Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Decision-Making Will Determine 2021-22 Outlook for Nebraska

October 06, 2021

It seems hard to believe, but basketball season has almost arrived.

The NBA is already back with the preseason tipping off this week and college basketball won’t be far behind. Teams across the country have begun practicing in preparation for the 2021-22 season, and that includes Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers.

Tuesday’s pro day was my first look at this year’s team (I was covering volleyball during the Opening Night), and it got me pretty fired up for the upcoming season. For the first time since Hoiberg arrived it Lincoln, it feels like he has the kind of roster that can play the way he wants to play and have success doing it.

I typed up most of my on-court observations in my notebook post on Tuesday, but one thing I didn’t touch on that stood out to me was something I saw off to the side. Throughout the practice and for each drill or segment, a manager was tracking turnovers.

Making simple plays has been one of Hoiberg’s recurring themes throughout his first couple of seasons in Lincoln.

In year one, the team did a good job of adopting Hoiberg’s general philosophy of focusing on 3s and layups and eschewing mid-range jumpers as much as possible. However, that team lacked shooters (31.8% from 3) and it got blocked more than any team in the country.

Last year, the team made slight improvements in 3-point shooting, finishing at the rim and free-throw shooting. However, the Huskers also had more turnovers than assists on the season, and ultimately Nebraska finished with the same amount of wins as in year one: seven.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising to see Hoiberg harping on ball security and decision-making early on heading into year three.

Hoiberg said perimeter shooting is the biggest roster upgrade from last year, and Tuesday’s pro day seemed to back that up. We know Kobe Webster (38% last year) can shoot the ball. Trey McGowens made significant improvements last year and shot 36.7% on a fairly small sample size. Lat Mayen is certainly capable, though he needs to improve on the 34.8% he shot last year. All of those guys are back and should play significant roles.

Keisei Tominaga and C.J. Wilcher were brought to Lincoln to shoot the ball, and that’s definitely what they did on Tuesday. Trevor Lakes — who started the day with the third unit on Tuesday — made more 3s than anyone during the course of the two-hour practice. DePaul transfer Keon Edwards has drawn praise for his shooting prowess as well and he didn’t even participate on Tuesday. And of course, Bryce McGowens is a bucket-getter with deep range and a smooth stroke.

I don’t know that Nebraska is going to shoot 40% from 3 this year, but I’ve seen enough to think the Huskers will be able to shoot well enough to play the way Hoiberg wants. The key now is going to be taking the right shots (and taking care of the ball long enough to get a good shot off).

That’s where Arizona State grad transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. enters the picture. On Tuesday, Verge showed off the quickness and playmaking ability that made him an attractive option for Hoiberg and Matt Abdelmassih after Dalano Banton decided to keep his name in the NBA Draft. He’s tough to keep out of the paint and drew a number of fouls during the live periods. He had a couple of tough buckets off the bounce and threw a sick skip pass to a teammate for an open shot.

However, shortly after the skip pass he tried to throw a tough hit-ahead pass to Trey McGowens in transition and missed his mark, leading to a turnover. Late in the first five-on-five live scrimmage, the red team (made up of presumed starters Verge, McGowens, McGowens, Mayen and Derrick Walker) trailed by three with about 20 seconds left. Verge never gave the ball up and didn’t create an advantage, ultimately forcing up a terrible shot with about 10 seconds to go that never had a chance.

Verge shot under 40% from the field last season including 41.4% inside the arc and had a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. Interestingly enough, Trey McGowens shot an identical 39.1% from the field last season including an even worse 40.2% on 2-pointers, and he had a 1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio as well. How far this team goes might come down to how those two mesh and what kind of a leap they can make in efficiency.

I mentioned the expected starting lineup, but in watching the team on Tuesday I couldn’t help but think Hoiberg might want to lean into staggering quite a bit this season to get one of the snipers (Webster, Tominaga or Wilcher) playing with the starters and one of Verge or Trey McGowens running he second unit. There’s a lot of overlap in strengths and weaknesses between Verge and McGowens, and a backcourt of Webster, Tominaga and Wilcher is lacking somewhat in athleticism and playmaking off the bounce.

Hoiberg himself said establishing a rotation will be his biggest challenge this season, and after seeing the team on Tuesday I can understand where he’s coming from. With a returning core of five returners who saw significant playing time, eight scholarship newcomers and a guy like Lakes looking to crack the rotation, he’s going to have some tough calls.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together later this month when Nebraska opens the season with a couple of exhibition games.

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