The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the 2020-21 college basketball season. The Huskers did not get a closed scrimmage. They did not get an exhibition game.
Wednesday’s season-opener against McNeese State will be the first time the new-look Huskers — featuring four transfers, three redshirts, two freshmen and two returners — will take the court in a competitive setting against another team.
To get the team accustomed to playing on the Pinnacle Bank Arena court and learn a bit more about where they are at this point, Coach Fred Hoiberg put the team through three officiated scrimmages over the past couple of weeks.
“I’ve been really impressed with this group with how unselfish they have played,” Hoiberg said. “Hopefully that carries over. As I talked to them the last couple days leading into our opener, the importance of continuing to go out and do the things that have made us successful. We don’t need to go out there now and reinvent the wheel, go out there and try to do it on our own. When adversity hits, stick with the plan and get good movement and try to get great possessions, both offensively and defensively. We’re excited to get started tomorrow.”
Junior guard Trey McGowens has noticed the same unselfishness, not only during the scrimmages, but in everything they do.
“We have a bunch of scorers, and we’re a really unselfish team,” McGowens said. “Everybody’s happy for one another’s success. Ultimately I think that’s probably going to be the biggest thing this season. As long as we keep doing everything like that, I think we’re going to have a pretty successful season.”
McGowens averaged 11.6 points over his two seasons at Pittsburgh. Teddy Allen averaged 31.4 points per game at Western Nebraska Community College last year. Lat Mayen was at 11.8 points per game as a sophomore at Chipola College. Grad transfer Kobe Webster averaged 16.7 points in three seasons as the starting point guard at Western Illinois. Nebraska has a lot of guys who are used to having the ball in their hands. Thus far, however, they’ve all apparently meshed pretty well on the court.
“I learned that this team has a lot of weapons,” Allen said about the scrimmages. “Nobody has to try to play hero ball because we have a bunch of players who can do a lot of different things. If we just trust Coach Fred’s system and do the things that we’re getting harped on us every day, then we should be successful.”
Allen said the biggest lesson he’s learned from Hoiberg and his staff so far is that the game can be really simple, and that simple plays often lead to success. That is something Hoiberg will continue to stress all season with this team, and it’s something last year’s team struggled with at times.
“That’s a huge thing going into the season and that is one of the tough things about not having an opportunity to go out there and play another team to this point,” Hoiberg said. “Usually you have the exhibition and you have the scrimmage. It is something that we stress. We have a lot of guys capable of having big nights. When I look back at teams that I had at Iowa State, we’d have five or six guys averaging double figures and everybody benefits when you win and that’s the most important thing. We’re going to have different guys on different nights, and that has to be OK. You may have a game where you score 20 and the next night you have four. If you win, everything is great, and that’s the bottom line.”
Nebraska has three point guards who will all have to coexist and share ball-handling duties in Dalano Banton, McGowens and Webster. It has a big-time wing scorer in Allen and a few other wings who can contribute in different ways in Thorir Thorbjarnarson, Lat Mayen and Shamiel Stevenson. It has three post options in sophomore Yvan Ouedraogo, junior Derrick Walker and freshman Eduardo Andre. Now Hoiberg has to figure out how they all fit together and come up with a rotation.
“If everybody is all about the team and all about the end result, winning, that’s the important thing,” Hoiberg said. “We have stressed that a lot to this group because we have so many people that are capable. That is the hardest thing about coaching is how you distribute the minutes. We do have a lot of guys that deserve minutes, we have a lot of guys that deserve to start. We’ll see who goes out there and earns the clutch minutes late in games. It’s a tough job, but if you’re going to have a successful team you have to have role acceptance. When my teams at Iowa State, when we had five or six in double figures, a lot of those guys ended up playing in the NBA and the biggest reason is because we had success.”
The pandemic has robbed the Huskers of the ability to jell on the court before things really start to count with a scrimmage and an exhibition, but in other ways it has brought the team even closer together, at least off the court. For the most part, they’ve isolated themselves from the rest of campus and the Lincoln community over the last few months, spending all their free time together. McGowens said they’ve spent a lot of time in the gym and playing video games together.
“I think our chemistry is further along than you would expect from a team that came together this short ago and with guys that were sitting out,” Allen said. “It’s probably everything that you could want as far as chemistry. There’s not a lot of selfishness out here, not a lot of egos. We’re all just trying to do our job and play our role. Obviously stuff works itself out a different way during games and stuff, but I think the chemistry is everything we would want it to be at this point in time.”
The Huskers didn’t get those preseason opportunities, but if the schedule holds, they’ll get three games in the next four days to learn about themselves.
“It definitely plays into our hands just being able to have a lot of trial and error period early, hopefully not too much error, but just the fact that we get to play, there’s no better way to gain chemistry than to play together,” Allen said.
Tipoff on Wednesday is set for 11 a.m. on BTN.