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Padding the Stats: Recognizing Special Talent, Handshake Lines and All-Star Weekend

February 23, 2022

Nebraska lost again on Tuesday night, which is unfortunate because it’s going to overshadow what Bryce McGowens accomplished.

Through his first 27 games as a Husker, McGowens has scored 452 points, which moved him past Dave Hoppen on the program’s freshman scoring chart. Hoppen’s record was 445 points in 32 games — a 13.9 average. McGowens broke that record in just 27 games and, at 16.7 points per game, he is the second-leading scorer nationally among freshmen behind only Duke’s Paolo Banchero (16.9).

With four straight Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors and seven overall, McGowens is the runaway favorite for conference freshman of the year. But with seven total wins (for the third straight year), this isn’t going to be something Nebraska fans are likely to recall fondly down the road, and that really is a shame.

When McGowens committed to Nebraska, he did it largely for three reasons: he wanted to play with his brother, he wanted to have a chance to showcase his ability in a featured role and he wanted to help take the program to a new level. This season hasn’t gone according to plan in any of those areas.

Trey McGowens broke his foot three games into the season and has spent more games on the bench than on the court alongside Bryce so far this season. The thought of postseason success is clearly out the window. Bryce has certainly had the offensive freedom to showcase what he’s capable of (as evidenced by the program record mentioned above), but I don’t think he’s helped himself as far as his draft stock as he is shooting just 39.6% from the field including 26.6% from 3.

On that last point, it’s incredibly difficult to judge McGowens because of the lack of help around him. He is at the top of every scouting report and Nebraska is lacking both playmakers to create easy looks for him and consistent floor-spacers to make room for him to make plays himself. I think McGowens wanted a lot put on his shoulders, but he was probably still hoping for a more functional supporting cast when he picked Nebraska. Even so, Synergy rates him in the 63rd percentile overall as he’s scored 0.921 points per possession despite the difficult shot profile (considered “good”).

According to Synergy, on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers in the half court this season, he’s shooting 41.2% (1.235 points per possession, 66th percentile nationally). On guarded catch-and-shoot shots he’s at 21.3% (on 13 more attempts) and he’s at 25% shooting on all jump shots off the dribble (and he’s taken nearly as many shots off the dribble as off the catch). Based on those open catch-and-shoot numbers and his track record from high school, I think it’s safe to say he’s a better shooter than he’s shown this season. He’s just had to take a lot of difficult shots.

McGowens has also shown the ability to get to the free-throw line at a high rate (he’s second in the conference in attempts and first in makes this season), which has buoyed his efficiency a bit, offsetting his low percentage from the field. 

I’m laying all this out here because I hope fans can at least appreciate his talent, even if it hasn’t always led to hyper-efficient play or, more importantly, wins. I think NBA scouts will dive into those numbers, examine his situation and see his physical tools, and that will be enough to make him a first-round pick, or at worst an early second with a guaranteed contract. I don’t expect to see him back next year.

Friday will likely be the last game at Pinnacle Bank Arena for Nebraska’s first 5-star recruit. I hope he and the team’s seniors — up to six of them could participate in the ceremony (Trey McGowens, Derrick Walker and Lat Mayen could opt to join the Alonzo Verge Jr., Kobe Webster and Trevor Lakes) — get a nice ovation from the fans. Webster and Walker took part in last year’s senior day before opting to return, but without fans in the arena it was a completely different experience and they deserve the normal reception seniors get across the country. This group didn’t accomplish the goals they had in mind when they came together, but that’s not entirely on them.

A guy like Derrick Walker in particular deserves recognition for what he’s accomplished this season. He’s the most improved player on the team and has been the most steady performer for long stretches. Hoiberg changed their offense to go through him more in recognition of his growth (in addition to the desperation of the situation). He’s worked hard, he’s done whatever the team’s asked of him (whether that be scoring, defending, rebounding or setting up others) and he’s tried to be a leader on a team in desperate need of leadership. He’s turned himself into a quality Big Ten player who is getting the most out of what he has.

Friday’s game against Iowa is one more opportunity to see Bryce McGowens in person at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It’s one more opportunity to recognize Walker’s growth and Trey McGowens’ defensive intensity and Kobe Webster’s shot-making and Verge’s playmaking and whatever redeeming qualities you can find on this team. Some of these guys may be back, but there’s certainly no guarantee of that.

As disappointed as fans may be, I can pretty much guarantee you the players feel even worse about the team’s record. Nobody wanted the season to go this way. The only thing now is to try to find whatever small bits of this team that you can enjoy and wait to see what the future holds.

Couple more quick hits:

>> Hand shake lines has been the hot topic this week following a couple of recent post-game incidents including the one between Wisconsin and Michigan that left Juwan Howard and three players suspended.

I’ve heard the calls to discontinue handshake lines and I’ve seen Tom Izzo’s impassioned defense of the institution. Personally, I’m pretty ambivalent, though I side more with doing away with them if I had to choose.

Handshake lines are supposed to be the “ultimate show of sportsmanship” as I’ve seen it phrased. There is certainly something to giving props to an opponent after hard-fought battle. But I think it’s a pretty hollow gesture if it’s essentially something athletes are required to do and not something they actively choose to do themselves.

I’m all for handshake lines at the youth level. But by the time athletes (and coaches) get to the college level and beyond, you’re not teaching them anything about sportsmanship. They’ve already decided for themselves by that point how they’re going to act in either victory or defeat.

I coach grassroots basketball at the high school level. Typically after a game, we go through handshake lines. That stopped during the summer of 2020 as we played through the pandemic where the post-game procedure was to essentially clear out as soon as the game was over. Perhaps you’d give a wave or some sort of acknowledgement from afar, but that was it. The kids I coached didn’t suddenly turn into dirty players because they weren’t shaking hands after games.

I play pick-up basketball quite frequently myself, and typically we shake hands or bump fists after a game on our way off the court, but I don’t necessarily go out of my way to make sure I say “good game” to each and every player on the floor.

If you’d like to go seek out an opponent or several after a game, more power to you. But requiring handshake lines is a pretty hollow gesture in my mind and I don’t think collegiate sports would be losing out on anything without them.

>> My last word is on the NBA All-Star weekend. 

The dunk contest was absolutely terrible, one of the worst I’ve seen. “How do we fix the dunk contest?” Is a question I hear almost every year. I’ve heard all kinds of ideas for solutions, including requiring young All-Stars to compete in at least one of the Saturday competitions. Fans seem to always be talking about how we need to get more star power in the contest.

The truth is there’s no way to guarantee a great dunk contest, no matter what rules changes you enact. I don’t agree at all with requiring anybody who doesn’t want to do it to compete, nor do I think that will help in any way. I think the “in-game versus contest dunker” thing is very real, and while some guys look great showing down in games, they may not feel comfortable or creative enough to come up with and execute dunks that would score well in a contest.

We’re closing in on 50 years of dunk contests, and with each passing year it gets harder and harder to come up with something new and fresh. Humans — even the most athletic among us — have their limitations, and there are only so many ways to put a ball through a ring.

People yearn for the dunk contests of the ‘80s and ‘90s and even a few from the 2000s. When you think of dunk contests, names like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Vince Carter come to mind. But we had one of the best contests of all time not too long ago in 2016, featuring Eric Gordon facing off with Zach LaVine.

The contest will always come down to whether or not the league can identify a good group, and then whether or not those guys can get their dunks down on the first or second try. Nothing spoils a good dunk contest by watching a guy miss over and over again, because even if he eventually makes it the excitement is gone. This was a bad year for guys getting their dunks down early, and that dragged the whole contest down. That being said, I don’t think getting stars to compete will automatically make it any better. I’d rather just see a great dunker than a big name. Gerald Green was fantastic in 2007 and 2008, and Derrick Jones Jr. did some really cool stuff as well. Those guys weren’t stars, they were just athletic freaks with creativity, and they executed.

There is no way to fix the dunk contest. Some years the league will strike gold, and some years they won’t. This year certainly fell into the latter category.

As for the All-Star Game itself, I loved the format. The target score in the fourth quarter really ramps up the competitiveness late, and that final period ending in the crazy game-winner from LeBron James back in Cleveland was as good as you’re going to see in that setting. 

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