Right on Schedule

Bryce McGowens prepares to throw down an alley-oop against Minnesota. The Huskers went on to win their first Big Ten game of the season over the Gophers, 78-65.
Bryce Mcgowins drives for the slam dunk in the Minnesota game. The Huskers won their first Big 10 game over the Gophers 78-65. HUSKERS ILLUSTRATED PHOTO BY REGGIE RYDER.

As the Huskers Stumble, Bryce McGowens Matures on the Court

Opinion • By Jacob Bigelow • Photos by Reggie Ryder

Just before Nebraska’s first Big Ten win of the season against Minnesota, I was listening to an Omaha radio host describe the situation around Nebraska’s basketball program in brutal terms: “There is no hope, there is no joy,” the voice said. Then he added this hopeful note: “But there is Bryce McGowens.”

This was supposed to be the breakthrough season for Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers, at least in the eyes of the much-tortured fan base. Others questioned the level of expectations not only for the season but for the program as a whole. But as a group, there was excitement and hope over the arrival of McGowens, and this, despite a dismal win-loss record, especially in the Big Ten, and the pitiful way the team looked most of the season, has born out. McGowens, the first five-star recruit to ever sign and come to Nebraska straight out of high school, has been the real deal and has given fans something to cheer about, both on and off the court.

But living up to the hype wasn’t easy. Nor should it have been. Being a freshman is a learning experience, right? Still, McGowens, along with his brother, Trey – perhaps the main reason Bryce chose to come to Nebraska in the first place – were to be in the eyes of Nebraska fans at least, one of the more dynamic backcourts in the Big Ten and possibly even the country. That all changed when Trey broke his foot in the third game of the season against Creighton. A near miraculous recovery had Trey back on the court a mere two months later, but his injury was a big setback for both. Before the team departed for their road game at Iowa on Feb. 13, Trey described Bryce’s struggles when Trey was sidelined, recalling that his younger brother was on the verge of tears and that when they’d talk off the court, “(Bryce) felt like he didn’t want to play at times because it was just so hard for him.”

Those two months were hard for everybody associated with the Huskers.

Anyone who follows the team has noticed the extra pep in Bryce’s step since Trey returned Jan. 17 against Indiana. It shows in Bryce’s statistics as well. In the seven games since Trey’s return, Bryce was averaging 19 points on 41.6% shooting, including 31.4% from 3-point range. That stretch of games included a career-high 29 points against Rutgers. Bryce may even be taking pointers from his older brother on the defensive end where both his effort and output have improved.

Bryce was asked about what has helped him adjust to the Big Ten’s physicality, following a second half in which Rutgers bullied the freshman whenever he touched the ball. He mentioned strength and conditioning and nutrition as keys in his growth and development throughout the season, and he talked about how he feels stronger overall.

You can also see a change in his shot selection, especially from beyond the arc. Couple that with an increase in aggressive takes to the rim, and the freshman is rounding into the one-and-done prospect for which he was tabbed heading into the season.

Disagree? Consider this: At the time of this writing, McGowens’ 16.5 points per game trails only Duke star Paolo Banchero in terms of freshman scoring average among power conference players. Also, McGowens has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week six times. By the end of the season, he may have more freshman-of-the-week awards than his team has victories.

You have to wonder what McGowens’ game may have looked like if his older  brother had remained healthy all season.

In another season to forget, it’s hard to believe that if McGowens leaves for the NBA Draft, he would be Nebraska’s third pick in a four-year span, when prior to Isaiah Roby being selected in 2019, the program hadn’t seen one in the 20 years before that. (For those wondering: Dalano Banton, 2021.)

For me, it’s a bit disturbing to hear some of the criticism directed at this team from around the state. The win-loss record is one thing, but I hear murmurs from some that this Nebraska team has no one fans can relate to. Some even say that no one on the roster is likable. I can tell you that from my perspective as someone who attends many college and high school games, that is a bad rap.

McGowens is a basketball fan, and in his free time he often can be seen in a gym near you taking in a basketball game. He’s attended high school games in multiple cities at various levels and even has been to other college games in the state. The 19-year-old from South Carolina has embraced the basketball community in a state where basketball at all levels is usually an afterthought to football.

So, regardless of how this season comes to a close, the status of the head coach after the season and whether McGowens is one-and-done, Husker fans would be wise to just enjoy every chance they get to watch the young man play and appreciate his contributions. Hopefully, the Huskers can land others like him in the future.

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Ted Kirk is a Lincoln-based photographer who has been a photojournalist since 1970. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native covered Nebraska Athletics from 1973 through 2018. During that span he covered thousands of Husker Athletic competitions around the United States. His work is being donated to the University of Nebraska Library Photo Archive.

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