Last year, Derrick Walker made his long-awaited debut in a Husker uniform on Jan. 10, scoring 10 point in 26 minutes against Indiana. The next day, the program went on pause because of positive COVID-19 tests.
On Monday, Trey McGowens made his first appearance since breaking his foot two months ago, scoring seven points in 21 minutes against… the Hoosiers. A few days later, Nebraska announced that it had to postpone a pair of games because of positive COVID-19 tests.
Fred Hoiberg called it “eerily similar.”
Fortunately, Nebraska’s pause will be much shorter this time as the Huskers pushed back their game at Pinnacle Bank Arena against Wisconsin, previously scheduled for Tuesday night, to Thursday at 4 p.m., signifying that the Huskers will be back on the court shortly.
This season hasn’t gone at all like the Huskers were hoping it would with a 6-13 overall record including eight straight losses to open Big Ten play, but then again Trey McGowens was supposed to be a big part of that and he’s been out of commission for 15 of those games, and he was limited in two of the four games he has played.
McGowens’ impact in his return was immediate and apparent, and that’s what we’re focusing on here. As we wait for Nebraska to return to the court, let’s look back at how the 6-foot-4 guard changed things in his return and what that might mean for the Huskers moving forward.
“We had Trey back on the floor for the first time and you see the impact that he has on our team, just with him being out there, with leadership, with toughness, with a defensive-minded player on the perimeter,” Hoiberg said on Friday. “That’s invaluable for us moving forward.”
For just the third time in his four-year career, McGowens checked in off the bench and gave the Huskers a spark, finishing with seven points 1-of-2 from 3, 4-of-4 from the foul line, two rebounds, one assist, one steal and one turnover in 21 minutes.
McGowens played four separate stints, and the Huskers either outscored the Hoosiers or played them to a draw in all four. He was plus-4 (really, plus-5 because he checked in between two free throws for a foul that was committed before he was on the court) in a seven-point loss, meaning the Huskers lost the other 19 minutes by 11.
McGowens checked in after the first media timeout, to a loud ovation from the Vault. He checked in for Keisei Tominaga to play alongside his brother, Bryce, and Alonzo Verge Jr. Trey spent his first couple of minutes mostly standing in the corner, not even touching the ball on offense.
Before he even touched the ball, Trey made an impact by picking up his man full court, applying pressure and nearly forcing a turnover. Soon after, the ball found him for the first time and he immediately let the ball fly from the right wing, swishing a 3 — his first 3-point attempt of the season — to let everyone know he was back.
A couple possessions later, McGowens fought over a screen and drew an offensive foul to get possession back for the Huskers. He checked out about 30 seconds later. His first stint lasted 4:43, and the teams were even during that stretch.
McGowens checked back in four minutes later with the Huskers trailing by 10. This time, Hoiberg had him running the point as both Verge and Kobe Webster were on the bench. P|Offensively during the stretch, he found his brother for a catch-and-shoot 3 that rimmed out, drew a foul on a drive to the basket and hit both free throws and recorded his only assist on a transition play. After a turnover, he ran the floor and caught the hit-ahead pass, dribbled it out and found C.J. Wilcher cutting behind him for a layup.
Defensively, he forced a turnover by deflecting a pass then tracking it down along the sideline before a Hoosier did, getting bumped out of bounds after catching the ball to draw a foul in the bonus. He also slapped the floor at one point, which is something I don’t think we’d see from anyone else in the rotation. When he checked out after a 3:56 stint, the Huskers had shaved four points off the deficit.
With good feedback from the trainers, Hoiberg upped McGowens’ minutes a bit in the second half. Once again, he checked in at the first media timeout of the second half to share the backcourt with Verge. If there’s an area where the rust showed itself, it was hailing the ball in the open court at high speed. At one point, he grabbed a rebound and took off before passing ahead to a teammate, on the ball sailed way out of bounds. He later mis-handled the ball after crossing halfcourt, but the Huskers retained possession.
Defensively, he stayed in front of former teammate Xavier Johnson and then dove on the ball to force a tie-up, then he started a bit of something by trying to wrestle the ball away from Johnson after the whistle. McGowens certainly has an edge that you don’t really see from anybody else. He also drew a foul on the defensive glass by being in good position.
His third stint lasted 6:04, and he helped the Huskers shave one point off the lead.
He checked back in for the final time at the 6:34 mark and closed out the game.
He got credited for a steal when Johnson fell down, but it was Eduardo Andre who really tied him up. Overall, McGowens did a good job of staying in front of his man and navigating through screens or switching when he couldn’t fight through. He moved the ball the first couple of times he touched it on offense while Verge and Bryce did most of the ball-handling.
McGowens got one opportunity on offense down the stretch as an extra pass from his brother got him a wide open look from the corner in front of his own bench that would have cut the deficit from six to three with 52 seconds left, but it just missed.
After the miss, McGowens picked up and pressured Johnson full-court, and then he tried to beat Johnson to the spot to take a charge with 30 seconds left, but he was just a bit too slow and got whistled for a block.
Ultimately, his last stint was a draw, though the deficit bounced between 10 and five points during that time.
Hoiberg spoke to McGowens tangible, on-court impact after watching the tape back.
“I think the the biggest thing was obviously defensively, our ball pressure,” Hoiberg said. “The pick-up point was much higher, and I think it affected the whole team. Alonzo did a much better job, deflecting balls, he had a really good double team to create a turnover, he had a great steal late in the game. But Trey just being out there, and again, he played 20 minutes and he practiced two days. So he’s a ways away from being where he wants to be and from where we need him, but you see the immediate impact that he has out there on the floor for us and what he can provide for this team.”
The difference between McGowens guarding the ball and pretty much any other perimeter player on the team is staggering. He moves his feet really well and his motor on that end revs high as well. I think Nebraska probably wins at least one or two of the games they lost during his absence if he had been available to guard the likes of NC State’s Dereon Seabron and Ohio State Malaki Branham. Hoiberg said the impact extended beyond the tangible as well.
“As big as anything is leadership,” Hoiberg said. “He’s phenomenal in that area. He did a good job, as good as you can possibly do for a guy that was on a scooter and not in uniform, that he can go out there and do the things that he did for our team. Just getting back out there was a huge lift and you saw with Lat [Mayen], went out there to give him a big hug when he got on the floor for the first time. Stepping up and making that first 3, hell, I’d have shot that thing through the backboard if that was my first shot after missing that amount of time. So just having him back out there is a huge lift for our guys.”
McGowens’ return alone isn’t enough for the Huskers to start winning games. They still need to make big strides in doing the little things, but he will certainly help, especially once he’s back to full strength.
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.