Looking Forward Is Best for Husker Hoops Fans
Opinion • By Jacob Bigelow • Photos by Reggie Ryder
As we reach the home stretch of another Husker basketball season, it’s safe to say that any lofty expectations fans may have had for Fred Hoiberg’s team this winter have long since crashed to the ground.
As I write this, Nebraska has played 19 games, winning only six. The Huskers are 0-8 in Big Ten play and have not beaten a single power conference opponent. Needless to say, that’s not the type of resume that will earn a bid to any post-season tournament.
For hardcore Husker hoops fans, the page begins to turn to 2022-23. For next season to be a bit brighter, it’s necessary to first look at what ailed the Huskers this season. This season’s biggest problem is the way the roster is constructed. Hoiberg and lead recruiter and assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih made a point to bring in an arsenal of 3-point shooters who fit Hoiberg’s offensive philosophy. And that makes sense, but it’s hard to find truly great shooters in the transfer portal or junior college ranks. Frankly, it’s hard to find them anywhere.
The Huskers gave it a shot, bringing in Xavier transfer CJ Wilcher and junior college transfer Keisei Tominaga. Both are in Nebraska uniforms for one reason: to shoot.
Yet the best way to describe the Huskers’ shooting on the year is consistently inconsistent, which, to be fair, wasn’t all Wilcher’s or Tominaga’s fault. Nebraska ranks in the bottom tier of teams in the country in 3-point shooting percentage. Even with some recent improvement, NU still sits at No. 311 out of 357 teams in Division I basketball.
On the bright side, since conference play, Tominaga’s 3-point percentage was 42% in January and has climbed to 35% on the season, while Wilcher is shooting 47% from long distance in January and has climbed to 37% for the year.
Still, consistency from beyond the arc was expected to be a pillar of Hoiberg’s offense, and overall it has not been nearly good enough.
The lack of a true point guard also has been a detriment.
Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge joined the Huskers in July following Delano Banton’s decision to remain in the NBA Draft. Verge primarily played off the ball at ASU and did it well enough to be the Pac-12’s Sixth Man of the Year. He was handed the keys to Nebraska’s offense on somewhat short notice, and has been a target of plenty of vitriol from fans and critics alike even while appearing sometimes to be the only Husker who can create his own shot while the shot clock ticks down.
Is Verge playing out of position? Yes. In three years under Hoiberg, the Huskers have had maybe one true point guard at that spot, and it remains a position of need going into next season.
And what about a post presence? Wilhelm Briedenbach, at 6-foot-10, was a touted recruit coming into the season, but was injured. Derrick Walker has maximized his season, but at 6-8 or 6-9, he’s better cast as a Big Ten four-man. Walker did not have that luxury.
It’s hard, but if you dig deep, things may not seem so glum come this time next season.
Start with the addition of junior college big man Blaise Keita. At 6-11 and about 235 pounds, Keita’s frame better fits the image of the prototypical Big Ten big men you currently see at Illinois and Purdue. Along with the other three members of the 2022 recruiting class in 6-5 forward Denim Dawson (already on campus), 6-6 forward Ramel Lloyd and 6-3 guard Jamarques Lawrence, there are some pieces on the way.
Now use some imagination and weigh this what-if scenario: What if the McGowens brothers return?
Trey, still with a year of eligibility left, broke a foot early in the season but is now back and playing alongside younger brother Bryce, the highest rated recruit in program history, as you probably have heard. Trey missed 15 games, and while it appears Bryce is turning a corner and coming into his own, part of me has to wonder if the brothers would consider running it back next season in Lincoln.
Following Nebraska’s home loss to Indiana, Trey talked about some of the goals he has for himself. One was winning conference Defensive Player of the Year. Others were team-first goals like winning the Big Ten Tournament and going to the NCAA tournament to get Nebraska that elusive first win. Might those goals give Trey motivation to come back next year? Bryce started the season as a projected late lottery pick, but has slipped down mock drafts a bit as the season has gone on. Could Hoiberg and Co. sell him on another year of development to solidify his pro prospects?
If this ship is ever going to be righted, some roster continuity would go a long way toward building a foundation for what he envisions his program becoming.
Besides, Husker basketball is way past due on receiving some kind of break. Perhaps it comes in the further development of young big man Eduardo Andre, who looked more and more promising as the season progressed. (Keita, Briedenbach and Andre, all 6-10 or taller, sounds like a decent Big Ten recipe to me.) And maybe that means opponents will have to worry more about the middle, which leaves space for Wilcher and Tominaga to do their work from 3-range. And what about Lat Mayen, who could finally find a comfort zone? And the return of the McGowens brothers? C’mon, one can hope.
If you squint a little bit, you can see a path for Hoiberg’s crew to get his program headed in the right direction. March doldrums in Nebraska can’t last forever, right?
Wait. Don’t answer that.