Nebraska men’s basketball finished last place in the Big Ten last year with a 7-25 record. This year, the players want to make school history.
“All of us have talked about it,” freshman Wilhelm Breidenbach said. “Obviously nobody came here to lose, we all want to win, and we all identified that we have a team that can turn it around. Pretty much everyday we talk about it. We can do it; we just have to get into that position.”
Being one of the best teams in school history seems like it could be a lofty goal for this squad. They return just six players from last year’s team, while adding eight new players. Among their losses are leading scorer Teddy Allen, who transferred to New Mexico State, and leading rebounder Delano Banton, who left school early for the NBA Draft.
“It’s not easy playing with a bunch of new guys,” junior Lat Mayen said. “It takes time to build that chemistry and find out what it is that you need to do on the team or what it is a team needs.”
To make history, the Huskers will have to rely heavily on the new unit. On paper, it’s the best unit of new players the school has ever had. Along with three transfers, the team brings in five freshmen, two of whom are top 100 players in the 2021 class. Their biggest signee is Bryce McGowens, who is the first five-star signee in Nebraska basketball history. He’s the brother of Husker junior Trey McGowens.
Bryce and Trey McGowens haven’t played basketball together since Trey was 8 years old and Bryce was 5 years old. The most work they’ve gotten together has been in playing pickup games over the years, games where Bryce said Trey was a “dog” on the court. He said playing with his brother was a contributing factor in his decision to attend Nebraska.
“I love the school, love the coaching staff,” Bryce McGownes said. “Everything that’s built around the university, and just being able to play with my brother, which I’ve never really done. The games that we always played; it was competitive. Having a dog beside you that’s going to get after it, he makes everybody else better.”
While Bryce and Trey McGowens have natural chemistry, the team is still figuring out how to meld together on the court. Mayen says on-court chemistry starts with bonding off the court. He says it has come naturally so far.
“We’ve got to like each other, we’ve got to like playing with each other, we’ve got to like hanging out with each other,” Mayen said, “When everybody came in, we just kind of clicked. I didn’t even have to say nothing, and nobody said anything. It’s just what it was.”
It’s an important step for a group mixed with new and old players, a step that was much harder for the team to take last year. COVID-19 protocols limited the number of players who could practice at a time last offseason, and entire team gatherings away from the facility were off the table. Trey McGowens said the more routine offseason has prompted the team to spend time together often.
“Whether everybody just comes to my house to hang out, go to someone else’s, go to coach’s, it’s just being together,” Trey McGowens said. “Building a relationship with each other to where if something goes wrong, we can talk to each other.”
Movie watching, going out to eat, and trips to TopGolf and Henry Doorly Zoo are among the daily team building exercises.
The chemistry is essential in coach Fred Hoiberg’s system. The pace-and-space scheme emphasizes movement and tempo, and any player on the court could have the opportunity to initiate the offense. Mayen said players are interchangeable in the scheme, enhancing the importance that every player is on board.
“There are going to be days where you come in, you might only get five shots,” Mayen said. “The next day you might get 15 shots. That’s just how the offense is. Anybody’s got to step up when it’s time to step up.”
Breidenbach said playing without egos on the court has been refreshing.
“I think it’s been cool because for the first time I’m playing with guys who when you get on the court it’s all egos aside,” Breidenbach said. “It’s just 10 guys going up and down, playing, which is great. I know that makes all of us better because we’re not worried about an ego.”
The lack of egos doesn’t mean a lack of competitive spirit. C.J. Wilcher, a freshman transfer from Xavier, said practices are always super competitive, whether it be playing pickup games or running drills. He said it’s hard to differentiate the first group from the second group, as everyone is playing with intensity.
“If you were to watch our practice, and the energy we give throughout the practice, I don’t think you could tell what the history was for the past couple years,” Wilcher said. “I feel like we’re all focused on the present and moving forward and getting better.”
Perhaps that feeling comes from a largely different team this year, and those players will likely play big roles in deciding the fate of Nebraska’s season. The players are impressed with the skill of the team so far. Mayen called Bryce McGowens “special” and “explosive,” adding that he acts like a professional and not a freshman. Trey McGowens said Wilcher can “shoot the lights off,” and Wilcher feels he’s the best shooter on the team. The players are impressed with Keon Edwards’ athleticism and shooting ability. Mayen said he wants to lead the Big Ten in 3-point percentage. Trey McGowens said Breidenbach is versatile with his ability to work in the post and to stretch the floor. Bryce McGowens said freshman Quaran McPherson is physical and a great facilitator.
The team believes there’s reason for optimism this season. They know the school has made only one NCAA Tournament appearance this century, and they know the Huskers are the only Power Conference school that has never won an NCAA Tournament game. It’s not something the team shies away from. It’s something they chase and plan to change.
“We talk about the history here a lot,” Wilcher said. “There’s not much as it pertains to basketball. So that’s what we’re shooting for: to make history. To be that team, or a part of those teams that make history here and part of the Nebraska culture.”