Entering the third year of Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg’s tenure, Hoiberg raved about one thing in particular, one thing his other teams have been missing: depth.
In a press conference Hoiberg gave Monday ahead of Nebraska basketball’s opening night, the team’s depth is one of the biggest problems facing the coach before play begins next month. In a roster replete with blue-chip prospects, reliable returning producers and unique skillsets, finding the team’s best rotation will be a significant narrative early in the season.
“In the early stages, this is a group I think that has very good chemistry with each other. How that will carry over when we start playing games I don’t know yet,” Hoiberg said in a press conference Monday. “My single hardest job this year will be establishing a rotation. We have lots of players who are capable of playing, and all that will be determined in the next 42 days, 30 days of practice, two exhibition games.”
Dynamic cutting is one of the features of Hoiberg’s Nebraska half-court offenses, and a few players in particular were mentioned as possible primary cutters. Last season, much of the responsibility was given to guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson, but Thorbjarnarson graduated.
Junior forward Lat Mayen was mentioned by the likes of junior forward Derrick Walker as a key cutting threat. Last season, Mayen was primarily an off-ball spacing piece, somebody who specialized in getting into open space around the 3-point line and receiving the ball. He assumed cutting duties at points last season, but may be primed to make the next step this year.
After him, Walker also mentioned a new name for the program: freshman guard C.J. Wilcher. The 6-foot-5 guard Wilcher received high praise for his offball ability from Walker, and may fight for minutes given that ability.
“C.J. might be our best [cutter] right now,” Walker said in a press conference Monday. “Knowing when, timing, everybody’s trying to learn and get better but I think that he’s caught on to it the quickest.”
Just as Hoiberg needs a cutter, the coach also needs to decide who will assume primary ball-handling responsibilities for the team next season. The first choice is freshman guard Bryce McGowens, Nebraska’s first five star recruit in its history.
“Bryce is as talented a kid as I’ve had an opportunity to coach. He’s so gifted, athletically, he’s smooth, shoots it effortlessly, but he’s a freshman,” Hoiberg said. “As talented as Bryce is, we need to have a level of patience as well just because of the learning curve he has.”
McGowens came into Nebraska billed as more of a combo-guard with significant ball-handling capabilities, a player who operates primarily in the lane, knifing through the defense. This is a significantly different archetype from the primary ball-handlers Hoiberg had in his first two seasons at Nebraska.
In the first iteration, he used guard Cam Mack, who famously managed an assist percentage of 36.5% during his time at Nebraska, on the very high end for point guards. Then, Hoiberg gave the reins of the offense to guard Dalano Banton, who notched a less drastic 28.8% assist percentage.
Still, both of these are far more than what can be expected from McGowens. Another option is McGowens’ brother, junior guard Trey McGowens, who was a significant part of Nebraska’s team last year. That is, however, unlikely, given that Hoiberg indicated the elder McGowens would primarily be used for his defensive prowess.
“It starts with Trey. Trey gives us that ability to play a superstar,” Hoiberg said. “Trey can guard those really good wing players one-on-one.”
The final pick for a primary ball-handler is senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. The transfer from Arizona State notched an assist percentage of 26.1% in his last season with the Sun Devils, also hitting over 25% for usage rate both seasons he was with the program.
Verge knows how to distribute the ball, but Hoiberg indicated he was brought in for depth after Banton entered the NBA. He will certainly play a role, and one with ball-handling as the focus given his rather poor 3-point shooting while at Arizona State. Hoiberg had high praise for Verge in the press conference, perhaps enough to give him a starting nod.
“Alonzo is perfect for our system because of his ability to get downhill and get into the paint. If we space the floor properly he’s going to find the right guy out there on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “What we’re stressing is simple plays, he’s so talented in getting into the gaps and getting into the paint.
Regardless of who is the primary ball-handler for the team, multiple players will be given similar responsibilities in the system, according to Hoiberg.
“I’ve always been a multi-handler guy,” Hoiberg said. “When you have multiple players who can get into the paint and make plays, I think it makes you much more difficult to guard...It’s not only about ball-screens, it’s about hitting the big.”
Hoiberg will also need to decide who he will play as his offball shooter or general offball creator. Senior guard Kobe Webster is one piece who may prove valuable. The guard’s contribution was limited at times last year, but he was able to fashion a role for himself as a good 3-point threat with even some driving potential if need be.
Barring the use of Bryce McGowens in a backcourt pair with Verge, or another such combination, the other pick for offball shooter is sophomore Keisei Tominaga. Tominaga is best known for his devastating 3-point shooting ability and quickness off the ball.
Finally, Hoiberg will need to work out the situation down low with his big men. Walker was the leader of the section last season, having both solid rebounding ability and a distributing aptitude after said rebounds. Banton and Walker were both key cogs of Hoiberg’s early-offense heavy scheme last season.
Though Walker will certainly play significant minutes next year, he has one significant challenger in freshman forward Wilhelm Breidenbach. The 6-foot-10 Mater Dei prospect comes in as another star recruit for Nebraska, but he enters a crowded and interesting forward room.
“You throw Wilhelm into the mix as well, as a guy that can play in smaller lineups that can pick and pop and spread the defense out, take the bigs away from the basket,” Hoiberg said. “There’s so many bigs in this league, if you can take them out of the lane and create driving lanes that’ll open things up for everybody.”
Freshman center Eduardo Andre also played well last year at points, though he had glaring flaws in his game. His foot speed can be a little questionable at points and his usage is limited to the low post. Andre will likely play a role, just as the other players mentioned will, but the primary battle in the big man room will be between Walker and Breidenbach.
How the team will eventually line up is unknown at this time, but Hoiberg relishes the challenge of finding the most value in the team. At the same time, everyone is excited to show that progress Friday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Walker echoed this sentiment. After all, his first year in Nebraska, he wasn’t able to play. He didn’t have eligibility from two seasons ago, and there were very few fans last season.
“I’m so excited,” Walker said. “I didn’t get to play, you know, I was still a fan. So I can’t even tell them what it’s going to be like because I have to sit through it.”