Youth and inexperience trumps experience and cohesion. At least, that was true on Tuesday night in Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Facing its first true road test, the team with the seventh-fewest returning minutes in Division I made an impressive statement against its in-state rival. And it wasn’t Nebraska that was making the statement.
Head coach Greg McDermott’s Creighton squad looked the part of the well-coached and disciplined Bluejays teams under his tenure in years past, downing a more experienced Nebraska squad 77-69. The Bluejays raced out to a 31-13 lead in the first half and ultimately made enough plays down the stretch to stave off the Huskers.
While it’s too early in Nebraska’s season for absolutes or end-all, be-all predictions, the Huskers sit at an extremely uncomfortable 1-2 through three games with little to be positive about following a sharp exhibition slate. Even more concerning, Nebraska now has to adjust to life without one of its most important players.
Here are four takeaways from the Huskers’ rivalry loss:
Replacing Trey McGowens
Starting off on the injury front is never pleasant, but a loss so significant for Nebraska has to be addressed immediately.
Nebraska was dealt a significant blow on Tuesday night, as head coach Fred Hoiberg announced postgame that junior guard Trey McGowens broke his foot against Creighton. The timetable for his return will be determined on Wednesday, according to Hoiberg, but Nebraska’s head coach was clearly devastated when discussing a player he called “the heart and soul of the team.”
“Nobody’s going to replace Trey. No one person can do what Trey does,” Hoiberg said postgame. “We’re going to have to find a way to do it by committee.”
That committee will likely be led by freshman guard CJ Wilcher, who started the second half in place of the injured McGowens. He had one of his best performances in a Nebraska uniform against Creighton, with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Wilcher started Nebraska’s season-opening loss to Western Illinois when junior forward Lat Mayen was injured.
Senior guard Kobe Webster, who poured in a brilliant team-high 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, should also see a more prominent role.
Hoiberg, when answering how Nebraska’s lineup will adjust with McGowens out, referenced his team’s depth, but in truth fully replacing a player of his caliber will be difficult. McGowens offers immense value as Nebraska’s primary on-ball defender and has extensive experience manning Hoiberg’s offense as Nebraska’s primary ball handler.
Nebraska has a string of four sub-200 opponents, according to kenpom.com, to sort things out following Tuesday’s loss, but the Huskers realistically will undergo some ugly growing pains in the early going without McGowens available.
Creighton’s early advantage too much to overcome
Nebraska, on the back of a raucous home crowd, jumped out to a 5-1 lead at the 18:45 mark of the first half. It was a quality opening minute-and-change, and just the start Hoiberg needed against an untested Creighton squad undergoing its first true road test.
Instead of capitalizing on that early momentum, Nebraska reverted back to old habits as Creighton outscored Nebraska 30-8 over the next 10 minutes of action. Two Wilcher 3-pointers were the lone field goals Nebraska mustered during the massive Bluejay run, with a majority of Nebraska’s offense the stagnant, isolation-heavy play seen frequently in previous games against Western Illinois and Sam Houston State.
Creighton built a lead as great as 19 points and held a 31-13 lead with 8:45 remaining in the first half.
“We lost that game in the first five minutes,” Hoiberg said.
The Husker offense eventually came to life, though, led by Wilcher, Webster and freshman guard Bryce McGowens — who scored all six of his points in a two-minute stretch in the first half. Nebraska cut the Creighton advantage down to one before the Bluejays took a 40-36 halftime lead.
Nebraska also slashed the Bluejay lead to just one early in the second half, but ultimately couldn’t make enough plays to take the lead. Still, Nebraska’s effort to come back from down nearly 20 points should be commended, even if it didn’t result in victory.
Creighton’s 7-footer dominates
The Bluejay backcourt of freshman guard Ryan Nembhard and senior guard Alex O’Connell were both brilliant on Tuesday, combining for 35 points. Nembhard, in his first true road game of his collegiate career, impressed with 22 points, five rebounds and five assists.
However, neither were Creighton’s most important player on Tuesday. Instead, that honor goes to 7-foot-1 sophomore center Ryan Kalkbrenner, who effectively patrolled the paing all night and was the central reason for Nebraska’s offensive struggles inside.
“[Kalkbrenner] does more than what shows up in the statsheet,” McDermott said postgame. “It shows he has three blocks, but I’m guessing there were twice as many he changed.”
Kalkbrenner finished with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, with some clutch interior baskets at pivotal moments, and recorded nine rebounds and three blocks. He also completely altered drive after drive in the paint.
The Huskers finished just 12-of-23 on layups and had a higher 3-point percentage than field goal percentage on the night. Kalkbrenner’s impact was particularly noticeable in the first half, with the discrepancy between field goals and 3-pointers hilariously apparent.
Through the opening 20 minutes, Nebraska shot just 33.3% on field goals inside the arc, but was a blistering 53.3% from long range. Nebraska ultimately figured out ways to evade Kalkbrenner’s massive frame in the second half, but there’s no denying the impact he had on the game.
As the calendar flips to December and January, Nebraska will go up against big men much more skilled, physical and even taller than the likes of Kalkbrenner in Big Ten play. Figuring out consistent offensive sets to navigate around bigger bodies has to be a priority for Hoiberg’s team.
An ode to Webster
It was particularly nice to see Webster play such an important role on Tuesday night following a difficult start to his fifth collegiate season.
The former Western Illinois player missed out on the Huskers’ first game of the season, a loss to Webster’s former team. He also didn’t feature in Nebraska’s 74-65 win over Sam Houston State, but provided a massive lifeline for a floundering Husker offense in his first regular-season action.
Webster scored 11 critical points as Nebraska attempted to cut into Creighton’s 31-13 lead, and they didn’t come easily. The 3-pointers he converted were all difficult, but all vital in the first half as the Huskers led a frantic rally.
And, in the second half, Webster made key plays early as Nebraska tried to overtake Creighton. While it ultimately came to naught, Webster’s performance was a vital one in the Huskers’ comeback efforts.
“I know what I’m capable of, coach has confidence in me,” Webster said postgame. “I’m not going to harp on any individual stats, the goal is to win. I’m glad I was able to give a spark but I want to win.”
With Trey McGowens out for the immediate future, more performances of that caliber from Webster might be needed.