After the season opener did not go according to plan, the Cornhuskers find themselves looking to bounce back in the second game of the season on Friday.
The Huskers fell to Western Illinois, 75-74, at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday to start the season 0-1, and now will face Sam Houston.
“It’s been two tough, physical days of practice after a long film session on Wednesday morning, so hopefully the guys carry that over to the game,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We’re going to have to. We’re playing a very physical team tomorrow. They hang their hat on toughness. They had 27 offensive rebounds last night in their opener, and this team will play as hard as any team we play all year. We have to be ready for it, obviously, with what’s happened to us early on in the season, especially in the opener.”
The Huskers gave up 23 offensive rebounds (leading to 22 second-chance points) against Western Illinois, and Trey McGowens said the team watched every one of them during film study.
“The mentality of our players the last two days has been very good,” Hoiberg said. “They understand it. They were embarrassed, I think, how we got manhandled — all of us are — how we got manhandled on the boards and we’ve got to correct it. If not, it’s going to be a very long season.”
The Bearkats went 19-9 last season and finished third in the Southland conference. They averaged 11.4 offensive rebounds per game despite not having a player taller than 6-foot-8 in their regular rotation.
“I’ve got great respect for Coach [Jason] Hooten and how he approaches it and the toughness that he instills in his players, and we’ve got to come out and make sure that we don’t get outmatched from a physical standpoint,” Hoiberg said. “That’s been the big emphasis the last two days.”
Sam Houston opened its season with a 87-54 win over a Division III foe, LeTourneau. The Bearkats rebounded nearly half their misses, finishing with 27 offensive boards and 23 second-chance points.
“The way they start games, last night I think it was 12 to nothing right out of the gate,” Hoiberg said. “They pressure, they were 12th in the nation last year in steal rate and forcing turnovers. So that and rebounding — No. 24, who I thought was a key for Western Illinois the other night, they’ll have four of those guys on the floor at all times coming after you and a lot of skill. [Savion] Flagg, Texas A&M transfer, unbelievably talented player, and then an all-league player [Demarkus Lampley] back from last season as well from a team that went 13-3. So again, it’s going to be a very tough challenge and our guys need to be up for it.”
No. 24 for Western Illinois is George Dixon, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound guard who corralled seven offensive rebounds off the bench. Flagg, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound wing, was the tallest player in Sam Houston’s starting lineup on Friday, and he’ll be at the top of Nebraska’s scouting report. Tristan Ikpe (6-foot-6, 210 pounds) and Javion May (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) combined for 11 offensive rebounds between them.
McGowens said he watched some film and then watched Sam Houston’s opener on Wednesday and highlighted their intensity as his key takeaway.
“I told the guys when I got here this morning, I feel like they really just shoot just so they can rebound,” McGowens said. “That’s something they really pride themselves in. And then on the defensive end they just get after it, a bunch of junkyard dogs. And they’re not afraid to miss, so their confidence will be even higher because of that.”
Flagg averaged 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists during his four-year career at Texas A&M. His sophomore season was his best as he put up 13.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game before seeing his playing time and scoring average drop each of the last two years.
Lampley, a 6-foot-2, 170-pound guard, is the team’s leading returning scorer after putting up 14.6 points per game and shooting 39.9% from 3 last season.
Rebounding wasn’t the only area Nebraska struggled in against the Leathernecks on Tuesday. The Huskers shot just 39% from the field with six assists on 23 field goals and 12 turnovers. Alonzo Verge Jr. and Bryce McGowens attempted 38 of Nebraska’s 59 shots from the field, and roughly 70% of Nebraska’s possession included just one or zero passes as the ball-handler often looked to attack a mismatch off the bounce from the start against Sam Houston’s switching defense without moving the ball first.
“Obviously we’ve got to move the ball,” Hoiberg said. “The team that was out there, especially in that first half, we just hadn’t seen that all year and then the lights turn on when we just tried to do things differently and obviously that’s a message you try to take to your players is once you start playing you just have to fall back on your habits and everything that you’ve worked on. We went away from that. We had one assist in the first half. Second half, even though it wasn’t exactly how we wanted it, we still scored 42 points and I think shot 47%. But we’ve got to get that thing moving. We’ve got to set the tone early with much better movement, ball movement and player movement.”
The Huskers could be getting some reinforcements on Friday as Lat Mayen (ankle) and Kobe Webster (back) practiced on Friday after missing Tuesday’s game. Hoiberg is hopeful to have them available against the Bearkats depending on how they respond to “a tough day of practice.”
Tipoff on Friday is set for 7:30 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network+ featuring Jessica Coody and Nebraska director of player development Buzzy Caruthers on the call.
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.