It’s no secret that Nebraska is the only high-major men’s basketball team without an NCAA Tournament win. The lack of postseason success hasn’t hampered Fred Hoiberg’s recruiting efforts, however.
Hoiberg just signed the best recruiting class in program history (at least since the advent of the recruiting websites), and changing the narrative about the Nebraska basketball program is top of mind for the newcomers. Bryce McGowens, the first 5-star recruit to sign with the program out of high school, said that opportunity was one of the things that drew him to Lincoln.
“Being able to start a new wave, bring a different type of swagger to a university that’s not really known for basketball, and just being able to bring a great group of guys in, coaching staff, and have the fan base around it to really build us up and help us go out and compete,” McGowens said.
The fan base is a big deal and a motivating factor for the new Huskers, including Xavier transfer C.J. Wilcher.
“We talk about the history here a lot,” Wilcher said. “There’s not much as it pertains to basketball, so that’s what we’re shooting for, just make history, be a part of those teams that make history here. One thing I like about here is it’s a college town, so we’re always supported. So being able to make that history I think would be big for us.”
Wilhelm Breidenbach, a 4-star forward from California, echoed Wilcher’s thoughts — it’s a constant topic of discussion.
“All of us have talked about it too,” Breidenbach said. “Obviously nobody came here to lose; we all want to win and we’ve all kind of identified that we have a team that can turn it around. Pretty much every day we talk about it, like ‘We can do it.’ It’s just a matter of we have to get into that position.”
Winning an NCAA Tournament game might seem like a lofty goal for a program coming off back-to-back seven-win seasons, but Wilcher said you wouldn’t be able to tell Nebraska has a .237 winning percentage so far under Hoiberg.
“I feel like if you were to watch our practice and the energy that we give throughout practice, I don’t think you could tell what the history was the past couple years,” Wilcher said. “I feel like we are all focused on the present and moving forward and getting better. Those past few seasons aren’t really something that the coaches harp on, really. Of course it’s something that they think about or present to us, talk to us about, because we don’t want to go backwards, go back to that. But I think we’re just more so moving forward and getting better.”
The newcomers aren’t the only ones with their sights set on the postseason. Trey McGowens, who went through the 7-20 2020-21 campaign after transferring from Pittsburgh, knew full well the Huskers needed a talent upgrade to break through, and he was active as a peer recruiter. That includes luring his younger brother Bryce to Lincoln.
“Especially coming off last year, I knew the pieces I would like to have around me so I could help take this team to the NCAA Tournament and do big things, get that first win, stuff like that,” Trey McGowens said. “I’m thinking of it as this is my last year, so I have goals that I want to accomplish. I’ve never made an NCAA Tournament, so that’s definitely No. 1 on my list. I feel like if we do that and we win, all the personal goals will come.”
Of course, the 2020-21 season was anything but ordinary. The pandemic robbed a team with heavy roster turnover of a typical offseason, and then a COVID-19 shutdown midseason derailed whatever momentum the Huskers were trying to build up and set them up with a brutally tough schedule to finish the season.
“As a team, we couldn’t get in the gym with each other, more than like two, three guys,” Trey McGowens said. “And then we couldn’t really bond as a team all together without COVID protocols. Whether everybody just comes to my house to hang out, go to someone else’s, go to Coach’s, just being together, building a relationship with each other to where if something goes wrong we can talk to each other.”
Lat Mayen, another returner, highlighted the importance of a normal offseason to team chemistry and said this years group clicked instantly.
“We know in order to win we have to build chemistry, we’ve got to like each other, we’ve got to like playing with each other, we have to like hanging out with each other,” Mayen said. “When everybody came in, we just kind of clicked … We go to Coach’s house, we go to movies, we go bowling, we’re about to go to Topgolf on Friday as a team. So we definitely do a lot of stuff outside practice together.”
That chemistry will be key once the season rolls around because Mayen said in order for the Huskers to achieve their goals it’s going to take contributions from everyone on the roster.
“We need everybody,” Mayen said. “Everything is interchangeable. There are going to be games where you come in and you might only get five shots, and next game you might get 15 shots. That’s just how the offense is and everybody just has to step up when it’s time to step up. We definitely need everybody for sure.”
McGowens is looking forward to getting a boost from the crowd as well. Despite having a full season as a Husker under his belt, he has yet to experience a full Pinnacle Bank Arena because of the pandemic.
“After last season, I was just excited because I heard so much about PBA and then to not be able to experience it… I watched old games just to see it,” McGowens said. “It’s on the wallpaper on the wall in the locker room, it was packed. It’s definitely different from anywhere I’ve been for sure.”
Right now, Nebraska is the answer to a trivia question. This new group of Huskers came to Lincoln to change that, however, and with an experienced group of returners setting the tone and leading the way, they feel they have what it takes to make that happen.
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.