We’re just 10 games in, but already it seems like an Alonzo Verge Jr. possession at Pinnacle Bank Arena is more likely to be met with quiet murmurs of discontent, audible calls to pass the ball or outright boos than cheers.
It certainly has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for Verge at Nebraska. The Arizona State transfer had some spectacular moments, but there have also been far too many head-scratching ones (to put it kindly). Fred Hoiberg has straight up benched him a couple times when the tunnel vision has gotten really bad.
However, in Tuesday’s 102-67 loss to Michigan, Verge was the only reason the Huskers didn’t get beat by 50 (or more), even though I still had fans in my mentions telling me that he was the problem and that he needed to pass the ball more.
Quick box score numbers for you: Verge shot 12-of-21 from the field (1-of-3 from 3) and 6-of-6 from the line with three assists and four turnovers. The rest of the Huskers combined were 11-of-51 from the field (4-of-32 from 3) and 10-of-15 from the foul line with three assists and five turnovers.
For most of that game, Verge was the only one who was able to actually get the ball through the hoop. You might say something like “Well, it’s hard for everyone else to get in a rhythm if one guy is dominating the ball.” While that suggestion does have merit, I don’t think it really applied to this game.
I went through and watched every possession for which Verge was on the floor. There were 57 of them, although he didn’t touch the ball on six of them. So we’ll say Verge was involved on 51 possessions in his 33 minutes on the floor.
I counted 51 passes. Of those 51 passes, 16 generated assist opportunities (when a pass leads directly to a shot for a teammate). Three of those shots he generated went in. T-H-R-E-E.
Conversely, Verge had 14 no-pass possessions, and he scored on 10 of them, generating 21 points.
If you’re wondering about how Nebraska fared when Verge was off the court, the Huskers shot 2-of-14 (0-of-6 from 3) and turned the ball over once in the 6:42 he spent on the bench (I’m excluding the last three-minutes-and-change of the game after Hoiberg began sending walk-ons in). And if you’re wondering about the six possessions when Verge was on the court but never touched the ball, the Huskers scored on just one of them (0-of-3 shooting with two turnovers and one shooting foul).
Verge actually tried to keep others involved early on; his first possession without a pass didn’t come until inside of five minutes to play in the first half. Unfortunately, nobody else was able to do much with it.
Verge probably had some flashbacks to his junior year at Arizona State, when he scored 43 points in a 96-56 loss to St Mary’s.
In watching Nebraska’s first two Big Ten games, I couldn’t help but feel my own bit of déjà vu. It made me think back to last season, when Teddy Allen was getting a similar kind of reception from the fan base.
Some of it was certainly deserved. The ball stuck in Allen’s hands, a lot. He took a lot of very difficult shots, some of them early in the shot clock. Even so, he led the team in scoring and was third in assists, and he was the most efficient perimeter scorer on the team by a significant margin, even with the high degree of difficulty on a lot of his shots.
The truth is, Allen was Nebraska’s best option much more often than not, and he knew it. The lack of reliable shot creation around him led to Allen often trying to do too much on his own, and I’m seeing that now with Verge as well.
After seeing his team shooting 31.8% and 33.3% from 3 in his first two seasons in Lincoln, Hoiberg and his staff made a concerted effort to add perimeter shooting to the team. They signed Keisei Tominaga out of junior college, Bryce McGowens and Wilhelm Breidenbach from the high school ranks and C.J. Wilcher and Keon Edwards out of the transfer portal. While each of them has their own unique strengths, they all had reputations as good 3-point shooters.
Well, that group is shooting a combined 25.3% from 3 this season. The returners expected to be reliable perimeter shooters haven’t fared any better as Kobe Webster and Lat Mayen are shooting a combined 28.1%.
After Tuesday’s worst-of-the Hoiberg-era performance from 3 against Michigan, Nebraska is now 350th in the country in 3-point percentage, according to KenPom.com. That is a massive problem in its own right, but it becomes even bigger when you don’t really have much of a plan B, and for a lot of the players on this roster, they don’t have one.
None of Tominaga, Webster, Wilcher or Mayen are adept at creating offense off the dribble against good defenses. Derrick Walker has been incredibly efficient this season — and Nebraska can’t afford for him to go an entire game without an actual field goal attempt like he did against Michigan — he’s a 6-foot-8 center in a conference filled with giants and shoots such a high percentage in part because he’s mostly positioning himself for easy looks and playing off of others rather than creating opportunities for himself.
Moving the ball is all well and good, but passing by itself isn’t going to lead to points. Eventually, someone is going to have to create an advantage, especially if 3s aren’t falling.
With Trey McGowens on the shelf (though it sounds like he’s leaning closer to the six than the eight in his six-to-eight-week recovery timeline), Verge and Bryce McGowens are really the only guys that you can consistently expect to put pressure on a defense and create advantages for themselves and others.
After a terrific start to the season, McGowens is shooting 30.4% from the field in his last three, and he’s scored eight points in each of the last two. He attempted just two shots (and four free throws) in the second half against Michigan, and he has just two assists total in his last three after dishing out 15 of them the first four games after his brother’s injury.
Nebraska needs more from McGowens, and Hoiberg has to find a way to put him in situations where he can have success and make an impact. He’s the one guy besides Verge than can put pressure on the rim of the bounce, and he can create for himself and others out of the pick-and-roll as well.
Early on, I thought managing Verge was going to be Hoiberg’s biggest challenge this season. On Tuesday, however, it was everyone else that needed the help. A frustrated and dejected Hoiberg said after the Michigan game that he’s going to “consider everything” in the next two days before the Huskers head down to Atlanta to take on a ranked Auburn team on Saturday, and he needs to because what they’re doing right now isn’t working, and that isn’t because of Verge.
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.