Before taking the mic to emcee Nebraska’s “Opening Night with Husker Hoops” preseason event on Friday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena, CBS Sports national college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein took in NU’s morning practice.
Based on what he saw, his expectations for Nebraska in 2021-22 were raised a few notches.
Rothstein sat down with HuskerOnline.com to give his thoughts on the Huskers going into Fred Hoiberg’s third season in Lincoln…
CBS Sports national college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein said Nebraska had a window of opportunity to make a big jump this season.
There’s a lot of excitement around Nebraska’s program and fan base about what this season could be. Now that you’ve seen the team in person, what is the ceiling for this team in 2021-22?
“I just think when you look at the landscape right now of the Big Ten, the league is not in a position – at least not on paper – where it’s going to be as good as it was a year ago.
“So if you’re a team that’s looking to make a move like a Nebraska, like a Northwestern; with the what we’re seeing with new coaches at Penn State and Minnesota; with Wisconsin losing four starters; with Iowa losing Luka Garza and Joe Weiskamp to the pros – now is the time to make a move and get into the top half to the top eight to nine in this league.
“The biggest thing I took away from seeing practice today was it’s an improved offensive team, it’s a team that has a better talent level than it did a year ago, and we’re going to see a new dynamic in Alonzo Verge’s career because at Arizona State he wasn’t primarily on the ball; he was off the ball a lot. So there’s a lot of possibilities.
“I think you’re going to see an improved shooting team and an improved offensive team, but the question I have is, can Nebraska be a competent and capable defensive team.”
It seems that NU has obviously upgraded its shooting and overall offense. But as you mentioned, defense and rebounding are still big questions. How much of a hurdle do you see that being for them this year?
“It’s a major hurdle, and it’s going to be on Fred Hoiberg to exploit mismatches. I think you’re going to see a lot of Wilhelm Breidenbach as a face-up five in an effort to create driving lanes.
” Because you’re going to need to find ways to manufacture offense because you’re not going to post up on (Purdue’s) Zach Edey and (Ilinois’) Kofi Cockburn and (Michigan’s) Hunter Dickinson.
“Defensively, Derrick Walker has to become one of the better glue guys in the Big Ten. He has to have the type of season where he gets seven points and seven rebounds for this team to have a chance to play in the postseason.”
I’m not sure Nebraska has had a freshman come in with the level of excitement and expectations from the fan base as Bryce McGowens. From what you’ve seen, is he really at that level as a player?
“I’ll put it to you this way: on Wednesday, I saw Kansas, and Kansas did not have a player in the gym that looked like Bryce McGowens from a physical perspective. I mean, his length, his wingspan, how effortlessly he shoots the basketball.
“But there are going to be times this year on the road in the Big Ten where he’s going to have to display an alpha-type mentality. That’s the real question right now because he is just a true freshman.
“But I look at this troika on the perimeter with Verge, with Bryce McGowens, and with Trey McGowens – he’s the ultimate utility guard – that could be a Legion of Doom when you look at those three on the court together. I think that’s a perimeter that not only can match up with any perimeter in the Big Ten but any in the country.”
You mentioned that a team like Nebraska had a great window of opportunity to make a jump in the Big Ten this season. How realistic do you think is that NU can finish in the top half of the league? Is an NCAA Tournament berth a real possibility?
“I think when you look at the Big Ten this year, obviously Purdue and Michigan are expected to be two of the best teams in the country. I’m going to put Illinois in that top three as well because they return two of the top-15 players in the sport in (Andre) Curbelo and Kofi.
“After that, I think things are pretty muddled together. We’re going to expect Maryland, Ohio State, and Michigan State to be at the top of the league because they’ve earned that right. But after that … I think if you’re looking right now at Nebraska, you have a window of opportunity.
“There’s no bigger window of opportunity than the 2021-22 season. If I was a fan right now of Nebraska basketball, I would be watching every game and every play of every game like it was first-and-10 of the Super Bowl.”