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2021-’22 Nebraska Cornhuskers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2021-’22 season.

Nebraska v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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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Year two of the Fred Hoiberg era did not turn out much better than year one in the end. The Huskers finished with a 7-20 record overall, but managed a 3-16 record in the Big Ten, one win better in conference play than year one.

Yet again a roster mostly made of new faces was on the court in year two, but that number of new faces will finally be down somewhat for Nebraska this season. Will the influx of rich talent and the existing core from last year prove enough to finally turn the corner in year three?

The team assembled in Lincoln this year does looks poised to have a lot of promising potential to be a dark horse bubble team come late February if things gel together the way the head coach hopes.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 7-20 (3-16)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #109
  • NET Rating: #129
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A

The team struggled early with losses to Nevada and less than surprising losses to Georgia Tech and No. 8 Creighton. However, conference play was a rough start with No. 9 Wisconsin on the road, No. 19 Michigan on Christmas Day, No. 25 Ohio State on the road, and No. 17 Michigan State to open conference play. A game at Purdue was postponed Jan. 5, but the next game against Indiana on Jan. 10 would be the final game for Nebraska for almost a month. A long COVID-19 pause due to the virus ravaging the roster and causing symptomatic infection of roughly half the roster and most of the coaching staff meant the team did not play again until Feb. 6 at Michigan State.

Now, Nebraska, unlike the conference crown winner, was forced by the Big Ten to try and squeeze in the remainder of the regular season schedule over the coming weeks, including flipping a game against Maryland to back-to-back games in College Park instead. Overall, the Huskers played 14 games between Feb. 6 and March 7. Along the way Teddy Allen departed the team early and suddenly things on offense clicked far better to help pick up a few wins late against Minnesota and Rutgers.

Teddy “Buckets” Allen was the leading scorer last season with 16.5 ppg, though Trey McGowens was second with 10.7 ppg. Dalano Banton led the team in rebounds (5.9 rpg) and assists (3.9 apg).

2. Offseason Exits

This is yet again a long list of players for the Huskers. As previously mentioned, Teddy Allen departed the team early, the announcement coming March 1, eventually transferring to New Mexico State. Banton also left early for the NBA, getting drafted late in the second round by his hometown team the Toronto Raptors for a two-way deal.

Also gone is longtime roster stalwart Thorir Thorbjarnarson who graduated and moved back home to Iceland to play in the professional ranks. Thor was the only player to last four years in Nebraska for the foreseeable future until some of Hoiberg’s latest recruits are graduating. Shamiel Stevenson also left the roster early to pursue a career in the professional ranks.

Yvan Ouedraogo left to the transfer portal, Grand Canyon University in his case. Ouedraogo was a freshman in Hoiberg’s first class, but was seeing fewer and fewer minutes as he finished his sophomore year.

Finally, gone are Elijah Wood (transfer, Eastern Illinois), Bret Porter (transfer), and Akol Arop (transfer, Nebraska-Omaha). None saw significant minutes in 2020-21.

3. New Additions

Nebraska once again hit the transfer portal hard this offseason. However, that group of incoming transfers was actually outweighed by the numbers of incoming freshman in overall numbers. Not only that, Nebraska’s 2021 class was No. 18 nationally and No. 3 in the Big Ten per 247Sports. The Huskers even added the highest rated recruit in the modern era in program history.

Perhaps the biggest pick-up for UNL in terms of immediate impact will likely be Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. He was a dynamic scorer at point guard for the Sun Devils and can likely fill the shoes of departed starter Dalano Banton. Verge, Jr. averaged 14.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game for the Sun Devils. He was a starter in 21 of 23 games this past season after coming off the bench in 21 out of 28 games as a junior in his first season in Tempe.

Also out of the transfer portal is JuCo signee Keisei Tominaga. A native of Moriyama Nagoya Aichi, Japan, Tominaga was named to Japan’s B National team in August 2020. He earned Second-Team All-American honors this past season in his final year with Ranger College. Tominaga hit 198 three-pointers over his two seasons, good for a 48 percent shooting rate from deep. He also was a member of his home nation Japan’s three-man Olympic team this past summer in the Tokyo games.

Also from the transfer portal is DePaul’s Keon Edwards and Xavier transfer C.J. Wilcher. Edwards was a four-star prospect in the 2020 class, and played in five games for DePaul last year. He averaged 7.8 minutes and 1.8 points per game. Wilcher also arrives in Lincoln after one season with Xavier and was a four-star recruit in the 2020 class. He played in 15 games for Xavier and averaged 3.3 points and 1.1 rebounds per game in just over 10 minutes per game, while shooting 40 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three-point range.

As for the freshman, Nebraska added four players, though Tominaga counts as a fifth toward the class rather than a transfer. At the top of the 2021 class is five-star Bryce McGowens. He is the highest rated recruit in the modern era in Husker history, clocking in at the No. 28 player nationally, No. 4 shooting guard, and No. 1 in his home state per 247Sports. McGowens older brother, Trey, was already on the roster for the past few seasons in Lincoln and should see plenty of minutes this season.

Wilhelm Breidenbach is the second-highest rated recruit for Nebraska in the modern recruiting era to come straight to the Huskers out of high school, coming in behind classmate Bryce McGowens. The 200-pound big man is a skilled shooter from the outside and hails from Santa Ana, California. He was the No. 92 player in his class per 247Sports, and has a lot of potential.

Nebraska also adds three-star Quaran McPherson at shooting guard out of Link Academy in Branson Missouri and Oleg Kojenets at center out of Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio. McPhereson is listed at 6-foot-4 and 181 pounds and hails originally from Queens, New York. During a gap year program with the Link Year Lions near Branson, Missouri, he averaged around 19 points, seven rebounds, and four assists per game last season. Kojenets is a big man in the truest sense of the term as Nebraska lists him at 7-foot-0 and 220 pounds and is originally from Kaunas, Lithuania. He played four games for a Lithuanian U18 team in a 2020 tournament, and five games for Lithuania at the 2019 FIBA U16 European Championships. In the two international competitions, Kojenets shot nearly 50% overall, and posted a double-double against Slovenia in the FIBA event with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks.

4. Points of Optimism

At least on paper, this is probably the most talented group of players assembled in Lincoln in the modern recruiting era. Some squads in the 90s might have been better, but it is hard to objectively gauge that strictly on a recruiting star power. That is still a big deal.

The first two seasons of the Hoiberg era have seemed to rely on question marks for shooters. The offensive style Hoiberg runs absolutely relies on shooters that can get high on high volume use from deep. This squad has a wide range of players that should be able to step in on any given night to meet that need.

The Huskers also have added depth in the front court this season. Derrick Walker had to sit out a good portion of the 2020-21 season early on, but made an immediate impact down low once his suspension by the NCAA was ended. Add in freshman like Kojenets and there is plenty of depth for a team that has generally been vastly outmatched down low at center.

5. Points of Concern

Just because this team looks good on paper doesn’t mean it will pan out. It will feature a lot of youth and question marks at sorting out the rotations and lineups. Figuring that out is no small feat for a coaching staff. Thus far on the short track record of the staff in Lincoln the past two seasons, it has not gone overly well as of yet pulling that balance off. Is the third time really going to be the charm? It is hard to say.

On top of that, there is still a question mark at point guard. Can Alonzo Verge Jr. finally break the damn at point guard and power the Hoiberg offense to double-digit wins? Banton last season and Cam Mack the season prior failed to lead their teams to more than seven total wins. Verge has talent, but it is still a question mark right now if he can bring a game strong enough to compete at the Big Ten level.

6. Top Player

This one is a tough call. Last year I predicted Trey McGowens would likely be the top player, and to a degree in that he finished the season with the team that might have arguably been true. This season I will add I think it is a toss-up between McGowens and Alonzo Verge Jr.

McGowens could prove to be the all-important go to scorer for the team in the clutch moments when needed. However, Verge may prove to be the cog in the wheel that makes everything go. It is difficult to predict now which ends up proving more valuable, but I think in the end it will likely be the older McGowens.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

Non-Conference Schedule:

  • 10/21 - Peru State (Exh.) - W, 97-58
  • 10/31 - Colorado (Exh.) - W, 82-67
  • 11/9 - Western Illinois
  • 11/12 - Sam Houston State
  • 11/16 - Creighton
  • 11/19 - Idaho State
  • 11/21 - Southern
  • 11/23 - Tennessee State
  • 11/27 - South Dakota
  • 12/1 - at North Carolina State
  • 12/11 - Auburn (Atlanta, GA)
  • 12/19 - Kansas State
  • 12/22 - Kennesaw State

Conference Schedule

  • Sat., Dec. 4 at Indiana
  • Tues., Dec. 7 Michigan
  • Sun., Jan. 2 Ohio State
  • Wed., Jan. 5 at Michigan State
  • Sat., Jan. 8 at Rutgers
  • Tues., Jan. 11 Illinois
  • Fri., Jan. 14 at Purdue
  • Mon., Jan. 17 Indiana
  • Sat., Jan. 22 at Ohio State
  • Tues., Jan. 25 Wisconsin
  • Sat., Jan. 29 Rutgers
  • Tues., Feb. 1 at Michigan
  • Sat., Feb. 5 Northwestern
  • Wed., Feb. 9 Minnesota
  • Sun., Feb. 13 at Iowa
  • Fri., Feb. 18 Maryland
  • Tues., Feb. 22 at Northwestern
  • Fri., Feb. 25 Iowa
  • Mon., Feb. 28 at Penn State
  • Sun., March 6 at Wisconsin

I’m just going to come out and say it bluntly: that non-conference schedule is mostly a snooze button. Creighton will be an important game for the Husker faithful as an in-state rival, but the BlueJays are down this season and so lowers the game a bit as a result. NC State and Auburn are the only real games of note as a result, though old Big 8/12 foe Kansas State should also draw some fan interest. However, only three of the games should prove much of a challenge and any other losses plural in the non-conference slate should probably raise alarm bells to be frank.

As for conference play, the Huskers get the roughest out of the way to start. While a road trip to an Indiana squad arguably in a rebuild is reasonable enough, Nebraska then gets Michigan as the final early December matchup before later facing Ohio State, a road trip to MSU and then Rutgers, a home stand against Illinois, and a trip to Purdue all follows in that order. Ouch is putting it mildly. Come out of that stretch with even one win and the season is going better than it previously has the past two years.

The final eight games of league play offers a favorable slate with a home-and-home with Northwester, a visit from Minnesota and Maryland, and a road trip to Penn State all in the mix. Nebraska will need wins in that stretch to have any hope of a post-season, even NIT, and should be able to get some.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Alonzo Verge, Jr. (Sr.) - 90%
  • SG: Bryce McGowens (Fr.) - 90%
  • SF: Trey McGowens (Jr.) - 100%
  • PF: Lat Mayen (Jr.) - 99%
  • C: Derrick Walker (Jr.) - 99%

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

Point guard going to Alonzo Verge Jr. seems like a given as he is one of the few players on the roster who is actually a true point guard rather than a combo guard. Verge seems poised to lead the offense at least to start the season and there should be little doubt he will not see the bulk of the minutes at the position this year barring injury or unexpected struggles.

Trey McGowens should likely see his role in the starting lineup cemented for the season. As the leading returner scorer for the team, it should come as no surprise. While I list him as the small forward, given it is a Hoiberg offense that should mean little to most people. He and his brother Bryce will likely both play on the perimeter in a mixed shooting guard and small forward role. While younger brother Bryce may at times be replaced in the starting lineup as he learns the college game, his talent should more often than not see him in the starting role.

Down low it will likely stay at Lat Mayen and Derrick Walker all season barring injury. The two bring the best fit to what Hoiberg will want out of his big men with Mayen’s outside scoring threat able to stretch defenses while Walker brings a needed post presence down low for Big Ten action.

The rest of the rotation will be a work in progress to start the season. Hoiberg has made clear he feels he has too many players who can see heavy minutes and he wants to whittle that down from the 12 he sees now to nine or 10 ideally. Tominaga is likely to see minutes, along with C.J. Wilcher, Kobe Webster, Eduardo Andre, and Wilhelm Breidenback. Kojenets may be called on some for help with foul trouble but the freshman likely needs a year of strength and conditioning before he can bang down low with the big men of the league for heavy minutes, and some of the other players are question marks at more minutes being like.y

9. Team Perspective From Patrick L Gerhart of Corn nation

For the first time in awhile I can honestly say that Nebraska will have a good team. This is probably the most talented roster on paper that has taken the court in quite some time and maybe ever.

Coach Fred Hoiberg finally has the talent and expertise to at least be competitive in the Big Ten. The past two years of single digit wins should be in the rear view mirror this season. It should be a high scoring team which Fred likes. The shooting talent is finally here. However, don’t count out the defensive prowess of the squad. Assistant coach Doc Sadler is known for his ability to turn a team into a defensive wall that gives teams fits.

The Huskers are lead by brothers Bryce and Trey McGowens. Trey is the older of the two and the one who convinced his younger and highly ranked brother Bryce to come to Nebraska. Bryce was a five star recruit out of last year’s class and has already made himself a spot on the starting lineup. If you haven’t heard their names yet, you will once the season start. Expectations are hight in Lincoln with both of these players on the court.

Alonzo Verge Jr. is a transfer from Arizona State that was a scoring machine for the Sun Devils. He has already had double digit scoring games in both of the exhibition games that the Huskers have played in. Expect a lot of that from this senior transfer. The guy knows his way around the court and juke an opponent on his way to the basket with the best of them.

Derrick Walker is another major player from last year who will see ample playing time. He didn’t have a lot of eye popping stats last year but should have improved for this upcoming season with the amount of talent that is now around him.

Others of note are junior Lat Mayen and freshman Keisei Tominaga. Both will be major factors in the Huskers game plans this season I would not surprise me if one if not both have a breakout game at some point in time.

The increase of talent along with a Big Ten Conference that will be taking a step back from last year should bode well for the Huskers. Will they win the conference? I doubt it but they will be competitive enough to just maybe make it to the NCAA Tournament in 2022.

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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

With the Big Ten likely easier this season, though still hardly close to what anyone might consider a “cake walk,” the Huskers should easily improve this season in league play. The roster simply has too much talent on it and a full off-season under its belt generally free of COVID-19 issues this time to suffer the same fate of the past two seasons. However, it remains to be seen if Nebraska can climb out of the basement of the Big Ten where it has resided the past few seasons.

With the non-conference schedule what it is this year, however, there is no excuse or reason to think Nebraska cannot get into double-digit wins this season and finish above .500 at the end of March. The talent is there this year to even potentially surprise and finish in the top half of the league. I think it is safe to say that opponents will sleep on the Huskers this year at their peril.

Big Ten Prediction: 11th Place

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[Editor’s Note - The projected Big Ten finish here is by Thomas Beindit.]