The final home game of a difficult season has arrived for Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers. Nebraska will take the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena one last time this season on Friday night before closing out eh regular season with three straight road games and then the Big Ten Tournament.
Nebraska will honor seven seniors before tipoff against Iowa on Friday — three that have exhausted their eligibility in Alonzo Verge Jr., Kobe Webster and Trevor Lakes and four others who will have decisions to make in Derrick Walker, Trey McGowens, Lat Mayen and walk-on Chris McGraw (more on this group later).
“We want to go out hopefully on a high note and play well,” Hoiberg said on Thursday. “We’re playing against one of the hotter teams, not only in our league, but in the country right now with what they’re doing. That game against Michigan State they were unbelievable, and obviously the first time they played us, what they did at the end of the first half and beginning of the second, just completely opened it up against us. So we need to come out, play with unbelievable energy, play a complete 40-minute consistent basketball game, to hopefully play well and give us something positive to remember for the seniors on on their last opportunity to step in and play at Pinnacle Bank Arena.”
The Hawkeyes (19-8, 9-7 Big Ten) have won five of their last six including a 98-75 smackdown of the Huskers in Iowa City. The lone loss was to Michigan, but the Hawkeyes bounced back with double-digit wins over Ohio State in Columbus and Michigan State at home.
“They’re playing with so much confidence and the speed that they play with, we got caught up in trying to match that shot for shot,” Hoiberg said. “We missed some point-blank layups, and when we miss those, they’re going to convert the other end. When you turn it over, they’re going to convert on the other end. That’s where it started for us. We actually got off to a good start, had a six-point lead about seven minutes into the game and then the wheels completely fell off. And then we got faster when we needed to slow down and take a breath. It’s what happened in the Michigan State game the other night, they tried to get it back at once and you can’t do that against the talent that Iowa has.”
That talent includes one of the leading contenders for national player of the year in sophomore forward Keegan Murray, who is leading the Big Ten at 23.5 points per game. He dropped a career-high 37 points on the Huskers in their first meeting this season with much of that damage done in transition. At 6-foot-8, Murray is shooting 56.4% from the field including 37% from 3, and he’s attempting 5.5 free throws per game.
“He’s obviously done an unbelievable job,” Hoiberg said. “He got a taste of it as a freshman and with [Luka] Garza, not only Garza but with [Joe] Wieskamp, with a couple of key players that are playing in the NBA right now, he has stepped in and filled that void beautifully. The speed, they are top 10 in the nation in pace. They really get that thing up the floor and they can expose you. But with Murray, he’s as versatile as anybody I’ve seen and the way he has stepped in after a pretty minimal role a year ago has been phenomenal.
“It’s not fun to have to figure out how you’re going to do it because when you talk three-level score — we use that term probably more than we should — he’s a perfect example of a legit three-level scorer, and they’ll play him in some small ball lineups as well and that puts you really in a tough bind. So it’s about going out there and hopefully making him take tough shots, understanding he’s probably going to make some of those but not dropping your head when it happens.”
Murray isn’t a one-man show, however. The Huskers will have to deal with three other double-digit scorers as well in super senior sharp-shooter Jordan Bohannon (10.7 points per game, 37.5% from 3), sophomore Patrick McCaffery (10.8 points per game) and Keegan Murray’s twin brother Kris (10.6 points per game, 40.5% from 3).
Iowa is one of the best offensive teams in the country — fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom with the lowest turnover rate in the country at 12.4%. The Huskers shot 31% from the field and turned the ball over 12 times in the first half in Iowa City, leading to a 28-point halftime deficit as the high-powered Hawkeyes capitalized on most of Nebraska’s mistakes.
“The biggest thing is you just have to value the possession and you have to have quality possessions and get the ball moving, get it side to side,” Hoiberg said. “We actually had a really good offensive second half. We scored 50 points in the second half, but we were in such a hole because of the turnovers, because of the missed attempts at the rim, where they converted off of us.”
As efficient as the Hawkeyes can be offensively (65th nationally in effective field goal percentage at 52.6%), another way they win the possession battle is by crashing the offensive glass. Iowa is 65th nationally with a 31.8% offensive rebounding rate.
“They had 20 of them against a very physical Ohio State team on the road, had double-digit offensive rebounds against Michigan and Michigan State,” Hoiberg said. “So you get three of the more physical teams in our league where they’ve given themselves that many more opportunities, so that’s huge. If you give Iowa, a team of that caliber that’s as high-powered as they are, extra bullets with turnovers, with offensive rebounds, you’re going to be in for a tough night. You’re not going to beat them if you give them that many extra opportunities. So ball security and rebounding are going to be two of the biggest keys for our game tomorrow night.”
Friday could be Bryce McGowens’ final game at Pinnacle Bank Arena as he continues to garner NBA Draft attention. Nebraska is scheduled to host at least 15 different NBA teams including some “high-level decision-makers” to see McGowens and Keegan Murray face off. Despite arriving in Lincoln as a 5-star prospect and breaking the school’s freshman scoring record, Hoiberg praised McGowens for his humility.
“I point to his parents,” Hoiberg said. “When we started the recruiting process when he opened it back up, he had such a great upbringing, mom and dad raised him the right way, he and Trey. ‘Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am.’ They’re just all about the right things, very polite, and you don’t always get that, especially when you have as much attention and as much things with entitlement with some of these highly-rank players, we had none of that. He comes in to work, comes in on his off days to get better. You see firsthand what he went through early in this year with really struggling with the physicality that teams were playing against him and just how he’s grown through that in the middle of the year, which is not easy to do.
“To go past the great Dave Hoppen in the scoring for a freshman is pretty impressive. I know Dave sent him a nice message, which was awesome; he’s a great person. And, again, you saw Bryce’s response. That’s just how humble he is, it’s what he’s all about.”
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday is set for 8 p.m. CT on FS1 with Bob Brainerd and Jess Settles on the call. The Senior Night ceremony is tentatively scheduled for 7:40 p.m.
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.