Before the season began, Fred Hoiberg sounded excited about the possibility of going small with Lat Mayen at the five. At the time, he had three options at center available to him and I think he saw the ability to slide Mayen inside as a situational weapon.
Mayen spent most of his preseason practice reps at the four. Then Hoiberg lost two of his centers (Derrick Walker to suspension, Eduardo Andre to illness) and had to make a decision about his game one starting lineup. Instead of starting Yvan Ouedraogo, he chose to go all in on the small-ball look and started Mayen at the five.
Through six games, Mayen is playing just under 25 minutes per game and almost all of that has been at the five.
“That’s what coach asked me to do, so I just had to go ahead and do it because thats what the team needed at the moment,” Mayen said.
Mayen is shooting 36.7% on 5.0 3-point attempts per game and he’s second on the team in defensive rebounding at 4.3 per game, but he’s also run into some foul trouble (5.1 fouls per 40 minutes) while battling with guys much larger than himself depending on the game.
“He’s doing everything we’re asking of him,” Hoiberg said. “He has not complained one time about playing out of position. He’s down there doing everything he can to battle against a lot of big bodies, and some of those are picking up full there, and then he’ll pick up a silly one 90 feet from the basket. We need Lat on the floor.”
One way to make that happen is to let him play more at his natural position, and reinforcements are on the way that could allow for that to happen.
“We’ve got Derrick and Eduardo coming back, so that should help us a lot with more strength and length down there with the big guys,” Mayen said.
Hoiberg shared the news on Wednesday that Walker’s suspension had been cut down to 11 games, meaning he only has five more games he has to sit before becoming eligible. He spent all of last season on the scout team, then had to return there once word of his suspension came down. Nebraska knew this was hanging over him when they recruited him, but the terms of the suspension still hit hard.
“He’s handled it phenomenally and he’s done an unbelievable job of trying to lift the spirits,” Hoiberg said. “Even the day he found out about it, he needed some time to compose himself in the locker room but when he came out he was vocal and doing the little things that Derrick does. Now it’s about when that things over, which it’s coming, and I talked to him about how quickly it was going to go, and we’re getting pretty close to where we are to have him back on the roster, so now it’s about carrying everything he’s all about over once we start playing games, and I’m confident Derrick will do that.”
The Huskers will still be without him for another couple of weeks, however. The more immediate source of help is Andre, the 6-foot-10, 233-pound freshman who has yet to make his Husker debut after getting sideline by COVID-19 prior to the season opener.
Andre returned to practice on Tuesday and will be available for the Huskers against Doane on Thursday night. That being said, Hoiberg isn’t expecting much from him early as he builds his stamina back up and gets his feet wet at the collegiate level.
“I’m really high on him and his future,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a kid that every practice he was in there, he was getting better and better every time he stepped on the floor. It’s unfortunate what happened; obviously that’s just the era that we’re living in right now and it’s out of your control, out of his control. He’s doing extra conditioning… It’s an important first step for Eduardo getting out on the floor. He obviously offers a big body, offers us some rim protection in the league, but this was a huge set-back … It’s going to take him a little while before he’s back in the playing shape he needs to be in to help us in a Big Ten game. I’m confident with his work ethic that he will eventually get there and give us good minutes on the floor.”
Andre is going to take some time, but with a wingspan measuring nearly 7-foot-5, he brings something nobody else on the team really does: rim protection at the five. Andre has some skill — eventually the southpaw could develop into a guy who stretches the floor from the center position — but if he doesn’t contribute anything more than a few rebounds and a couple of blocks early on he will still be valuable.
“It definitely takes us to another level, especially because Lat’s going to be able to play the position that he probably would prefer,” Trey McGowens said. “He’s done an excellent job playing a position he probably wouldn’t have thought he would be playing, at least this early and as many minutes as he would expect to play at it. But Lat handled it well. Eduardo, he’s young. He loves to learn. He’s active and he gets after it every day. Just having him in practice alone, that just helps us be better. I can only imagine when he gets into the games.”
Husker fans will get their first look at Andre against Doane, but the whole picture as Hoiberg envisioned won’t come into focus until early in January. For the time being, Mayen will continue to hold things down at the five, but there’s a lot more versatility for the Huskers on the horizon.