s-MbbPreview

Nebraska’s Alonzo Verge Jr. (1) dribbles the ball during the game against Peru State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

So it begins.

Nebraska tips off its nonconference basketball schedule this week with two showdowns: Western Illinois on Tuesday and Sam Houston State on Friday.

The Huskers are coming off a successful round of preseason exhibition victories against Peru State and Colorado. Now, the much anticipated start to head coach Fred Hoiberg’s third season at Nebraska has arrived.

The matchup with the Leathernecks of Western Illinois on Tuesday will be the first regular season game with fans in attendance since a 81-76 overtime loss to Northwestern on March 1, 2020.

The Husker fan base has packed Pinnacle Bank Arena (PBA) every year since its opening. In fact, PBA has been top 15 in attendance each year of its existence, and it has ranked 11th nationwide in average attendance in 2019-20 despite a brutal 7-25 Husker record in that year.

Now, those fans will fill PBA once again on Tuesday night, elated and driven by the highest expectations for a Husker basketball program since the Huskers made an NCAA Tournament appearance under Tim Miles in the 2013-14 season.

Those fan expectations are bolstered by the first five-star prospect in program history in freshman guard Bryce McGowens. Additionally, McGowens highlights the highest ranked recruiting class in program history alongside freshman forward Wilhelm Breidenbach and Ranger College transfer sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga.

Lastly, NCAA correspondent and Big Ten Network analyst Andy Katz placed the Huskers as a 10-seed in his latest bracket prediction for this season.

Now Nebraska has expectations in front of it, and it all starts Tuesday with Western Illinois.

The Leathernecks come to Lincoln after winning their first two preseason exhibitions by a combined 66 points. 

The Huskers are 6-0 all-time against Western Illinois, and they defeated the Leathernecks 73-49 in their most recent game in Lincoln in 2018, which was Miles’ final season. 

Leading the way for Western Illinois in its 92-80 win over the University of Illinois-Springfield was senior forward Will Carius, who had 30 points and five made 3-pointers. 

Will checks in at 6-foot-7-inches and was the team leader in scoring a year ago. He was followed by junior forward Tamell Pearson. Pearson is 6-foot-10-inches and averaged 10 points per game to go along with nearly seven rebounds in his 2020-21 campaign.

Nebraska, which struggled to rebound against Colorado, will have to battle against size again on Tuesday. Western Illinois tallied 11 and 25 offensive rebounds in its exhibition games, respectively.

The Leatherneck roster is deep and experienced. Of the total 15-man roster, 10 are upperclassmen and the final five are freshmen.

There is, surprisingly enough, no remnants from the Leatherneck roster that faced Nebraska at PBA in 2018. The largest crowd that Western Illinois has played in front of is 1,050 — that number will be nearly 15 times greater on Tuesday should PBA be sold out. 

The fans will certainly have a chance to make their mark on the game from the opening tip, but it is also important to note that this will be the largest home crowd that the Huskers have played in front of since March 2020.

On Friday, the Huskers will take on Sam Houston State at 7:30 p.m.

The Bearkats are currently a member of the Western Athletic Conference, but after only two years, the university accepted an invitation last week to join the Conference USA in 2023.

Sam Houston returns two of its top four leading scorers from a year ago in senior guard Demarkus Lampley and junior guard Donte Powers, who averaged 14.4 and 7.3 points per game, respectively. 

The biggest departure from the roster is that of Zach Nutall, who averaged 19.7 points per game a season ago and led the team in scoring by a wide margin. Nutall, also a guard, transferred to SMU at the end of last year.

The Bearkats are coming off a 19-9 season and have not played in an exhibition prior to the start of the 2021-22 season Tuesday. They will have one test prior to coming to Lincoln in LeTourneu, who will visit the Bearkats on Wednesday night. 

This will be the first meeting between these two teams since 2001 when the Bearkats won a tightly contested December showdown over the Huskers 74-70.

Considering the expected strong talent level of the Big Ten, each nonconference game is critical for the Huskers.

Nebraska certainly has an intriguing journey ahead. The first two steps in that journey will be taken this week.

sports@dailynebraskan.com