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2020-’21 Nebraska Cornhuskers Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2020-’21 season.

Nebraska v Illinois

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Last season saw the start of the Fred Hoiberg era in Lincoln. What started off with much fanfare regarding the Huskers finally putting their Big Ten paychecks to good use drawing in a big name hire for a criminally ignored major sports program turned a bit nightmarish as a cobbled together roster of mostly junior college signees limped to a 7-25 overall record.

Nobody foresaw the second game of the Big Ten Tournament being the end of the 2019-2020 season for anyone besides Nebraska though, as a roster that needed football players to fill out got blown out by Indiana and a visibly struggling Coach Hoiberg succumbed to a bout of the flu and had to leave the sideline. The Huskers season ended, and so did all post-season play the next morning as the novel coronavirus began months of lockdowns and changed life habits for us all.

However, year two looks to begin with excitement as, well, first off it is starting at all on Wednesday of this week. Secondly, promising freshman got needed experience and higher profile P6 transfers sat out their requisite year or received waivers to play this season. So let’s take a look at what Nebraska has to offer fans this season.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 7-25 (2-18)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #162
  • NET Rating: #199
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A

The season is probably deemed as “ideally forgotten about” by most Nebraska fans. The 7-25 record is not what anyone quite expected going into last season, even with the patched together roster. Nebraska dropped its season opener to UC Riverside badly, 66-47, and game two to Southern Utah in overtime. They also suffered blowout losses George Mason, Georgia Tech, and in-state rival Creighton before almost taking down Indiana in early conference play on the road. Despite forcing overtime, Indiana prevailed. Nebraska did go on to topple Purdue big time 70-56 the very next game and upset Iowa as well 76-70, but went on to a program record 17 losses. Moral victories of close losses aside, it was ugly and best left in the past.

Does a once again almost completely turned over roster have the potential to cause a stir in another deep year for the Big Ten?

2. Offseason Exits

This is yet again a long list of players, though not quite as long as last season’s. With that in mind, I will list them in full and highlight the important losses. Gone as a result of exhausting eligibility are Matej Kavas and Haanif Cheatham. As a result of transfers, the Huskers have also lost Cam Mack, Kevin Cross, Dachon Burke JR., Samari Curtis, Jervay Green, and Charlie Easley (gone to transfer also is one game member Noah Vedral, but the football player was unlikely to remain on the roster this season. Nor likely to participate again is fellow football player Brant Banks, though he remains at UNL, unlike Vedral who left for Rutgers).

The biggest loss of the list is Cam Mack. The junior college point guard came into Lincoln last season and proved a great fit for Hoiberg’s system generally. He was the third leading scorer on the team with 12 points per game, and he was somehow the third leading rebounder as well with 4.5 boards per game. Where Mack especially excelled, though, was assists as he both led Nebraska and was third overall in the Big Ten with 6.4 per game. Oh, and Mack remains to this day the only player in Nebraska program history to record a trouble-double as a Husker.

Also a big loss production wise at least is Haanif Cheatham. The Florida Gulf Coast transfer was both a rare example on the court of upper-classmen leadership from the DI level, and the leading scorer on the team. Cheatham was not exactly an elite scorer in the Big Ten, tied for 15th in the league, but 13.1 points per game is also not remotely something to scoff at and are vital points for the Huskers to replace going into the season. Besides scoring, Cheatham helped but hardly ranked high on the team for rebounds (3.9 per game) and assists (1.6 per game).

Dachon Burke will also be a concern for Nebraska in finding a replacement. Burke was the second leading scorer for Nebraska last season with his 12.2 points per game. Both Mack and Burke were suspended from the team by the end of the season, and missed numerous games and were lost their starter role for even more due to off-court issues. Regardless, replacing Burke and Mack’s production will be key for the Huskers if they are going to improve their record from last season.

Finally, I will also mention Charlie Easley. The Lincoln walk-on earned a scholarship for the spring semester, and ended up starting in four games during the season while playing in 28 total. The freshman left for a scholarship at South Dakota State. However, while his stats sheet wasn’t long, Easley was a dedicated player when on the floor and brought an energy to every play that some of the guys ahead of him lacked at times. This especially mattered on defense where some of the other players were not always as focused in when playing off-ball as needed.

3. New Additions

Joining the team as freshman this season includes Elijah Wood and Eduardo Andre. Transfers or additions from the junior college ranks include Teddy Allen, Trey McGowens, Chris McGraw, Kobe Webster, Lat Mayen, and Trevor Lakes. Again, this list is long and represents an almost entire roster makeover just like last season’s. With that in mind, I am going to primarily focus on the players likely to make an immediate impact for this season.

Perhaps the biggest pick-up for the Huskers in this group is Trey McGowens. The Pittsburgh transfer was a two year starter for the Panthers, and last season was fourth in the ACC in steals, averaging 1.9 per game. McGowens was a composite four-star out of high school per 247 Sports, and averaged 11.6 points per game during his two years with Pittsburgh. The 6-foot-4 McGowens decided to transfer so he could play at point guard instead.

Also in the backcourt, Kobe Webster and Teddy Allen should be important immediate additions to the roster. Webster is a grad transfer from Western Illinois. He was an elite shooter with the Leathernecks, ranking 13th all-time in scoring with 1,417 career points in his three seasons and averaging 17.1 points per game his final season.

Teddy Allen had a long path to get to Lincoln despite being an Omaha native. He initially went to West Virginia, but transferred to Wichita State after his freshman season. After sitting out a year as a transfer, he got into off-court issues and was kicked off the team. He spent the last season at Western Nebraska Community College at the JuCo level where he averaged 31.4 points per game. If he can manage to keep his 37-percent shooting from three alive in the Big Ten, he will be a big scoring threat for the Huskers.

As for the front court, Lat Mayen and Eduardo Andre look to help add depth this season. Mayen initially played for TCU his first two seasons after committing to the Horned Frogs as the top rated prospect out of Australia in the 2017 class. After redshirting his freshman year, he struggled with injuries in his first season on the court and transferred to Chipola College, a JuCo in Florida. If he can stay healthy, Mayen should help provide experienced depth in the center and power forward role this season.

Eduardo Andre is a big man at least in height that the Cornhuskers lacked last season. The 6-foot-10 freshman is a three-star recruit out of Arizona who averaged 10.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per game as a senior in high school. His 7-foot-3 wingspan will come in handy down the road. Don’t expect a lot of minutes from Andre this season unless there is a lot of foul trouble ahead of him, but he should see some limited action on the court this season and prove to be a valuable roster addition in the years to come.

4. Points of Optimism

There isn’t really a lot to say on this note that hasn’t already been hinted at. This team is once again a mostly revamped roster. There are a lot of question marks as to whether players can stay healthy, compete at the Power Six level, and be a big enough difference maker in a loaded Big Ten to improve their prospects and standings come March. The optimism fans should hold in terms of believing that can happen is the quality in talent being added to the roster.

With transfers like McGowens and Mayen, players like Shamiel Stevenson and Dalano Banton who had to sit out last year after transferring, and returning players like Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Yvan Ouedraogo, there is a big upgrade in talent and experience over the patchwork roster put together for year one under Coach Hoiberg. The players on this roster have seen time on the court against high-level opponents, and that goes a long way toward development.

Players like McGowens received high marks as best transfer pick-ups during the off-season. Ourdraogo reportedly improved his diet and overall strength and is being lauded as explosive by the coaching staff in his play during fall practice thus far. The French player going into last season had not done any weight training prior to arriving on campus, and it should make a big difference. Finally, the only truly long term rock of the Husker program this season, Thor had a breakout season last year as a junior. While he is not necessarily likely to start, he’s a valuable shooter and even more important player on the defensive end and should help provide leadership among the once again new roster.

With the mixture of fresh talent and experienced and improved returning players, there is certainly the prospect of moving up the standings in the Big Ten from the basement of last season.

5. Points of Concern

As already mentioned, this team is a giant question mark. While there are plenty of shooters being added, many of those shooters were at programs less than the Power Six level. Further, none are quite at the truly elite level of a true lights out difference maker when it comes to a needed “go to” scorer. While some like Teddy Allen shoot close to 40-percent, it was at the JuCo level last season. As shown with players last year, that is not a guarantee that rate transfers to the Big Ten.

The other issue is the fact players had to spend an extended period off campus in lockdowns during the off season. With changes in how players can practice, support staff assistance and ability to participate as scout teams, and general limits on interactions with staff even during the season, that leaves a lot of question marks to answer with less access from the outside world to help answer some of them in the preseason. As a result, most everything is a point of concern to a degree for such a reshaped roster.

6. Top Player

I think most likely this will end up being Trey McGowens. He is the most high-profile addition to the roster and should provide a combination of scoring, assists, and defensive talent to elevate the team at the point guard role. In addition to that, he has some of the best experience as a two year starter for an ACC squad. While Pittsburgh has hardly been a power in the ACC the last two seasons, going against some of the top teams in the country on a regular basis provides invaluable experience for a player.

7. 2020-’19 Schedule Breakdown

Non-Conference Schedule:

  • 11/25 - McNeese State
  • 11/26 - TBD
  • 11/28 - TBD
  • 12/1 - South Dakota
  • 12/6 - Florida A&M
  • 12/9 - Georgia Tech
  • 12/11 - at Creighton

Conference Schedule

  • 12/21 - at Wisconsin
  • 12/25 - Michigan
  • 12/30 - at Ohio State
  • 1/2 - Michigan State
  • 1/5 - at Purdue
  • 1/10 - Indiana
  • 1/13 - Illinois
  • 1/16 - at Maryland
  • 1/20 - Minnesota
  • 1/24 - at Iowa
  • 1/30 - Penn State
  • 2/3 - at Michigan State
  • 2/7 or 2/8 - at Minnesota
  • 2/11 - Wisconsin
  • 2/14 - at Penn State
  • 2/17 - Maryland
  • 2/20 - Purdue
  • 2/24 - at Illinois
  • 2/28 - Rutgers
  • 3/6 or 3/7 - at Northwestern

Nebraska initially had a decent slate of games lined up for their Golden Window Classic in Lincoln, but then on Friday many of them pulled out of the event leaving it influx. Without further information as of this writing, the only games that are worth mention is a chance to revenge their loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta last year in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge as the Yellow Jackets come to Lincoln this year with a much improved Husker roster. The in-state rivalry against Creighton is great to see preserved (presuming there are no further issues and everyone in the Bluejay program currently dealing with COVID-19 recovers alright), but is an unlikely win for Nebraska as Creighton enters the season No. 11 in the preseason AP rankings.

The Huskers get no favors from the Big Ten with the opening slate of games. An immediate road game at Wisconsin followed by a Christmas day game against Michigan? Yikes. Then a road trip to Ohio State and a home game against Michigan State is just brutal to start. By the time Illinois comes to Lincoln on Jan. 13, the Huskers will be lucky to be better than 1-5. The only real break the Huskers get is drawing Iowa and Rutgers both just once, while getting Purdue, Minnesota, and Penn State twice each. But as for the preseason favorites in the Big Ten, Nebraska faces Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan State twice each while having to face Iowa on the road and getting Rutgers just once in Lincoln.

After that brutal opening, the challenging games get spread out just a bit more through the rest of the season as well.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Trey McGowens (Jr.) - 80%
  • SG: Kobe Webster (Sr.) - 65%
  • SF: Thorir Thorbjarnarson (Sr.) - 75%
  • PF: Lat Mayen (RS Jr.) - 75%
  • C: Yvan Ouedraogo (So.) - 75%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Point guard going to Trey McGowens seems like a given for the lineup. While Coach Hoiberg has made clear in preseason comments he plans to vary the starting lineup from game to game, and play different squads any given game based on matchups (a luxury he mostly lacked with last season’s roster), I think it will be easy to predict McGowens is the go-to starter at point guard regardless. After that it is unclear based on how many newcomers there are.

I think seniority will give the nod to Kobe Webster, at least to start the season, at the shooting guard position. At Western Illinois, Webster saw some good programs in the non-conference and performed well. Combined with his status as a senior, I think at least to start the season he will get the nod over underclassmen at this role.

My pick of Thor to get the starting job at the small forward role will draw plenty of criticism I imagine. However, I think once again it is simply a matter of at the start of the season we see the nod go to the mature player who has experience playing under Coach Hoiberg. As the season progresses he might lose the role, but Thor proved himself again and again to be a competent player who knew how to space the floor on offense, is a talented enough shooter he can score when needed, and showed he was absolutely vital on the defensive end of the floor. As a result, I think Coach Hoiberg likely gives him the starting job until those further down the depth chart can show coming off the bench they can outperform Thor.

If Mayen is healthy heading into the season, I think his status as a redshirt junior along with experience at TCU give him the starting job to lose as the power forward. And Ouedraogo is the returning center whose experience starting in 30 of Nebraska’s 32 games last season should give him the clear nod over incoming freshman at the center role. The only question on this I personally have is whether Hoiberg swaps the extra inch of height for Mayen to play center and moves Ouedraogo to the four this season instead.

9. Team Perspective From Patrick L Gerhart of Corn nation

Last year was almost a year zero for Fred Hoiberg and his crew. They gutted the team minus two players and ended the year at 7-25. However, there is a lot to look forward to in this upcoming season.

Many of last year’s starters are gone so I would throw out any data coming into this year. Like last season, this is another transfer heavy roster. Keep an eye on the talent such as Trey McGowans who comes to Nebraska after playing at Pitt. The Huskers also have former Pitt player Shamel Stevens who is finally eligible to play. Senior guard Kobe Webster from Western Illinois should also be an impact player for the Big Red. Also of note is former Boystown star and West Virginia Mountaineer Teddy Allen who has come back home to play for the Huskers.

All of these players are new to Fred’s fast pace system but should be a step up from last year’s inexperienced squad. I would expect Nebraska to improve on last season’s record and compete for at least the middle tier of the Big Ten this year. But, like last year, you will still see lot of shots made inside and outside the three point line and a speed that will leave a few Big Ten teams in the dust.

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You can follow Patrick on Twitter for all his Nebrasketball coverage here, and be sure to follow Of Bangarangs and Daggers on Twitter here as he and I both co-host the podcast to give you all the latest news on Nebrasketball.

10. Overall Season Outlook

As difficult of a conference as the Big Ten projects to be this season, I personally think they will drastically improve compared to last season’s results. With the influx of better talent available and a larger share of the conference clearly in rebuild mode, it would be quite the surprise to see Nebraska finish in last. I don’t have any particular player to point to entering the season to show “this is why” that is the case, but I do think the general uptick in experience among both the coaching staff and players should set Nebraska up for an improved finish more like No. 10 in the final standings.

Overall, this is a squad that can score some upsets against teams that don’t take them seriously, but they aren’t likely to many big upsets outright. Against more evenly matched squads, this Husker team should be able to best them more often than not, unlike last year.

Big Ten Prediction: 14th Place