After showing some improvement in year two, Nebraska’s defense fell off a cliff last season. The Huskers finished last in the Big Ten — and 179th in the country — in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2021-22, which played a big part in the team’s 10-23 record.
After focusing on adding perimeter shooting and offensive talent in the previous recruiting cycle, Hoiberg and his staff shifted gears this time around, prioritizing size, length and versatility throughout the lineup. That included bringing in a new assistant coach with a unique defensive background in Adam Howard.
We’re still months away from the official start of preseason practice, but the Huskers are using their summer workouts to lay the groundwork and introduce the new concepts on both sides of the ball.
“We’re putting in some principles right now,” Hoiberg said. “What we’re doing is we’re doing a couple days of individual skill work, so we put them in small groups and then each coach will take a player and put them through individual skills: shooting, footwork, passing, finishing, ball handling, that type of thing. And then we’re taking the last 10 to 15 minutes of each session, bringing the group together and then slowly adding our offensive and defensive parts of our systems. And then we’re adding that all together, so once a week we’re doing a team workout.
“We get four hours, which we’re sticking to, and that last workout, we try to get an hour where we can do 20 minutes of offense, 20 minutes of defense and then 20 minutes of playing, and then we’ll have a film session. We’re saving about 15 or 20 minutes on the weekend to come in and have a good film session. And then the coaches get out of the gym and the players will play pickup on their own.”
Howard has utilized match-up zones and multiple pressure defenses throughout his coaching career, something that appealed to Hoiberg when he considered changing things up. North Dakota State transfer Sam Griesel hasn’t gotten a chance to get on the floor himself yet because of his offseason surgery, but he’s liked what he’s seen.
“It’s new for me, honestly, so I can’t wait to get out there and experience that,” Griesel said. “But it’s just a lot of us flying around and talking and having fun, and when we do that we’ll be successful.”
Griesel comes from a North Dakota State program that led the Summit League in adjusted defensive efficiency, and Hoiberg pointed to his length at the point guard spot (he measured in at 6-foot-7 recently) as a major plus for the Huskers.
“I love defense,” Griesel said. “I’ve probably spent at least an hour and a half every day for the last four years in practice on defense. But it just brings a different type of energy. So when we get into that part of practice, and like I said, I’m not out there, but just making sure everyone’s talking because I think that’s such a big thing when it comes to defense. Defense brings a lot of energy into the gym and when that happens, it’s a lot of fun.”
In addition to Griesel at 6-foot-7, the Huskers have some size in the middle with Blaise Keita (6-foot-11, 240 pounds) joining Derrick Walker and Wilhelm Breidenbach (6-foot-10) working his way back from his knee injury. They have some interchangeability on the wings with Emmanuel Bandoumel (6-foot-4), a slimmed-down C.J. Wilcher (6-foot-5), Juwan Gary (6-foot-6), Denim Dawson (6-foot-6) and Ramel Lloyd Jr. (6-foot-6).
“I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far,” Hoiberg said. “The thing about the defense that we’re installing right now is it helps to have length, and we have length across the board … Our guys aren’t in the type of shape — obviously you don’t need to be in June. We’re trying to slowly build them up with our workloads. But we have a much more physical, much longer team this year. It’s not just the system we’re putting in — obviously that’s going to help your defense, whatever you’re doing — but I think with the kind of philosophies and the things that we’re trying to do and still install it, the guys are picking it up quickly, which is great. They’re very attentive in the film sessions and we’re way ahead right now than where we were a year ago.”
Bandoumel, the SMU transfer, prides himself on his defense, and he’ll play an important role as one of three super seniors on the roster. He started every game the past two years for an SMU team that finished 76th and 57th in adjusted defensive efficiency in those two seasons.
“The way I see defense, anybody can play defense,” Bandoumel said. “It’s just about effort. And right now, it’s just making sure that everybody is disciplined and bringing the effort. We’re really smart already, we’ve got smart players. We’ve got tall players, long players, so it’s just about putting all of that together and staying disciplined. That’s really just the most important part. It’s just about us not beating ourselves, not putting us in weird rotations and stuff like that, just being on the same page all the time.
“I think that’s what I can bring. I love to coordinate our defense, making sure that everybody is on the same page, making sure that everybody is in the right position, and the rest is just effort, so that’s individual. It’s just you yourself, every day you’re bringing it, your 110%. And we hold each other accountable. I do the same, Derrick does the same, Sam Griesel is supposed to do the same. If we want to be on the same page and do something this year, that’s what we’ll have to do and I will make sure that we will do that.”
Nebraska lost a lot of offensive firepower from last year’s team with Bryce McGowens and Alonzo Verge Jr. in particular moving on. The Huskers are banking on the changes they’re making on the defensive end to help make up for that, and these summer workouts are the first step toward getting ready for the regular season.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.