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Padding the Stats: On Press Conferences, Nebrasketball and the NBA Finals

July 21, 2021

On Tuesday morning, I hopped on I-80 to make the drive from Omaha down to the Hendricks Training Complex in Lincoln. It’s a trip I’ve made countless times during my six years covering Nebraska basketball, but this time was different.

It was my first trip down to Lincoln for an in-person press conference since before the pandemic hit in March of 2020. Over the past 17 months, all my interactions with student-athletes and coaches have been over the phone or Zoom, even those that have following games that I’ve covered in person.

I wrote about Lat Mayen and Trey McGowens all last season, and Tuesday was the first time I spoke with either of them face-to-face. I shook Mayen’s hand, and I got the chance to meet newcomers Wilhelm Breidenbach, C.J. Wilcher and Bryce McGowens as well.

Between the five players, the assembled media got nearly a full hour’s worth of interviews in a more casual, free-flowing setting than a Zoom press conference can provide, and I think it produced some pretty good conversations.

With August just around the corner, I’m very much looking forward to getting back into the normal swing of beat coverage, to speaking with coaches and athletes in person again and bringing their stories to you. I’m also excited to attend football games again after a year of coverage from home; the last game I attended was the Iowa game at the end of the 2019 season.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over by any means, but it’s a great sign that we’ve progressed enough to get back to in-person coverage of the sports you want to read about. Fewer commutes to Lincoln over the past year-and-a-half certainly has been more convenient for me personally as an Omaha resident, but coverage suffers when it’s almost entirely remote.

As for the media session itself, here are a few highlights that stuck out to me.

>> Wilhelm Breidenbach definitely looked taller in person than he did on YouTube. He offered one explanation for why that might be.

>> Both Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. (who just started practicing with the team on Monday) and freshman Quaran McPherson received the “dog” label from teammates for the way they’ve played in scrimmages. C.J. Wilcher highlighted McPerson — “Q” — as one of the most vocal players on the team as well.

>> The pair of returners we spoke to both have set incredibly high goals for themselves. Trey McGowens said he wants to be one of the best passers in the country. He’s really embracing the point guard role with Dalano Banton deciding to keep his name in the 2021 NBA Draft. He only averaged 2.3 assists per game as a junior, but dished out five, five, five and four assists in four of his last five games. Lat Mayen, who shot 34.8% from deep in his first season as a Husker, wants to lead the Big Ten in 3-point percentage as well.

>> Trey McGowens said he knew DePaul transfer Keon Edwards was athletic, but he was surprised by how well the 6-foot-7 wing can shoot the ball as well. Edwards had a big day in practice on Tuesday and Wilcher called him one of the best shooters on the team alongside Kobe Webster, Mayen and Bryce McGowens. Of curse, Wilcher had himself No. 1 on that list.

>> Bryce McGowens said he has a vision board in his room with both daily and long-term goals written out. He looks at it every morning to keep himself focused. Can’t say I’ve heard of many (or any) other 18-year-olds with one of those.

We’ll have more from this media session int he coming days, and we’re scheduled to get a chance to talk to five more Huskers next week as well.

However, I’d be remiss to not touch on the NBA Finals in this space before I go.

The Bucks closed out the series in Milwaukee in game six on Tuesday night. Giannis Antetokounmpo capped an all-time series with an historical performance — 50 points on 16-of-25 from the field and 17-of-19 from the free-throw line, 14 rebounds and five blocks.

He’s the first player in Finals History to clear 50 points, 10 boards and five blocks in a game since the NBA officially began tracking blocks in 1973-74. He’s just the second player to record three games of 40-plus points and 40-plus rebounds in the Finals, joining Shaquille O’Neal. He averaged 35.2 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists, joining only LeBron James as players to hit those thresholds in the Finals. He received the Finals MVP award, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players who have won regular season MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Oh, and he’s only 26 years old.

Antetokounmpo’s game six performance was a masterpiece. There wasn’t anything the Suns could do to stop him. He was getting to the rim at will against any and everyone the Suns tried on him, hitting tough jumpers and even knocking down his free throws (which had been an issue for him throughout the playoffs). The rest of Milwaukee’s starters combined for 39 points on 15-of-43 shooting, but it didn’t matter because the Bucks’ defense was spectacular and Giannis carried the team on offense.

After struggling in games three through five, Chris Paul rose to the occasion and got himself into a rhythm. However, the Suns’ young core just wasn’t ready for the moment. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton all came up small when the team needed them most, and a 36-year-old Paul can’t match a 26-year-old Antetokounmpo.

However, all three also had some spectacular performances during their first playoff run, and they’re just 24, 24 and 22 years old, respectively. Booker’s explosion in game six against the Lakers, Paul’s domination of the Nuggets in game four of the second round and Ayton’s Valley-oop against the Clippers are just a few of the moments that I’ll never forget as a Suns fan.

As the Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder showed us, there are no guarantees that talented young team will ever make it back to the Finals (sorry, Derek). That realization plus Paul’s age makes this loss all the more painful. That being said, with what the Suns showed this year, I don’t think they’re going anywhere and I’m looking forward to many more playoff runs with this group.

I’ll let Ayton sum it up for me.

“Even though we lost it was still fun.”

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