On the Verge Of Establishing an Identity

Home Stretch Shows the Importance of Point Guard Play

Opinion • By Jacob Bigelow • Photos by Reggie Ryder

Bryce McGowens had 13 points against Iowa and then was key in Nebraska’s run of road wins. He had 26 points the next game at Ohio State.
Bryce McGowens had 13 points against Iowa and then was key in Nebraska’s run of road wins. He had 26 points the next game at Ohio State.

Nebraska’s 88-78 senior-night loss to a good Iowa team back in late February was an expected result in a season gone dreadfully awry.
By that point, most Husker-backers were just waiting for the season to end unceremoniously in the Big Ten tournament two weeks later.
But something strange happened on the way to Indianapolis. The Iowa game came one day after Athletic Director Trev Alberts announced Fred Hoiberg would return as Nebraska’s coach in 2022-23. No, the end of uncertainty surrounding Hoiberg did not will the Huskers to victory, and the pile of rubble that was Nebraska’s season looked like this: The next-door neighbors to the east had just won for the first time in Pinnacle Bank Arena since 2015. The Huskers sat at 7-21 with only one Big Ten win. Three road games lay ahead, two against ranked teams, and then the conference tournament. Then, mercifully, it would be over.

But it didn’t go down that way. Nebraska beat Penn State, leaving the Nittany Lions’ star player in tears. They downed No. 23 Ohio State and then upset No. 10 Wisconsin.

They did lose to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament, but Husker fans were still scratching their collective heads over the befuddling late-season turnaround. What changed?

I say, go back to the Iowa game for a sign. Note the post-game news conference.

At one point, Alonzo Verge interrupted teammate Derrick Walker to speak highly of Hoiberg. “He’s a hell of a coach, and I would play for him any day,” Verge said.

The transfer from Arizona State faced fan and media scrutiny second only to Hoiberg during the season. Yet there he was, after a bitter loss, being highly complimentary of the head coach who brought him in late and slotted him into a key spot – point guard – that he hadn’t played before. His improvement at the point, Verge said, was due to Hoiberg.

Alonzo Verge finished his senior season on a terrific run at point guard. After scoring 18 against Iowa, he led the Huskers to three road wins at Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Alonzo Verge finished his senior season on a terrific run at point guard. After scoring 18 against Iowa, he led the Huskers to three road wins at Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

I also found it enlightening that on multiple TV broadcasts prior to the Iowa game, BTN commentators referred to Nebraska coaches telling them they were not expecting Dalano Banton to go to the draft so late in the process last year. Banton landing an NBA job left NU scrambling to find a point guard, which led to Verge ending up in Lincoln.

When I walked out of the press room after the Iowa game, Verge’s words stuck with me. He was passionate and supportive. I felt like I could see some fire in his eyes.

Little did I know what he’d show us on the court the next three games.

Prior to visiting Penn State, Hoiberg’s Nebraska teams were 1-30 on the road. Somehow, in the span of five days, Nebraska won three.
They came in dominant fashion.

They scored 93 points in a 23-point win over Penn State, statistically the top defense in the Big Ten. The Huskers were led by standout performances by both McGowens brothers (Bryce 25 points; Trey 12 points, four steals, four assists and five rebounds). But Verge’s 15-point, five-assist and four-rebound outing in Happy Valley stood out. For the first time in a while, he looked like a playmaking point guard, and it was no coincidence how much Nebraska’s offense improved both statistically and aesthetically as a result.

Nebraska led throughout against Penn State, and the blitz was so thorough that the Nittany Lions’ hulking John Harrar – a true warrior, I must say – was so shocked by it all he could hardly compose himself by game’s end.

Two days later the Huskers visited No. 23 Ohio State. In a back-and-forth first half, Verge tallied nine assists. He also was feeding off Trey McGowens’ energy on the defensive end. The older McGowens appeared to be as close to 100% as he had been all season during this stretch of games, and his defensive energy and effort was contagious.

Yes, Verge was a little dribble-happy and he took a couple of tough contested shots down the stretch, but his playmaking ability was on full display. He finished the night with 11 assists. Then it was off to No. 10 Wisconsin. One of Hoiberg’s main talking points is fighting through adversity, and this game was filled with it.

Bryce McGowens was sidelined for the game by a wrist injury. Then Trey McGowens was tossed for a flagrant two foul early in the second half. That left Verge alone at the forefront of the Huskers’ offensive attack. And man, did he flourish. He led all scorers with 26 points on impressive 10-of-16 shooting. He added six assists, five rebounds and two steals.

Verge did plenty of damage when he had four fouls down the stretch in the second half while going head-to-head with star Badger freshman Chucky Hepburn. Verge was even nailing some of the runners and mid-range step backs that drew fanbase ire during the season.

With the big upset win in Madison, Nebraska somehow did not finish dead last in the conference. NU earned the No. 13 seed in the Big Ten tournament and a third game against Northwestern. After a strong first half, the magic disappeared and Nebraska blew a double-digit halftime lead, losing 71-69.

To me, the biggest takeaway from the four-game, season-ending stretch was the importance of point guard play.

Verge’s sudden emergence and stellar play should be a reminder of what Hoiberg needs at that spot. The ball movement and offensive flow was night-and-day different when Verge was playing like a true point.

Monte Morris isn’t walking through the door anytime soon, but in an offseason full of question marks, there is zero question in my mind that finding a true playmaking point is the top roster priority going into Year 4 of the Hoiberg Era.

But first things first.

NU was quick to announce moves the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.

It was announced March 17 the program had mutually parted ways with assistant Matt Abdelmassih. The next day it was announced Doc Sadler, special assistant to the head coach, would not be a part of the staff going forward and that the position was being eliminated. Staff changes were expected and likely were agreed upon when Hoiberg restructured his contract.

The most significant move is Abdelmassih, who singlehandedly oversaw Nebraska’s recruiting operation for the last three seasons and did little on court coaching. Hoiberg has never had a season as a college coach without Abdelmassih on staff.

There has also been roster movement as the Huskers added their first piece out of the transfer portal in North Dakota State transfer and Lincoln East product Sam Griesel.

The Lincoln native was a four-year starter at NDSU, and he averaged 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game this past season. At 6-foot-6, Griesel is being brought in to run the point for Nebraska, which he had done for the past two seasons in Fargo. Following the news of Griesel’s transfer, Bryce McGowens officially declared for the NBA Draft. The goal has always been the NBA for the first five-star recruit in program history, and his play down the stretch may have secured him a spot in the first round.

The two roster moves are likely far from the last for Hoiberg’s program this offseason.

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