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Nebraska’s Trey McGowens (2) celebrates with teammates during their game against Peru State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In 2019, the last year of former Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Tim Miles’ tenure, the Huskers won 19 games and made it to the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. 

Following that season, though, then-athletic director Bill Moos fired Miles, opting to move the program in a different direction. Moos and MIles’ relationship can best be described as tenuous despite Nebraska’s on-court success, and in the final days of Miles’ tenure, he seemed to come to terms with the fact the Huskers’ hadn’t seen enough consistent success under his guidance to justify another season at the helm.

In the two years since Miles was removed from the position, Nebraska is a combined 14-45 under current head coach Fred Hoiberg. It has won just five Big Ten games across two years, or one less than the Huskers won in Miles’ final season in charge. 

The NIT appearance was Nebraska’s last in any sort of postseason tournament. Nebraska has finished in last place in the Big Ten in consecutive seasons and, as a result, has played on the first night of the Big Ten Tournament in each of Hoiberg’s first two campaigns.

If everything goes according to plan in 2021-22, all of that could completely change.

Let’s backtrack a bit. College basketball’s large postseason, heavy use of the transfer portal and lengthy seasons makes season-to-season improvement and turning a program much easier than, let’s say, football. But going from a seven-win outfit to a team national college basketball reporters think could make the NCAA Tournament? That seems a bit farfetched. 

Well, sort of. When evaluating the state of the program under Hoiberg entering the third season of his tenure, the most important thing to understand is that his first two seasons at the helm can both essentially be rendered a wash. 

When Hoiberg was originally hired in March 2019, he essentially stripped the program completely bare and began to build from the ground up. Just two players returned from Miles’ final squad to Hoiberg’s first one, and a majority of the roster was compiled rather hastily with mid-major and junior college transfers.

As one would expect of a roster assembled in about three months, things derailed quickly — an opening night 66-47 loss to UC Riverside set the tone for a disastrous campaign that concluded with two Nebraska football players joining the team for the Big Ten Tournament. The Huskers concluded the season losing 17 consecutive games. 

More roster turnover and a pandemic dominated Nebraska’s 2020-21 season, and a limited and constantly changing nonconference schedule gave the team little time to gel. Then, on Jan. 11, the hammer dropped.

The program and team activities were suspended for almost a month due to a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak, an outbreak that essentially wrecked the season. Nebraska closed the season well, with a 72-51 thumping of an NCAA Tournament team in Rutgers as the highlight, but the team was clearly impacted by its packed schedule to close the regular season. 

Optimism surrounding Nebraska basketball is so justifiable because, ahead of this season, Hoiberg finally has two critical things working in his favor, things critical in laying the groundwork for a successful season: a normal, complete offseason and a talented crop of returning players. 

Three returning players, if exhibition play is any indication, will start for the Huskers in Tuesday night’s season-opener against Western Illinois. Junior forward Lat Mayen, who led Nebraska with 48 3-pointers and started all 27 contests last season, will feature in Nebraska’s frontcourt significantly this season, although an injury may rule him out of the Western Illinois contest. 

Alongside Mayen will more than likely be junior forward Derrick Walker, a Tennessee transfer who’s been with the program for all of Hoiberg’s first season. Walker started all 16 games he was eligible for following an NCAA suspension. 

Nebraska’s other starting returner is junior guard Trey McGowens, who also started all 27 games for Nebraska last season. Regarded as the point-of-attack defender in Nebraska’s defensive scheme, McGowens finished fifth in the Big Ten last season with 1.4 steals per contest. He may not be relied upon to score as frequently as he did last season, but he did reach double-digit points in 17 contests.

The Huskers’ other returning pieces from a season ago expected to contribute are senior guard Kobe Webster, senior forward Trevor Lakes and freshman forward Eduardo Andre. All three, despite showing flashes of potential last season, surprisingly were buried further down the rotation in Nebraska’s exhibition contests. 

It’s a testament to how deep and talented the Huskers are this season, a far cry from 2019.

Hoiberg’s teams at the collegiate level have been famously built by transfers, and Nebraska has a dearth of high-level newcomers that arrived in Lincoln via the transfer portal. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., the 2019-20 Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year and a former two-time junior college All-American, looked like the best player on Nebraska’s roster during its exhibition contests.

Sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga is an established 3-point shooting specialist at the junior college level and competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with Japan’s 3x3 basketball team. 

Freshman guard CJ Wilcher featured in 15 games for Xavier last season, and fellow freshman guard Keon Edwards appeared in five games for DePaul in the 2020 season and has been one of the more impressive Husker players as preseason play concludes. 

And then there’s the true freshmen. Forward Wilhelm Breidenbach is a multi-tooled big man that’s more than capable of stretching the floor. Guard Bryce McGowens, brother of Trey, is the first five-star recruit in program history and has limitless potential in terms of his development — whether he goes the one-and-done route or stays in Lincoln for multiple seasons. 

Even in the Big Ten, rated as the toughest conference in college basketball according to Kenpom.com, Nebraska has the talent necessary to get out of the Big Ten’s basement and earn a spot in some sort of postseason tournament, whether it be the NIT or the NCAA Tournament. 

Either option would represent a massive leap for Hoiberg’s squad, but it’s a leap this team appears able to take — especially after an 82-67 exhibition victory over Colorado last Sunday. Kenpom.com projects the Buffaloes as the No. 35 team in college basketball per adjusted efficiency. The Huskers, ahead of the season-opener, sit at No. 81, a fair ranking for an intriguing team entering a massive “prove it” year.

When all’s said and done, though, ranking the Huskers as the 81st-best team in college basketball could be vastly underselling this season’s team. With everything going the way it’s going for the program, it’s unwise to bet against Hoiberg blowing preseason expectations out of the water.

sports@dailynebraskan.com