Basketball vs. Southern Photo No. 5

Nebraska’s Alonzo Verge Jr. (white) goes up for a layup during the game against Southern University at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The conference opener for Nebraska men’s basketball went south fast. After a red-hot start and taking a 14-4 lead, Nebraska was outscored 64-41 the rest of the way.

All the old problems reared their ugly heads. First it was poor shot selection and then anemic 3-point shooting. More often than not, those go hand-in-hand.

Once the Huskers faced the adversity of the Hoosier run, they crumpled. Maybe it was fatigue from the four overtime thriller against North Carolina State, or perhaps some of the new pieces experiencing their first road test in the Big Ten. It’s a loss all the same. Nebraska is now 1-24 under head coach Fred Hoiberg in road games.

Here are three takeaways following the loss on Saturday:

Verge giveth and taketh away

Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. has been one of the most maligned and discussed players on this 2021 team and rightfully so.

Verge has been a part of the highest of highs and lowest of lows in the early moments of the Husker’s season. When he is great he is a game changer. The same is true in poor performances but for the worse.

It’s easy to see why many can be so conflicted on Verge.

On Wednesday, he was the reason why Nebraska was so competitive against the Wolfpack. It was likely Verge’s best game so far this year. Verge finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and limited his turnovers to five while being the primary ball-handler.

Saturday was a totally different story. 

The fantastic decision making from his previous outing was gone. The frustration with Verge for Hoiberg was clear multiple times from the sidelines.

One play that sticks out above all others came in the second half. The Huskers were down 57-46 with the basketball. Verge tried a low-percentage fadeaway jumper and missed badly. Then he quickly fouled Indiana junior guard Xavier Johnson 40 feet from the basket. Johnson made both free-throws.

Nebraska went from a chance to cut the lead to single digits to down 13 in the blink of an eye because of Verge’s decision making. His wild 3-pointer with the shot clock off, erasing a chance to hold for the final shot in the first half, is another example.

This is not to say that Verge’s day was all-around bad. He still had 15 points, five rebounds and three assists Saturday.

That’s the hardest part. Reconciling the data with some of the on-court decisions. The empirical data says a ton about Verge. 6.3 assists per game is second in the conference. He has an assist to turnover ratio of 2.4 and is 16th in the country in assists per game.

It has been a roller coaster  with Verge and it likely won’t slow down soon. He’s producing but poor choices in at least two key moments hurt the Huskers Saturday.

One step forward, two steps back

The issues highlighted above with Verge are part of a larger problem for the Huskers. Every time it felt like Nebraska had made some progress, whether it be in the non-conference schedule or even moment to moment within a game, it had been a struggle to build off it.

That continued throughout the game Saturday. 

From the big picture, Nebraska had taken a step forward on Wednesday. Yes, it lost. But, the Huskers competed on the road and could argue that plenty of things didn’t go their way. Then, Nebraska went on the road and held a 14-4 lead at the under-12 media timeout.

That was a clear step forward. Then came the two steps back.

The Huskers held sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis to four first half points. Yet, once the Hoosiers brought in their bench they went on a run. Over the final 13:30 of the second half, Nebraska was outscored 22-8. 

Another broad example came on turnovers. In Tuesday’s Indiana double overtime loss to Syracuse, the Orange forced 26 Hoosier turnovers leading to 33 points. Nebraska forced 15 turnovers with 11 coming in the first half.

Step forward.

Off those turnovers, Nebraska only scored 11 points compared to 21 Hoosier points off of 14 Husker turnovers.

Step back.

The perfect moment-to-moment example came at the start of the second half. Nebraska ran a phenomenal set play. The ball touched every pair of hands on the floor and eventually, junior forward Lat Mayan found junior forward Derrick Walker Jr. for a layup to make it 26-24 Hoosiers.

On the ensuing defensive possession, sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga was asleep at the wheel in transition and left junior guard Parker Stewart free and clean in the corner. Stewart promptly sank the 3-pointer making it 29-24 Indiana.

Walker made a bad pass on the inbound, which was quickly stolen by Johnson for the Hoosiers and he put it up and in. In a matter of seconds, all of the Husker momentum from that opening play was gone. Indiana led by six and extended its lead to seven moments later. The Huskers never got closer than that.

So far in 2021, it has always been one step forward, two steps back.

McGowens has room to grow

This one may seem a bit disingenuous but it’s true.

It is still somewhat early in the year and obviously extremely early in freshman guard Bryce McGowens’ career, but he is not yet at the point where he can consistently dominate games for Nebraska.

McGowens did just score 24 points against North Carolina State on Wednesday in 58 minutes. That may have taken some of the wind out of his sails Saturday. But even against the Wolfpack, the Huskers didn’t go to him as often late.

That’s not his fault. After all, he already is fifth in the Big Ten with 18.5 points per game. 

On Saturday, he had eight points in the first half — a more-than-serviceable number in such a low scoring game. The only issue is he did not score for the rest of the game.

Shot selection was a huge issue for Nebraska. The Huskers were 5-of-22 from downtown, but three of those makes came in the waning moments of the game when the outcome was decided. The Huskers made their second 3-pointer with an even 6:00 to go in the second half. 

A lot of that was poor shot selection. Some of those shots belonged to McGowens.

McGowens was 1-of-5 from 3-point range and 3-of-14 from the field. His only made 3-pointer was his only quality look from beyond the arc. Every other shot was seriously extended well behind the line.

In his postgame radio interview, Hoiberg described the Hoosier defense as “physical.” That is a similar word to how Hoiberg described the defense of Creighton in a Nebraska loss in which McGowens was held to six points.

Sometimes McGowens has struggled against those types of defenses. There may be an adjustment period for him to that level of defense in the Big Ten and the collegiate level of physicality in general. 

Still, in a game like Saturday, Nebraska needs more out of its star.

He is still very young. In the short term, having “room to grow” is probably a negative. Nebraska needs to win tight and physical Big Ten games now. 

The positive is that there is a lot of room for McGowens to grow into. With a high ceiling, a solid work ethic, maturity and a coaching staff that helped former Husker guard Dalano Banton reach an NBA roster, McGowens has everything he needs to reach his potential.