Yvan Ouedraogo was one of the youngest players in college basketball last season. At 17 years old, the center from France had to go up against some of the best big men in the country.
Luka Garza. Xavier Tillman. Jon Teske. Matt Haarms. Kofi Kockburn. Kaleb Wesson. Jalen Smith. The list goes on and on. There were no easy nights in the paint in the Big Ten, and those battles showed Ouedraogo — listed at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds as a freshman — how far he had to go.
“I will say when I really started playing in the Big Ten, seeing how great the bigs were, they were almost pros, most of them” Ouedraogo said. “Just to play against those great players, I realized that if I want to be great like them I have to sacrifice something. My sacrifice was I’m going to have a hard summer, I’m going to be hard on myself, I’m going to reshape my body and try to be better next year.”
Nebraska has Ouedraogo listed at 245 pounds on this year’s roster after an offseason spent transforming his body and improving his athleticism.
“It was a tough summer for me,” Ouedraogo said. “I really tried to improve my body, be a better player. Especially with the pandemic going on, it was even harder. I could go back to my first coach in Bordeaux, France, and I worked out with him every day, at 5 a.m. sometimes. It was really hard but I think we did a good job at this point.”
Whether it was simply running outside or finding a playground to work out at, Ouedraogo made sure to wake up early and get his conditioning in however he could while everything was shut down in France. Eventually the gyms opened up again and that allowed Ouedraogo to step it up even more. Travel restrictions prevented him from returning to campus in June when all the Huskers from North America made their way back to Lincoln, but he eventually got cleared and returned to Nebraska a completely different player than when he left.
“Yvan’s been phenomenal,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He came back 25 pounds lighter than when he left last season. He’s more explosive, he’s finishing better at the basket, he’s reading situations better as we continue to go along. I think a lot of that, you look at last season and the progression that Yvan made from the beginning of the year coming in as a 17-year-old international player that hadn’t spent much time in the States to where he was at the end of the season — had a 19-rebound game and a double-double late in the year — and I thought he got progressively better as the season went on.”
Ouedraogo led the Huskers with 6.3 rebounds per game and chipped in 5.7 points per game in 32 games including 30 starts, but he stepped up his play down the stretch, averaging 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 points while shooting 49% from the floor.
“I’m really a guy that loves to work, so I tried to work a little bit more,” Ouedraogo said. “With the season going on, I was a 17-year-old, just growing, seeing great players. I kind of figured out what was working for me for my playing style in the Big Ten and I tried to really work on it and it started to pay off late in the season.”
Ouedraogo certainly took his lumps early and he shot 41.7% overall with most of his attempts coming right around the basket. However, he had games of eight points and 10 rebounds against Wisconsin, 10 point and seven rebounds against Michigan State, 11 points and 10 rebounds against Indiana and 11 points and 19 rebounds against Northwestern, all in a five-game span in February and March. That’s the kind of play Hoiberg is hoping to get more consistently from him this season.
“I can’t remember who said it, but the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores, and he has a year under his belt,” Hoiberg said. “He had a lot of valuable experience on the floor and I think he learned a lot and understood he needed to make changes in his body to be a more consistent basketball player. I give Yvan a lot of credit, he really bought into that, bought into the program that he did in the offseason when he was not allowed to be here because of the travel restrictions. But he didn’t skip a beat.”
The added athleticism should help him improve his field goal percentage, but Ouedraogo needs to improve significantly at the free-throw line as well. He shot 47.7% on nearly three attempts per game as a freshman.
“It was really a big point too when I was back home with my coach to really work on my free throws,” Ouedraogo said. “Changed my routine a little bit, changed my hand position, so I really worked a lot on it. Back here, I keep working on it with Coach, with the GAs, really trying to score 100 free throws a day … I work with Coach after every practice on my free-throw routine and my free-throw rhythm to try to be better this year.”
Ouedraogo has made plenty of progress, but the work will continue up until the season-opener and beyond as the Huskers opened preseason practice on Wednesday. Last year, Ouedraogo started almost out of the default; the only other true front court player who was eligible was fellow freshman Kevin Cross, generously listed at 6-foot-8. That won’t be the case this season as the Huskers will have more options in the post.
Tennessee transfer Derrick Walker, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound junior, and Eduardo Andre, a 6-foot-10, 228-pound freshman, are pushing Ouedraogo in practice in ways that just didn’t happen last season.
“It helps me greatly because last year I was really the only true big on the team,” Ouedraogo said. “This year we’ve got Derrick and Eduardo who are also big as well and good and working hard. It’s helped me and it’s closer to reality because in the Big Ten, the bigs are really big, they’re athletic, they’re really good. So having good players in practice to play against is definitely helping me.”
Hoiberg said Andre is getting better every day, and his wingspan is nearly 7-foot-5. Having to go up against that kind of length should help prepare Ouedraogo and Walker — as well as any guards who venture into the paint — for what they’re going to face in Big Ten play.
Over the summer, Ouedraogo turned a tough situation into a positive, putting in the work to transform his body and his game. With the addition of Walker and Andre to the mix along with Ouedraogo, Hoiberg is hoping to get a lot more production out of the center position in 2020-21.