Nebraska Men's Basketball vs. Indiana Photo No. 3

Nebraska’s Trey McGowens (2) knocks the ball loose during the game against Indiana at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

After months of disheartening losses and inconsistent play, Nebraska men’s basketball finally received a lifeline on Monday. 

Junior guard Trey McGowens, who had been sidelined since Nov. 16 after breaking his foot in the Huskers’ loss to Creighton, made his much-anticipated return to action against Indiana on Monday night. Pinnacle Bank Arena erupted when he made his way to the scorer’s table to check in, and McGowens was promptly greeted with a bear hug from junior forward Lat Mayen.

If Nebraska were to make serious strides towards salvaging yet another season firmly in the Big Ten’s basement, Monday felt like the perfect opportunity. The Hoosiers had yet to win a true road game and were coming off of an 83-74 road loss to Iowa in a game Indiana let slip away. 

McGowens said postgame that the team’s energy felt different before the Huskers stepped on the court. When the final buzzer sounded, the result was no different. 

Nebraska dropped its sixth consecutive game and 11th of its last 12 in a 78-71 loss to Indiana, a game marred by situations all-too familiar for the Huskers this season. Here are three takeaways from the loss:

Let’s talk about defense

Once upon a time, head coach Fred Hoiberg’s Nebraska team was a top-50 defensive unit in college basketball. Last season, to be exact. Even in a 7-20 season, the Huskers finished 2020-21 No. 40 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com.

With a good chunk of key players from last season’s team returning, further analysis of Nebraska’s defensive decline this season becomes even murkier.

The Hoosiers became the sixth consecutive team to eclipse the 75-point threshold on Nebraska this season. In 12 games against Power Six opponents, the Huskers have allowed 10 opponents to score 75 points or more. The result is a defense that, through 19 games, ranks No. 175 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. 

Monday’s game was the quintessential example of the highly volatile nature of Nebraska’s defense. There was plenty of good, especially down the stretch, as Nebraska attempted to mount a late rally led by forcing five turnovers in a two-minute span. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. recorded four total steals and Nebraska forced 14 total Indiana turnovers.

Those good moments were too few and far between, though. Indiana shot 16-of-26 from the field in the first half, buoyed by a 14-point, six-rebound first-half effort from Hoosier junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis. Hoiberg and McGowens both noted postgame that Nebraska’s initial gameplan was to limit Indiana’s star forward’s usage of his left hand, which Nebraska was unable to do on a consistent basis. Jackson-Davis finished with a game-high 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting and 12 rebounds.

Nebraska was a bit better defensively in the second half after allowing Indiana to score 45 points in the first. The Hoosiers shot 45.8% from the field but did convert 3-of-6 3-pointers, including two key triples from senior guard Parker Stewart. Nebraska’s inconsistency on defense ultimately outweighed any positives, a key reason for the team’s current losing streak.

Fouls become a story, again

When Hoiberg made the decision to re-center Nebraska’s offense around junior forward Derrick Walker, nights like Monday are what he feared most.

Akin to the Purdue game, Walker picked up two early fouls which resulted in extremely limited first-half minutes. He played six minutes in the first half and just over 19 minutes in the contest, the second-fewest of any Husker starter.

His absence was a crucial reason for yet another disjointed Husker offensive effort. Walker attempted three field goals on Monday and recorded four points, his lowest scoring output since Nebraska’s 102-67 loss to Michigan on Dec. 7.

“It was almost like ‘here we go again’ for Derrick. It almost looked like that was in his mind tonight,” Hoiberg said postgame. “He’s continued to fight through, continued to battle and he’s been our biggest warrior throughout this stretch.”

Walker was far from the only player facing foul trouble on Monday night. A tightly-officiated, chippy game saw 42 total fouls called and four players, Walker included, record four personal fouls.  

McGowens gives much-needed lift on both sides of the ball

It was almost poetic that McGowens’ first field goal attempt of Monday’s game, a first-half 3-pointer with the game tied at 14, found nothing but nylon.

The contest was far from his finest offensive effort, displaying some signs of rust following a multi-month absence, but he was much more initially involved than many expected. In 21 minutes, McGowens finished with seven points. His early 3-pointer was his lone field goal of the game, also going 4-of-4 from the free throw line.

His presence was most appreciated on the defensive end. McGowens’ skills as a talented on-ball defender were clearly not inhibited by his foot injury. In particular, he made life difficult for Indiana junior guard Xavier Johnson — McGowens’ former teammate at Pittsburgh. McGowens helped force Johnson into five turnovers on Monday while he shot just 2-of-5 from the field. 

The biggest testament to McGowens’ overall health came on one of the contest’s most crucial junctures. Down 73-67 with under 50 seconds remaining, Hoiberg opted not to foul and instead defend the Hoosiers straight up, with McGowens providing relentless on-ball pressure on Johnson.

As the Indiana point guard began his drive to the basket with 28 seconds left, he made contact with McGowens, who fell backwards in hopes of drawing an offensive foul on Johnson. He didn’t, and Johnson then made two free throws to ice the game.

Still, McGowens’ return was an impressive one given the circumstances. He noted postgame that he “felt good,” defensively and is looking forward to regaining some more downhill explosiveness offensively. Hoiberg, meanwhile, made sure to note the extreme caution his staff took in re-acclimating McGowens to game fitness.

“We have a chip that our guys wear underneath their jerseys. When I met with our trainer at halftime, he said that [McGowens’] load was at a perfect spot and we could up his minutes by about three in the second half,” Hoiberg said. “So that’s what the decision was, to get him up over 21 [minutes], right in line with where we wanted his load to be.”

While it wasn’t enough to will Nebraska to victory on Monday, McGowens’ reentry into Nebraska’s lineup could be the boost the Huskers need to get over the hump in conference play.

sports@dailynebraskan.com