Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Rebounding Key as Huskers Head into Season Opener Against Western Illinois

November 08, 2021

Year three for Fred Hoiberg at Nebraska begins on Tuesday as the Huskers are set to open the 2021-22 season against Western Illinois at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

“We’re certainly excited to get rolling tomorrow with our regular season,” Hoiberg said after practice on Monday. “We feel really good about what happened with our two exhibition games. I felt great about the Colorado game, especially early in the contest, and our guys have been locked in and ready to get started tomorrow.”

The Huskers have had more than a week’s worth of practices to refine strengths and improve weaknesses after dispatching first Peru State and than Colorado in a pair of exhibition games, and now they’re ready to put that work on display in a game that counts.

“We’ve been able to address a lot of things,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously the rebounding is something that will get tested again tomorrow. Western Illinois has great size, especially in their front court, starting 6-7, 6-10, 6-10, so it’s going to be a battle for us and we’ll certainly get tested. They do a good job crashing. Hopefully we can get the ball off the glass and get out in transition where we’re certainly at our best.”

The Leathernecks went 7-15 last season in Rob Jeter’s first year at the helm. They start a front line that features super senior Will Carius (6-foot-7, 225 pounds), junior Tamell Pearson (6-foot-10, 223 pounds) and UTSA graduate transfer Luka Barisic (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) with wing KJ Lee (6-foot-7, 185 pounds) and big man Adam Anhold (6-foot-8, 240 pounds off the bench.

Western Illinois grabbed 36 offensive rebounds in its two exhibition games, while Nebraska gave up 35 offensive boards to Peru State and Colorado. Rebounding will be one of Nebraska’s keys heading into the game.

“Just like the last two games, everyone has to rebound,” Derrick Walker said. “Not just one guard or one big, everyone has a job and everyone has to rebound. So we have to be more physical with our box-outs and get the board. That’s been a problem that’s been an area we struggled in. So it has to be a team thing and not just an individual thing.”

Carius is Western Illinois’ top returning scorer as he averaged 14.7 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 39.8% on 6.0 3-point attempts per game in his first season after transferring from Division III Monmouth College. Pearson averaged 10.4 points and 6.9 rebounds (2.6 offensive) last year while Colton Sandage is the team’s top returner in the backcourt after putting up 9.5 points per game last season.

Hoiberg said he has a pretty good feel for where he’s at with his rotations, but the Huskers may not be at full strength heading into Tuesday’s game.

“We’ve got two guys that’ll be game-time decisions tomorrow with with Kobe [Webster], with his back still bothering him a little bit, and with Lat [Mayen], with his ankle. Hopefully those guys will get another successful treatment today and then obviously get a couple before the game tomorrow. We’ll make a decision, probably pretty close to game time, if either of those guys will be able to go.”

Mayen rolled his ankle in the second half of the Colorado game, which Webster missed because of back spasms. Webster spent three years at Western Illinois before transferring to Nebraska last season, but Hoiberg said their focus is getting him healthy for the full season ahead. If one or both players are not able to go, it could create opportunities for others to step up.

“That’s what it’s about, if you do have injuries and other guys have to be ready to step up, next man up mentality,” Hoiberg said. “That’s what you work for is to get those types of opportunities when they present themselves and take advantage of them. So we feel good. As I said earlier, we’ve got a lot of depth on this team. You can’t play everybody, that’s just just the nature of it. But at some point, guys are going to get an opportunity to go out there over the course of a long season, and again, just making sure they take advantage of that when that opportunity presents itself.”

With Webster out and both Alonzo Verge Jr. and Trey McGowens in foul trouble in the first half against Colorado, Hoiberg put the ball in Bryce McGowens’ hands to run the offense for the last couple of minutes in the first half. Freshman Quaran McPherson also provides depth at the point.

Keon Edwards was Mayen’s primary back-up at the four during the two exhibitions, and Hoiberg also used some four-guard lineups featuring C.J. Wilcher and the younger Mcgowens at the three and four spots. Sliding Wilhelm Breidenbach to the four to play alongside Walker or turning to sharp-shooting super senior Trevor Lakes are other options Hoiberg has.

The Huskers have 14 players on scholarship this season, and Hoiberg highlighted role acceptance as a key for this season. So far, he said they’ve been “really good” in that area.

“Now the challenge is making sure we continue to carry over from the exhibition to the regular season and just to continue to go out make simple plays,” Hoiberg said. “We had one stretch, I thought, in the Colorado game where we where we tried to get a little fancy. When we kept it simple, when we moved the ball, we had great possessions; when we didn’t, that’s where we got ourselves into trouble and that’s where we struggled.

“So a lot of learning lessons that we’ve had, and continue to go out and play through good times, bad times and anything in between. We didn’t hit a lot of adversity. We had one tough stretch against Colorado, but that’s what’s going to define us is how we handle those tough moments and continue to do the things that make us successful when those times hit.”

One bit of adversity the Huskers won’t have to deal with this season is the lack of a home crowd, and Tuesday’s opener holds special significance for the Huskers that experienced last year’s season that took place in a mostly empty Pinnacle Bank Arena.

“The fans, I feel like that’s that’s the biggest difference in this game of basketball, just the fans,” Walker said. “They make a world of difference, especially not being able to have them, especially not being able to feel the environment. So, this year, we’re excited to come out and play in front of Husker fans and we’re excited to give them a show and we’re just excited to win and just be happy in this town, in Nebraska.”

One part of the in-arena experience grabbed the attention of Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts last week. Before the national anthem, Nebraska has been playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during pre-game festivities since the start of last season. The National Association of Basketball Coaches suggested schools across the country should play the song as a way to promote unity and inclusion during a challenging time and Nebraska was among the programs that agreed. Ricketts shared his objection to the practice on Twitter on Friday.

On Monday, Hoiberg said that he discussed the matter with Athletic Director Trev Alberts and women’s basketball coach Amy Williams, and together they decided to continue playing the song in a different format. Now, Nebraska will play “The Star-Spangled Banner” first, then clear the flag from the court, then play “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“We’ve heard a lot of positive feedback and obviously a lot of negative feedback on it,” Hoiberg said. “But I’ve been really proud of our team the last couple years for using their platform to address issues that have been going on in our country and and hopefully promote change. But for us, we feel as sport, hopefully can help be an example. We have players from all over the country, all over the world, that have to come together and play for each other and be one and come together. And obviously we need to be better in our country in that area.”

Tipoff on Tuesday is set for 7 p.m. CT. The game will be available on Big Ten Network+ with Larry Punteney and director of player development Buzzy Caruthers on the call.

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