LINCOLN — Top Golf on Friday. Henry Doorly Zoo on Saturday. In the midst of a rise-and-grind summer full of workouts, the Nebraska men’s basketball team is trying to fit a few fun things into the calendar.
The Huskers need all the hangout time they can get after a year of occasional isolation during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
There’s also chemistry homework to do. While NU returns a core of six experienced scholarship players, it added eight scholarship newcomers, two of whom still are still playing international basketball this summer.
“It’s not easy playing with a bunch of new guys, you know,” junior forward Lat Mayen — one of the returning veterans — said during Tuesday’s media event. “It takes time to build that chemistry and find out what it is you need to do on the team and what it is the team needs.”
Mayen doesn’t hesitate to gush about those newcomers, though, who are part of the highest-rated recruiting class in school history. Five-star signee Bryce McGowens “doesn’t play like a freshman” and can guard four positions. Four-star freshman Wilhelm Breidenbach “caught me by surprise” with his “great feel for the game.” Freshman transfer C.J. Wilcher is a “lights-out” shooter.
These kids can reportedly play, and they form the nucleus of Nebraska’s near future. They talk a lot about it among themselves, too. Naturally, the press most prodded McGowens — quiet, respectful and focused for the highest-rated recruit in Husker history — for insight on his plans, which dovetail into the team’s plans.
“Be able to start a new wave, bringing a different type of swagger to a university that’s not really known for basketball,” said McGowens, speaking to the full media for the first time outside of his podcast with older brother, Trey. “Being able to bring a great group of guys in, with this coaching staff, and have the fan base around it to really build us up.”
Wilcher, a four-star 2020 recruit who left Xavier’s defense-oriented system for the free-flowing offense of coach Fred Hoiberg’s program, senses the blank spot in Husker history where a NCAA tournament win could go.
“We talk about the history here a lot,” said Wilcher, who’s likely to be come off the bench in 2021-2022. “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.”
The talk sounds familiar; it’s what Hoiberg says, and it’s what newcomers on the two previous teams have said, as well. Nebraska won seven games in each of those two seasons, although last year, because of a devastating, monthlong COVID pause, comes with the asterisk of sorts.
What’s different this year? The core, for one thing, that includes Trey McGowens, Mayen, Kobe Webster and Derrick Walker. All four are vocal leaders — Trey McGowens said he’s been pushed by Webster, an academic All-American, to lead beyond a good example — and productive players.
The other difference is the caliber of the young talent. Bryce McGowens, taller than his brother, is one of the team’s most versatile defenders and a “three-level scorer,” according to Wilcher. Keon Edwards, another top-100 talent who transferred from DePaul, has impressed new teammates with his athleticism and shooting talent. And Breidenbach, who has embraced a sports goggles look that belies his skill set, was a coveted recruit for Hoiberg in last year’s cycle for his hustle and court sense. Nebraska wants to run its offense through big men who can operate out on the floor; Breidenbach was recruited to be a key facilitator.
“Will definitely surprised me because, when I thought of the goggles, I was like, ‘Eh,’” Trey McGowens said. “Will can play. He’s versatile.”
Sports goggles. It’s a thing guys can laugh about, and teams often bond over shared humor. Breidenbach started wearing them in middle school, has heard his share of Kurt Rambis jokes, and simply rolls with it. He’s a freshman at college. It happens. Besides Hoiberg’s walk-on son, Sam, none of the Husker newcomers are from around here.
“So we’re all coming from different places, all getting adjusted together,” Breidenbach said. “So it’s been pretty easy, kind of having that support group around us.”
» Bryce McGowens said he’s gained seven pounds since arriving at NU, and new strength coach Kurt Joseph “has really been on me” to working hard in the weight room to add muscle.
» While Kevin Durant may be McGowens’ favorite player, he patterns his game after NBA stars Bradley Beal and Devin Booker for the “way they can play without the ball, move without the ball and be able to facilitate even when players are really heavily guarding you.”
» Lat Mayen said he ideally wants to play at 220 pounds this season, and given Breidenbach’s addition to the program and the growth of Eduardo Andre at center, he shouldn’t have to play too much in the post.
» Mayen said he hasn’t been home to Australia in two-and-a-half years. Despite having far few cases and COVID deaths than the United States, Australia has had more stringent lockdown protocols during the pandemic.