Year three for Fred Hoiberg came to an end for Nebraska last week with an opening-game loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament.
For the first time since Hoiberg took over in Lincoln, the Huskers finished above 14th place and with more than seven wins, but 10 wins and a 13 seed was only a slight improvement and certainly well short of what the Huskers (and their fans) were hoping to accomplish this season.
However, the late season surge certainly cast this season and the future in a slightly different light. For the first time, the Huskers kind of looked like a Fred Hoiberg team. Nebraska shot 50% or better in eight of the last 10 halves of the season and shot just over 44% from 3 over its last five games.
The driving force behind that late-season offensive success was Alonzo Verge Jr.
When Nebraska lost Dalano Banton to the NBA Draft last summer, the coaches turned to the transfer portal and looked to land the most talented player they could to fill the void. That ended up being Verge, the 2019-20 Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year who played alongside a ball-dominant point guard in Remy Martin during his two seasons at Arizona State.
After the season, Verge entered the transfer portal while also testing the NBA Draft waters. He eventually withdrew from the draft process and chose to take advantage of his fifth season of eligibility. He wanted to develop as a point guard. The Huskers needed a point guard.
Verge arrived in Lincoln in July, and it’s been a bumpy ride ever since. For long stretches, the ball has stuck in his hands, he’s forced shots up and he’s turned the ball over while trying to do too much. Some of that was on him, some was on the lineups Nebraska had out there. Many fans, both online and in the arena, seemed to focus their frustrations on him.
Verge showcased what he was capable of in the exhibition blowout of Colorado, but that seemed to be a flash in the pan as the season played out. Over his first 11 Big Ten games, Verge averaged 12.0 points on 42% shooting, 3.0 free-throw attempts, 4.0 assists and 3.2 turnovers in 22.3 minutes per game. Hoiberg benched him on multiple occasions. It seemed like for every positive play (and he had his fair share) there was a negative one to cancel it out.
However, things seemed to start clicking for him during Nebraska’s win over Minnesota, the team’s first conference victory. Over his last nine games, he averaged 16.5 points on 51.4% shooting, 4.6 free throws, 6.0 assists and 3.1 turnovers in 29.7 minutes per game. His decision-making improved as he adjusted to his role, his teammates and Hoiberg’s system. He gained a better understanding of how to be successful, and the Huskers started to win as a result. The Wisconsin game was particularly impressive as he put the team on his back in the second half without the McGowens brothers and carried the Huskers to the finish line against a top-10 team on the road.
Verge praised Hoiberg for helping him grow as a point guard this season, and we saw the fruits of that development late in the year. Credit goes to Verge for continuing to put in the work and evolve as a player. His decision-making and playing style didn’t do him any favors, but he probably didn’t deserve the amount of heat that he got at times and the team would have been in a worse play without him.
However, now we’ve seen what a Fred Hoiberg team with good point guard play can do, and Verge won’t be back next season. Hoiberg can’t afford to wait 28 games before things start to click — he needs to show progress right away next season.
Verge and Kobe Webster will be gone for sure, and it seems unlikely that either of Bryce or Trey McGowens will be back. Those four essentially handled all of the dribbling and playmaking duties for Nebraska this season. The point guard spot is the biggest hole on the roster heading into next season (at this stage), and whoever fills that void has to be ready to roll from day one.
Quaran McPherson redshirted this season and 4-star combo-guard Ramel Lloyd Jr. signed back in the early signing period, but having either of them as the opening day starting point guard next season would be asking a lot. It’s likely we’ll see the Huskers active in the transfer portal once the dust settles on whatever coaching changes may be coming and the roster fallout that may follow.
Nebraska needs a point guard that understands how to run an offense, one who can keep his teammates involved throughout the game while also creating for himself when the situation calls for it. Verge looked like that guy for stretches this season, but Nebraska need more than stretches if it wants to take a step forward next year.
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.