Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Cultural Shift: How Three Super Seniors Changed the Nebrasketball Narrative

February 28, 2023

This year’s Nebrasketball squad is sitting on 15 wins — more than Fred Hoiberg’s first two seasons combined and five more than year three despite losing two starters midway through the year.

At 15-14, Nebraska still isn’t anywhere close to contending for a Big Ten title or an NCAA Tournament berth. However, after notching just 24 wins (and a handful of very bad losses) in Hoiberg’s first three seasons, the 2022-23 campaign has been one of significant progress — thanks largely to the team’s three super seniors, who all took drastically different paths to drive at Tuesday’s senior night celebration at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Derrick Walker has been in Lincoln nearly as long as Hoiberg has. He was part of that first recruiting class as a transfer from Tennessee and is heading into his third senior day in Lincoln. He took part in the ceremony in 2021 as he was set to earn his degree — becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college. He walked again in 2022 after completing his traditional four seasons of eligibility, and now after coming back for an extra season, Nebraska is set to recognize him once again.

Walker redshirted his first season, filled a role in his second, set a program record in his third and has evolved into the team’s best player in his fourth. 

“Derrick, I think this is his third senior day, but the fact that we got Derrick, that was the number one priority in the offseason was getting Derrick back, and we’re very thankful that he did and used his COVID year,” Hoiberg said. “When he’s been on the floor for us, you’ve seen with different lineups, with different combinations, that really the constant has been Derrick and Sam out there as the leaders. He just has provided so much for our team.”

Walker is averaging 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds (both team-highs) plus 3.7 assists (second on the team) while shooting 58.7% from the field this season. Beyond the personal success, however, Walker said this season has been his best yet because of the people around him.

Derrick Walker drives to the basket against Minnesota’s Dawson Garcia in the Huskers’ win over the Golden Gophers Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

“It’s been very gratifying, just because we do have great added pieces to this year and I think that’s what we struggled with throughout the years that I’ve been here,” Walker said. “But this year has also been fun, and I think that’s the biggest thing … Everything around these guys is fun. We joke, we laugh, we practice hard, we play hard. You can really feel the love between this team and the coaching staff. So I’ve had a blast this year, and I think this was the best decision for me. I couldn’t be more thankful to have these guys around and being in the position that we’re in now. 

“Especially with it being my last year, we’re making the best of it, all of these seniors are. And I think that’s why this season has turned out to what it has turned out to be just because we all know what’s at stake and we all play for each other. So this year has been a big blessing on my heart and on my life.”

While Walker has been the rock for Hoiberg’s program for four years, it was a newcomer who quickly became its face and set the tone for the turnaround from the moment he stepped on campus — even before he had officially committed to join the program.

“Sam Griesel, we’re very fortunate that he grew up a mile from campus,” Hoiberg said. “To be able to get a guy like that to come in — he’s all about winning. I know I talked about this, when Griesel came on his visit, he didn’t say one thing about how many points do you think I’m going to score, how many touches am I going to get? All he said is ‘I want to win, I want to help get the script flipped on Nebraska basketball,’ and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

Most are familiar with Griesel’s story at this point: he grew up a Husker fan, dreaming of one day wearing the scarlet and cream as he eventually developed into a Division I basketball player at Lincoln East. The Huskers — under the previous coaching staff — didn’t offer, though, and he instead became a four-year starter at North Dakota State. After a first-team All-Summit League season in 2021-22, he decided to enter the transfer portal, and Hoiberg was one of the first coaches to reach out.

Griesel committed to Nebraska to live out his dream and to help put the program on an upward trajectory. With 30 games under his belt, he’s averaging 11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists while leading the team in minutes per game at 33.5.

Griesel and the Huskers had to push through some tough times, but they’ve come out the other end intact and have won four straight games, generating some real buzz in the state’s capital.

Sam Griesel (5) gives fives to the fans running out to the court against the Penn State Nittany Lions Feb. 05, 2023, at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

“I don’t really have any words to describe it,” Griesel said. “It was something that I dreamed of, and I remember my dad brought this up about a month ago. When I was like 10 years old or so and I asked him why Nebraska fans only care about football. And he said, ‘Well, that’s just how it is.’ And I told him ‘That’s going to change when I get there.’ And so that’s something that’s kind of been brought back up and it’s just cool to hear the buzz around Nebraska basketball again … It’s been everything that I dreamed of. That’s why I came back here: I just wanted to have an impact, and to do it with a group of guys like Derrick and Emmanuel, it’s been unreal. It’s been awesome.”

Walker said he and Griesel clicked right away during Griesel’s visit. After three seasons filled with turmoil and roster turnover, the now 25-year-old Walker found a kindred spirit in the 23-year-old Griesel.

“I remember we had dinner at Coach Hoiberg’s on my visit, and I asked Derrick, ‘What are you, like 21, 22?’” Griesel said. “He’s like, ‘I’m 24.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought I was old.’ So that’s how our relationship got off to a good start, I guess. But I feel like we grow in our relationship every single game. I think with where our team is now and obviously the adversity that we’ve been through, Derrick and I need to be on the same page every single game, and we work at that.” 

In Griesel, Walker saw an unselfish player who is willing to do whatever it takes to win, including putting his body on the line. He also found someone whose steady demeanor and mental toughness provided a needed counter to his own more fiery personality.

“It’s a blessing to have Sam Griesel as my point guard,” Walker said. “I give Sam a lot of crap just because my emotions go rampant sometimes. But he knows me as a person, he knows I’m not trying to hurt him or anything. Just sometimes I get like that, and he puts up with it. I always have to tell him, ‘Thank you for putting up with me,’ because I can be a lot.”

Walker and Griesel hit it off so well that the team’s other super senior addition, SMU transfer Emmanuel Bandoumel, felt a little jealous at first.

“Really, it’s funny because those two, it just looked like they were lost friends, really,” Bandoumel said. “When I first got there, I was like, ‘You know what, it just seems like they’re just matching each other really well for some reason.’ I just came and was like, ‘Sheesh, I’ve got some catching up to do … I’m like, ‘I’m jealous.’ It was just meant to be for them. It was just like they match each other so well on the court, off the court.” 

Bandoumel did catch up, however, emerging as an important voice and leading the charge as the team looked to establish a defense-first identity — a sharp contrast to the previous three season under Hoiberg. Bandoumel took on the toughest perimeter defensive assignment every night while also serving as the team’s back-up point guard when Griesel was on the bench. He struggled with his shot but never let that affect his defensive effort, and he averaged 8.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists — right up until he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Penn State on Jan. 21.

He may only have suited up in a Nebraska uniform for 20 games, but Bandoumel said sharing the court with his Husker teammates has been one of the best experiences of his career.

Emmanuel Bandoumel signs a ball for a fan before Nebraska’s game against the Penn State Nittany Lions Sunday, Feb. 05, 2023, at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson

“To be around them in practice, being around them off the court, that’s pretty much the thing that’s most enjoyable, I would say. Just to be at football games cheering together or whatever, just being on the couch and just hanging out and chilling or whatever, that’s something that I’ll take with me forever and it’s been great to have as an experience,” Bandoumel said. “On the court, to play with Sam, to be able to grow with him at the same time, play with Derrick and get on the same page at times where it was kind of difficult … They made this experience so much fun and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world. It was just great, and I’m still enjoying it right now.”

Though he can no longer contribute on the court, Bandoumel has remained engaged with the team as a vocal leader from the sideline, coaching up the young guys like Jamarques Lawrence and Sam Hoiberg who have had to step up and take on the tough defensive assignments in his place.

“It’s something that’s really admirable,” Griesel said. “I can’t really imagine being in that position and I guess having your last year of college basketball kind of taken from you and something that you can’t control. But he hasn’t let that affect him. Since day one, even before he had surgery, I was checking in on him and he just knew that it’s God’s plan for him. So just having that perspective has been really admirable in talking about Emmanuel, but then seeing how he’s still being a leader on the floor. When I come off onto the bench, he’s asking me what I’m seeing, he’s telling me what he’s seeing. The engagement during games is something that I’ve loved; it’s been awesome. He has a different perspective, he can see the whole game now.”

Likewise, Bandoumel said his teammates have played a big role in keeping his spirits up as he’s experiencing the first significant injury rehab of his career. Griesel checked in on him daily after his surgery, and Walker cracks good-natured jokes aimed at his busted up knee. 

Griesel pointed to an emotional speech from Bandoumel in the locker room after the Huskers’ loss to Northwestern on Jan. 25 as the turning point of this season. Nebraska dropped its next two games on the road but hasn’t lost at home since, taking down Penn State, Wisconsin, Maryland and Minnesota at Pinnacle Bank Arena (with a win at Rutgers thrown in as well).

Walker has tried to provide guidance throughout his time in Lincoln, but the addition of two other experienced vocal leaders has done wonders for bringing about a cultural shift within the program.

“I think we’ve handled it like business in a sense of just making sure we can do what we can do to make things right,” Walker said. “We were a group of guys that hadn’t really played with each other but we know how to play basketball, we know how to be good people, we know how to communicate and talk to each other and love each other and be there for each other, and I think because of that is why we’re having the success we’re having now. It’s a bunch of guys that are selfless, it’s a bunch of guys that feed off each other, it’s a bunch of guys that love to learn and we’re good at adjusting. Every day we’re hit with adversity, every game we’re hit with it, but because we have that bond, that chemistry, we push through it.”

At full strength, the Huskers looked to have taken a big step forward this season, avoiding any bad losses while pulling off an upset or two along the way. When the injuries hit, the season could have spiraled out of control — and indeed looked to be doing so with four straight losses after Bandoumel went down. However, the Huskers righted the ship to win five of their last six, and Hoiberg said that’s a testament to his seniors.

“The leadership of this group is what has kept us afloat through all the adversity that we’ve faced and it’s all about the older guys,” Hoiberg said. “The seniors are the ones that have been the catalyst in that area … These guys deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done for this basketball program. You see the buzz, the sellouts, the energy in our building right now, and that’s because of our seniors and it’s because of the leadership and because of the makeup and what those guys are all about.”

Divergent paths led Derrick Walker, Sam Griesel and Emmanuel Bandoumel to Lincoln, and the Nebraska program has benefitted greatly from their arrival. Now Husker fans will get one more chance at Pinnacle Bank Arena to show their appreciation for the three seniors who made Nebraska basketball fun to watch again.

To the big man who stuck with it through a tumultuous four years, to the hometown kid who made good on his childhood promise to change the narrative around the program, to the dogged defender who continues to lead from the sideline: I know Nebraska fans are grateful.

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