With a roster full of playmakers, simplicity is key for Nebraska
With key returning veterans and some high-profile offseason additions, Nebraska’s backcourt should be full of playmakers in 2021-22.
The question, which could have as much of a say in the Huskers’ success as anything, is how many of those plays will be the right ones?
There appears to be no shortage of guard talent with weapons like Trey McGowens, Alonzo Verge Jr., Kobe Webster, Bryce McGowens, and more on the roster. But head coach Fred Hoiberg has been hammering home the idea that the "simple plays" are often more valuable than the highlight reels.
As NU closes in on the start of the season in a few weeks, that concept remains a work in progress.
“It is a delicate balance of when you want your guys to be aggressive, and they’re capable of getting into small gaps and make plays,” Hoiberg said. “At the same time, when a play is there to be made, you have to make it and trust that your teammate is going to make the next right play.”
Hoiberg wants his guards, with Trey McGowens and Verge expected to be two of the primary ball handlers, to be aggressive and play their brand of basketball. However, with a significant upgrade in perimeter shooting now around them, he also wants the backcourt to stay within the framework of his system.
Far too many times last season, the Huskers found themselves trying to do too much with the ball. Whether it was forcing contested shots in the paint or driving to the rim and jumping with no plan for what to do next, the decision-making was a mixed bag in 2020-21.
The Huskers turned the ball over 366 times in 26 regular-season games last year, an average of 14.1 per contest. They committed eight or more turnovers in every game, including a season-high 25 at Creighton.
Even worse, Nebraska ended the year with an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.0 and a turnover margin of -0.9. That margin dropped to -2.3 in its 19 Big Ten games.
Hoiberg said NU had worked on ball security and “simple play drills” every day in practice, and the team had generally been good with making the right decisions. Now that mentality needed to translate when the lights went on this season.
“Sometimes winning basketball is hitting a single,” Hoiberg said. “You don’t have to go out there and hit home runs every time. Our guys have done a much better job of taking care of the basketball. We stat every practice, and the assist-to-turnover ratio is much better than it was a year ago. Now the challenge is making sure we continue on that trend.”
The two players expected to be most responsible for that task are Trey McGowens and Verge.
Along with averaging 14.0 points per game last season at Arizona State, Verge ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in assists (3.8) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.55-to-1). Hoiberg praised the senior’s “feel for the game” and playmaking ability off the dribble drive.
McGowens steadily improved in that regard as last season went on. He ranked second on the team with 2.3 assists per game but bumped that up to 3.1 over NU’s final seven contests and had four or more assists in the last five games.
Hoiberg said the issue McGowens ran into was getting into the paint and trying to force plays in heavy traffic.
“Playing in a crowd and making a one-handed pass doesn’t work,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been better in that area. We talk about being an efficient player. You can’t be an efficient player and have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. I think our guys have bought into that well to this point.”
McGowens believed that the biggest reason he and the rest of Nebraska’s guards would be smarter with the ball this season was trust. Not just in their own ability to make plays but also in their teammates to do so as well.
“This year, I feel like we have so many weapons that it will really be so much easier compared to last year,” McGowens said. “We have spacing; we have shooters… It’s just going to make it super easy for me and Zo and open things up.
“I know we can get by the first defender every time, and defenses are going to have a tough time trying to decide if they’re going to give up a dunk or a layup or give up a three-ball.”