Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Kobe Webster have taken very different paths to this point, but Nebraska is honoring them together during a senior day ceremony ahead of the Huskers’ game against Minnesota on Saturday night.
Thorbjarnarson is the longest-tenured Husker by a significant margin, and the 6-foot-6 wing from Reykjavik, Iceland, has been through a lot in his four years as a Husker.
He spent his first two seasons playing for Tim Miles. Nebraska had a lot of success his freshman year, but he watched most of it from the bench. His playing time fluctuated as a sophomore, but he played a big role down the stretch of the season and helped the Huskers win four of their last six games after the season had gone off the rails.
“It’s been ups and it’s been downs,” Thorbjarnarson said. “I think there’s been a lot of great memories and bad losses. If I look back through it all, freshman year we go undefeated at PBA except for a buzzer-beater against Kansas, which was a great season. We get fourth in the Big Ten and we don’t make the tournament … Next year we were ranked and we had injuries and obviously the coaching change.”
Fred Hoiberg replaced Miles last year and flipped most of the roster. However, Thorbjarnarson stuck around and became a big part of the transition as Hoiberg sought to establish his style of play in the program.
“That’s also a big moment, I think, with a new coaching staff coming in and believing in me, letting me stay and I think that junior year I kind of stepped into a role which I felt really comfortable with and I got confidence in my game,” Thorbjarnarson said. “Obviously that season didn’t go great for us, new year, rebuild. We come back here this year and this season has been a disappointment; there’s no hiding behind that.”
Thorbjarnarson started 24 games, averaged 8.8 points and shot 37.2% from 3 as a junior, but the Huskers won just seven games. This season, his role has been reduced down to 20.1 minutes per game as he’s struggled to get the ball to go through the hoop, and Nebraska still isn’t winning. Even so, Thorbjarnarson said he’s been grateful for his time in Lincoln.
“Just overall, having a fun experience these last four years and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it just being here and also in America by myself and meeting a bunch of new people and experiencing different things,” Thorbjarnarson said.
Thorbjarnarson has seen a lot of change during his career. He said Friday that he has had somewhere in the area of 40 different teammates during his time in Lincoln. Hoiberg called Thorbjarnarson an “absolute rock” and said he couldn’t say enough good things about him.
“When you look at everything that he accomplished last year, he was just such a stabilizing force in a very difficult time when you take over program like we did and to have to show the leadership,” Hoiberg said. “The one guy that had played in the Big Ten conference, albeit not a lot until the end of his sophomore season when he got in there after some injuries and things like that happened and I thought he took advantage of it.
“He really has understood and done everything that we’ve asked of him. He’s just a rock out there. He stabilizes everything when he comes in the game on both ends of the floor. It’s been great to see him shooting the ball better as of late, finishing this season on a high note.”
Webster’s time in Lincoln has been much more brief — eight or nine months, to be more exact. The 6-foot guard from Indianapolis, Indiana, graduated in three years at Western Illinois and hit the transfer market, looking to prove himself at a higher level. Under difficult circumstances, he chose Nebraska as his grad-transfer destination.
“All journeys come with challenges, they all come with obstacles,” Webster said. “I knew that coming in. COVID had just hit when I put my name in the portal, so it was something I was prepared for. I think the program has done a great job implementing the protocols and making sure that we’re safe during testing and stuff like that, just to keep our wellbeing first. Credit to them. For me, I guess the biggest challenge I think was finding the right fit without taking a visit, without being able to see a lot of coaches and players and campuses in person.”
Webster started every game of his three-year career at Western Illinois, averaging 16.7 points in 34.0 minutes per game. He hasn’t started a single game at Nebraska and he’s playing just 21.4 minutes per game off the bench.
“For me it’s just all about embracing it,” Webster said. “I’m all about winning, so whatever I need to do to help the team win, whether that’s play 30 minutes, play 12 minutes, play whatever, shoot however many shots, I’m all about winning. I’m always going to pull for my guys no matter my situation. I think as a leader, that’s been sort of my role and I feel like I’ve done that pretty well this year.”
When Hoiberg was scanning the transfer portal looking for grad transfer options, he honed in on Webster not only for the floor-spacing he could provide as a shooter, but also for his leadership.
“Kobe coming in as a grad transfer, had three seasons where he started at Western Illinois, and another guy, when you bring in those older players that have been through a lot of the battles that some of the guys have not experienced, you ask a lot of them,” Hoiberg said. “Kobe’s been another guy that’s been phenomenal as far as holding guys accountable and getting on guys. His work ethic is as good as anybody on this team.
“I think he’s got a bright future ahead, both those guys, in this game, and we’ll see how things go once the season over. I’m proud of Kobe for everything that’s he’s endured, playing a different role than he ever has as far as coming off the bench. Hopefully we can give those guys something to remember on their senior night.”
Webster’s averaging a career-low 7.0 points per game this season, but he’s been one of Nebraska’s best 3-point shooters at 35.7%, including 40% over Nebraska’s last six games.
“I think from this year I’ve not only proven to myself but I’ve proven to outsiders that I can play at this level,” Webster said. “Coming from Western Illinois, a small school, I think that was a challenge. I think I’ve proven that. I’m glad I was able to be a part of this group.”
Because of the strange circumstances the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, seniors all across the country will have decisions to make in the near future: do they stay for one more year or move on to the next stage of their lives? Neither Thorbjarnarson nor Webster had an answer to that question on Friday.
“I know, like we all do, this season doesn’t count against the clock and we’ve had discussions with our seniors as far as what their options are moving forward,” Hoiberg said. “Nothing will be determined until we’re done playing these last four regular season games and then the Big Ten Tournament. Then we’ll sit down and really go into depth about what the options are and what will happen with that.”
Webster and Thorbjarnarson are Nebraska’s only seniors, but they won’t be the only ones honored on Saturday. Derrick Walker — a junior by eligibility — will take part in the celebration as well, with his family in attendance.
“He’s the first person to graduate in his family and that’s big-time for everything that Derrick has gone through in the last couple years,” Hoiberg said. “He’s stayed strong through everything he has had to go through from the sit-out year as a transfer to have to serve the suspension which we thought would be reduced this year just based on the crazy circumstances that we’re playing in.
“But I’m so proud of that kid for hanging in there and sticking through it all and being the first person to graduate from his family and being a role model for his little brother and everything that he’s all about. It’s three great kids that we’re honoring tomorrow as far as players and I’m really proud of all three of them.”
Tipoff against Minnesota is set for 6 p.m. CT. The senior day celebration will begin around 5:30 p.m.