Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers Closing Out Two-Game Road Trip at Illinois

January 30, 2023

The trajectory of Nebraska’s season has change dramatically over the past couple of weeks. A once veteran-laden team trying to grind out wins on the defensive end of the floor has lost two of those veterans who set the ton for the teams identity.

Nebraska (10-12, 3-8 Big Ten) still has Derrick Walker and Sam Griesel, but following the season-ending injuries to Juwan Gary and Emmanuel Bandoumel Coach Fred Hoiberg is down to eight healthy scholarship players. To stay above water in the Big Ten, Nebraska now needs its underclassmen to step up.

True freshman Jamarques Lawrence has done that since entering the starting lineup two games ago. 

The 6-foot-3 guard logged his first start at home against Northwestern, scoring 12 points on 4-of-8 from deep with three assists and one turnover in 33 minutes. The only other player in double figures was Keisei Tominaga, however, and the Huskers lost by 15.

“The thing I loved about your Jamarques the other night is just he had no fear in that role as a starter,” Hoiberg said. “Coming off a game where he was very disappointed in himself, especially with the free throws, at Penn State, to be able to put that one behind him and bounce back with a great effort and knocking down shots was a great sign. He’s a really tough kid, I think — physically, mentally. For a guy that’s in his first year in college, to go out there and be able to put a disappointing one behind you and be one of the better players on the floor for us is a great sign for Jamarques and his future. 

“I’m really excited about him. He just he does so many things — he can play with the ball in his hands, he can play off ball. The reason we really loved Jamarques, a lot of things about him but his ability to make shots was at the top of that list. So it’s good to see him take the lid off, hit four threes in that game. That’s not easy to do as a freshman, especially when we were struggling.”

Lawrence followed that up with seven points on 3-of-4 shooting (1-of-2 from 3) with three assists and two turnovers in 22 minutes in Saturday’s loss at Maryland. He’s shooting 393% from 3 on the season (though it’s only on 28 attempts) and Nebraska is asking him to take on tough defensive assignments every night as well.

“Obviously he can shoot the ball really well,” Sam Griesel said. “He just plays hard, and like I talked about before, he’s just a great kid. He’s very coachable and he listens to the older guys. He takes coaching very well and anything you tell him he’s going to try to do it to the best of his capability. If he makes a mistake, he knows. He’s a freshman. I remember when I was a freshman and starting, playing a decent role for a good team, and I made mistakes. Freshmen are always going to make mistakes. It’s just about moving on to the next play and I think he’s understanding that and I’m proud of him.”

Denim Dawson, the redshirt freshman wing who has replaced Gary in the starting lineup, has averaged 5.0 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 44.4% from the field including 3-of-6 from 3 in his last four games. 

Perhaps the player who has most taken advantage of an increased role is redshirt freshman walk-on Sam Hoiberg, the son of the head coach. After playing 12 minutes and scoring seven points in his first nine games, he put up six points on 3-of-5 shooting, six rebounds and an assist in 18 minutes against Northwestern then followed that up with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting (3-of-3 from 3) and three rebounds in 26 minutes against Maryland. He also took a charge in both games.

With the increase in playing time for the team’s underclassmen, Hoiberg praised the veterans’ leadership from both those upperclassmen sidelined and the ones still on the floor.

“That’s one thing that I’ve really been pleased with this year,” Hoiberg said after the win against Ohio State. “It’s not only what Juwan is doing for a guy like Denim, but it’s what Sam [Griesel] and Emmanuel and C.J. [Wilcher] are doing for Jamarques. Those veteran guys that have been through it can help when a guy may be getting lit up a little bit, may be getting chewed out a little bit, is to keep their head keep, getting better, keep learning. There’s nothing personal, there’s a lot of constructive criticism that we give and it’s all about growing through those times. Our leadership this year I’ve been really pleased with and you see, I think, how this team has really battled through adversity and they stayed resilient when things have gotten tough.”

Bandoumel joined Gary on injured reserve after Hoiberg gave that initial quote on the team’s leadership as well.

“He’s been awesome,” Hoiberg said after the Northwestern game. “He was great a locker room after the game. He talked to the guys for a long time and just talked about how much he’s going to miss it and don’t take anything for granted, go out and leave it all on the floor.”

Surgery went well for both Gary and Bandoumel, according to Hoiberg, and now the Huskers will move forward with two of their key players in a different role.

“Now it’s all about getting them on the road to recovery and doing everything we can to help them and I know they’re still going to be there for us and still be able to lead even though they’re not going to be on the floor,” Hoiberg said.

The Huskers’ loss at Maryland was the first leg of a two-game road stand. The Huskers went straight to Champaign after the game in College Park to make trayel easier and give the team more time to spend together.

“Pretty unique, as I told her guys,” Hoiberg said on the Huskers Radio Network after the game on Saturday. “I used to love extended road trips because it really gives your team a chance to get together and bond and almost forces them to have time together. We’re going to take them out to dinner. Get a couple good practices, get a good yoga session with them [Sunday] at a studio in Champaign and regroup.”

Tuesday will be Nebraska’s second meeting of the season with the Illini. Illinois (15-6, 6-4 Big Ten) won at Pinnacle Bank Arena, 76-50, on Jan. 10, the game in which Nebraska lost Gary to the shoulder injury. Th Huskers had no answer for Terrence Shannon Jr. (25 points, 11 rebounds and four assists) while Nebraska turned the ball over 17 times and shot 4-of-14 from 3 while getting a season plow five points from Walker.

“A good team, obviously,” Hoiberg said of Illinois. “Really clicking on all cylinders, really since our game. They had a change in their roster and that’s really propelled them to playing their best basketball this season … Just again, it’s cleaning things up. They’re really good defensively and play a unique style with dropping [Dain] Dainja and give up very few 3s.”

Illinois has won six of its last seven and is sitting a 23rd in KenPom overall. The Illinois are 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency as they’re ninth in 2-point field goal percentage allowed in 17th in opponents 3-point rate. On their end, the Illinois take a bunch of 3s (53rd in 3-point rate) despite shooting a below-average 32.5% (251st). They’re also 23 in scoring inside the arc (55.3%) and 41st in offensive rebound rate (33.7%).

Tipoff Tuesday is set for 6 p.m. on Big Ten Network with Dave Revsine and Stephen Bardo on the call.

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