Basketball vs. Western Illinois Photo No. 16

Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg talks to Alonzo Verge Jr. during the game against Western Illinois at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Nebraska men’s basketball, after an extremely positive offseason that culminated with an exhibition victory over a Kenpom.com top-40 team in Colorado, offset a great deal of progress with an extremely sobering 75-74 loss to Western Illinois.

The Leathernecks, in contrast to the Buffaloes, enter the 2021-22 season ranked No. 240 according to kenpom.com.

As one would expect with such a shocking and disappointing defeat, there aren’t many positives to take away from the second season-opening home loss of head coach Fred Hoiberg’s tenure. While the team on the floor is the most talented of Hoiberg’s tenure, the Huskers ultimately succumbed on Tuesday night to issues that have haunted Nebraska since 2019.

Here are four takeaways from another Husker basketball heartbreak:

Too much dribbling

Nebraska’s offense failed to consistently click against the Leathernecks.

Hoiberg and junior forward Derrick Walker both noted postgame the challenges that Western Illinois’ constantly-switching defense provided, and it was painfully apparent in the final box score. Nebraska finished with just six assists on 23 made field goals, and recorded just one assist in the opening half.

The Leathernecks entered with the goal of slowing down Nebraska’s high-tempo offense and succeeded tremendously. All night, the Huskers were forced into creating offense in isolation-heavy sets that were oftentimes so jumbled that they failed to work effectively.

All of that adds up to an ugly shooting performance in which the Huskers went 39% from the field and just 5-of-20 from 3-point range. Nebraska’s offense looked better in the second half but still reverted into tendencies benefitting the Leathernecks, particularly late in the game with the Huskers looking to salt away a 72-69 lead with under two minutes remaining. 

“When the ball wasn’t going in the hoop early, I just felt we tried to do it individually and go one-on-one,” Hoiberg said postgame. “And that’s disappointing, you know, that it came to that.”

The absences of senior guard Kobe Webster and junior forward Lat Mayen aside, Nebraska’s offensive was particularly disappointing and unbecoming of a Hoiberg-coached team. That Nebraska was unable to adjust to Western Illinois’ defensive looks is a concerning sign moving forward.

Hello, old friends

Two glaring inefficiencies of Hoiberg’s Nebraska teams reared their ugly, ugly heads at extremely inopportune moments on Tuesday night. 

Entering the season, Hoiberg stressed the importance of a committed effort in rebounding the ball. It, in truth, was one of Nebraska’s greatest concerns entering the season.

The Huskers did little to alleviate those concerns against Western Illinois.

Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. led the team in rebounds with 13, grabbing over one-third of the Huskers’ total rebounds in the contest. Nebraska was out-rebounded 57-37 by Western Illinois, and as a result was out-scored 22-8 in the second-chance points department.

In fact, the Leathernecks picked up four critical points down the stretch on second-chance opportunities, and a second-chance layup by senior forward Luka Barisic beat the first half buzzer. If Nebraska were able to limit one of these opportunities, it would’ve emerged victorious.

“We got manhandled,” Hoiberg said of his team’s performance on the glass.

In contrast, poor free throw shooting didn’t come into play until significantly later in the contest. Junior guard Trey McGowens missed the second of two free throws with 8:52 remaining and the score tied at 59, dropping Nebraska to 18-for-21 from the line as a team. 

The Huskers finished the contest converting just 5-of-10 free throw attempts. 

With just over 30 seconds remaining in a second half that came down to the wire, the Huskers secured a critical defensive stop and the Leathernecks fouled Nebraska freshman guard CJ Wilcher. Wilcher split his attempts, and on Western Illinois’ ensuing possession junior guard Trenton Massner canned a deep 3-pointer to cut Nebraska’s lead to 73-72.

Western Illinois then fouled Nebraska again, sending Verge to the line. He made just one of two attempts, and Western Illinois responded with the game-winning 3-pointer from Barisic. Missing free throws has a direct impact when it comes to wins and losses, and the Huskers faltered late when they could least afford to.

Nebraska incapable of breaking a run

Nebraska failed to hold a double-digit lead against the Leathernecks, with a 24-17 first-half advantage the most comfortable that Hoiberg’s team got.

Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter deserves immense credit for forcing Nebraska out of its offensive rhythm, but his team played an impressive game and silenced the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd with a response of its own to each Nebraska blow.

Massner, in particular, made several key shots down the stretch en-route to a team high 21 points. 17 of those points came in the second half, including going 4-of-6 from 3-point range. Barisic posted a near-double-double and accomplished the rare feat of making the final field goal in both halves.

The Leathernecks consistently made plays when they needed to, and as a result came out deserving winners. Rendering Nebraska ineffective behind a raucous Pinnacle Bank Arena is no easy feat, but Western Illinois was able to do so on Tuesday, pulling off a shock upset in the process.

Not all doom and gloom

Despite defeat, Verge and freshman guard Bryce McGowens both had masterful performances, an encouraging sign for the team moving forward. 

Bryce McGowens, in particular, blossomed offensively and attacked the rim with purpose, with 10 of his 25 points coming from the free throw line. The Huskers’ five-star recruit finally looked comfortably offensively against the Leathernecks, an encouraging sign following a rough exhibition slate. 

In fact, Bryce McGowens’ 25-point effort was the most ever by a Husker freshman in his debut.

Verge, meanwhile, single handedly willed Nebraska forward in the game’s closing stages. It was a cruel twist of fate that Nebraska’s most dynamic and highest-scoring player on the night fell just short in the game’s final moments, with his last-second drive to the basket falling harmlessly off the backboard.

Still, Verge’s performance is worth celebrating. He finished the contest with a game-high 26 points on 9-of-20 shooting, as well as the aforementioned 13 rebounds and five of Nebraska’s six assists. 

What makes college basketball great is that having a short memory is critical. As bad as Nebraska’s loss is and as bad as the defeat’s potential ramifications could be down the line, the Huskers still have 30 regular-season games remaining.

Nebraska will attempt to rebound from early-season adversity on Friday against Sam Houston State. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com