Fred Hoiberg opened his third season at Nebraska with a pair of exhibition games this week, giving fans their first look at the 2021-22 Cornhuskers.
Nebraska beat NAIA Peru State 97-58 on Wednesday then followed that up with an 87-67 shellacking of Colorado that saw the Huskers lead by as much as 27 before a scoring drought allowed the Buffaloes to whittle down the lead.
Here are my main takeaways from the two exhibition wins.
Fred Hoiberg said settling on a rotation would be his toughest task this season because of the depth he feels he has. What we saw in the two exhibition games was essentially a nine-man rotation.
The starters are Alonzo Verge Jr., Trey McGowens, Bryce McGowens, Lat Mayen and Derrick Walker, as expected. C.J. Wilcher is the first man off the bench while Keisei Tominaga joined him in the backcourt. Wilhelm Breidenbach is the back-up five while Keon Edwards is the ninth man, primarily as a stretch four behind Mayen.
That main rotation doesn’t include Kobe Webster and Eduardo Andre, who played key roles down the stretch last season. Andre is the third center who entered the rotation against Colorado because of first-half foul trouble for Breidenbach.
Webster did not dress against Colorado because of back spasms. The senior shot over 40% from deep once the calendar turned to 2021 then decided to come back for an extra season of eligibility.
If that is the regular nine-man rotation, Hoiberg certainly has some intriguing situational depth options in Webster, Andre and sharp-shooting senior forward Trevor Lakes, who hit both of his 3s against Peru State but did not play against Colorado.
“Everybody’s got to be ready,” Hoiberg said. “Kobe missed today with back spasms, so we knew going into this one he wouldn’t be available and then our two point guards got two fouls out there in the first half with Trey and with with Alonzo. Trevor Lakes has had a really good preseason. He’s he’s been really good the last, especially couple of weeks and he’s going to have to be ready any given moment. He fits exactly what we’re doing with his ability to shoot the basketball. I like how we played. It was good to get Eduardo out there in the first half; I thought he made some solid plays and a couple that I know he wished he had back. We’ve got depth on this on this roster, and it might not be your night every night, but if we have that team-first attitude and spirit then I think we’re going to have a good year.”
Hoiberg kept one of Verge and Trey McGowens on the court to run the offense almost at all times until he went deeper on his bench against Peru State. With Webster sidelined and both primary ball-handlers in foul trouble in the first half, Hoiberg turned to the younger McGowens to run the offense for the last couple of minutes. We also saw a four-guard lineup with one of Wilcher or Bryce McGowens at the four for a few stretches.
Freshmen Quaran McPherson and Oleg Kojenets likely won’t see significant minutes this season assuming good health, but both are intriguing developmental prospects who should help the team on the practice floor.
Hoiberg said shooting is the area in which Nebraska has made the biggest improvement this offseason, and that looked to be true in the exhibitions. The Huskers shot 23-of-49 (46.9%) from 3 in the two exhibition games.
C.J. Wilcher, Keisei Tominaga and Keon Edwards were brought in primarily because of their shooting prowess, and they showed why in their first two games at PBA. Wilcher shot 4-of-7 from 3, most of that coming against Colorado with 11 points. Tominaga went 4-for-8, hitting a pair of 3s in each game. Edwards was 4-of-7 and scored 12 points against Peru State.
There were multiple stretches against Colorado where Nebraska hit two, three, four 3-pointers in a row and got the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd fired up.
“[Tominaga] just gives you such a weapon anytime,” Hoiberg said. “I can pretty much promise he’s the guy they’re talking about first in the game plan, ‘how are we going to defend this guy? We’re going to have to stay close.’ And again, you see our bigs benefiting from the shooting that we have. C.J. obviously, Keon’s shot the ball well, Keisei, Bryce hit a huge one there late to kind of put the game out of reach. So we’ve got a lot of guys capable. Lat, Trevor. It’s fun. It’s fun when you have weapons like that on the floor.”
Perhaps the guy who stood out most in the first two games was Verge, the Arizona State transfer. One thing Nebraska lacked last season was the quickness to consistently break defenses down off the dribble, and Verge certainly has that.
The 6-foot-3 guard led Nebraska with 20 points and eight assists in his debut and he followed that up with 10 points and six assists against Colorado. He had just two turnovers and nabbed three steals in each game. Verge’s prowess in the pick-and-roll and chemistry with Walker was evident as soon as he stepped on the floor against Peru State, finding the big man on four straight possessions for three buckets and a trip to the foul line.
Verge went 0-3 against Colorado during his two seasons at Arizona State, scoring a combined 19 points on 7-of-36 shooting with three assists and five turnovers in three Sun Devil losses. Colorado coach Tad Boyle credited McKinley Wright IV, Colorado’s four-year starting point guard who moved on after last season, for shutting Verge down in those games but spoke highly of his talent.
“We know Alonzo Verge is a hell of an offensive talent,” Boyle said. “I think Nebraska fans are figuring that out too, two games in. We’ve known about that because we’ve seen him on film and we played against him three times. So he’s a terrific offensive player … The way Coach Hoiberg coaches offense, I think it’ll be a really good match for Verge in terms of letting him do what he does because he’s really a talented, instinctive offensive player … He made some really good plays tonight — 10 points, six assists and only two turnovers, that’s a pretty good line from the point guard. So he’s a terrific player. We’ve known that and he’ll have a great year, I’m sure, for Nebraska this year.”
The exhibition season was a mixed bag for 5-star recruit Bryce McGowens. He scored four points on 2-of-8 shooting (0-of-4 from 3) with two assists, two turnovers and two steals against Peru State, and both of his buckets were dunks. Against Colorado, he led the Huskers with 15 points but shot just 5-of-13 from the field (2-of-5 from 3) and 3-of-5 from the foul line. He added four boards, one assist and one turnover in a game-high 31 minutes.
Bryce’s first bucket came on an alley-oop from his brother, Trey, and his length at 6-foot-7 with a plus wingspan stood out throughout both games, but he’s still figuring things out, as most freshmen do early in their careers.
Nebraska looked like a team that had never played together before early against Peru State. I saw a lot of miscommunication and gambling on defense, which led to a lot of open looks from deep that the Bobcats hit to keep that game competitive in the first half.
Nebraska cleaned a lot of that up against Colorado, holding the Buffaloes to 32.4% from the field including 3-of-19 from deep. Nebraska’s length and activity across the board really made an impact as the Huskers forced 16 Colorado turnovers, 12 of which were steals.
However, the Huskers were over-aggressive at times and found themselves in foul trouble in both halves. The Huskers finished with 22 fouls including two apiece to their primary ball-handlers in the first six minutes of the first half.
Nebraska also surrendered 35 offensive rebounds in the two games including 23 to Colorado. That has to get cleaned up.
“Derrick was a warrior down there; he was he was in a battle with their big guys all night long and I thought Wilhelm was out there fighting as well,” Hoiberg said. “Really, to me, it was the guards. There was just no contact. We talk a lot about rebound area, go create that rebound area by making first contact, and they were doing it to us all game long. Finally, Alonzo had a couple where he hit and went and got them and Bryce made contact and went got a couple.”
Nebraska’s defensive allowed the Huskers to survive an extended scoring drought in the second half, something this program just can’t seem to get past regardless of who the coach is. The Huskers led 42-21 at one point in the first half before a late run by Colorado, then pushed that lead to 27 at 67-40 before turnovers derailed the offense and shots stopped falling.
Nebraska will have eight days off to hopefully get healthy (Lat Mayen went down with an ankle tweak in the second half, but should be OK, according to Hoiberg) and polish some things up before beginning the season for real on Nov. 9 against Western Illinois.
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.