesday.

“I think our guys are excited to get out and play in this event,” Hoiberg said. “It’s a great event, obviously, with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and our big thing is just continue to build. I feel much better about where things are right now compared to where they were earlier in the season after the first couple games and we just have to keep making progress. But I’ve been proud of our guys for buying in to everything we’ve been talking about and getting better in a lot of areas where we need to improve.”

For much of Nebraska’s rotation, Wednesday will be the first true road environment they face after playing in mostly empty arenas on the road last season.

“I think that’s the biggest change just from playing at PBA and then going on the road, because we’ve got to create our own energy because we don’t have a crowd or fans to feed off of in our direction,” Wilcher said. “So I think we have to create our own energy from the bench, from guys on the floor. I think that’s really the thing that’s different or we’ve got to focus on going into this game.”

Among those playing on the road for the first time is Bryce McGowens, who won the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award on Monday. McGowens averaged 20.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in a pair of wins last week. McGowens has received the award twice already through three weeks.

Hoiberg also said that the plan as of now is for freshman guard Quaran McPherson to redshirt this season. Things could change down the road, but Hoiberg and McPherson both value saving that year of eligibility over getting him minutes in garbage time situations.

Tipoff on Wednesday is set for 6:15 p.m. on ESPNU with Mike Couzens and Cory Alexander on the call.

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