Nebraska closed out the regular season strong, winning five of its last six capped by Sunday’s 81-77 win at Iowa, and with success has come recognition.
The Big Ten released its postseason awards on Tuesday with no surprises at the top. Purdue’s Zach Edey is the Big Ten Player of the Year and joined Penn State’s Jalen Pickett, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and Iowa’s Kris Murray on the first team for both the coaches and media. Illinois’ Terrance Shannon Jr. rounds out the coaches’ team while Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Northwestern’s Boo Buie made it for the media.
Look further down, however, and there’s a Husker on the coaches second team: senior Derrick Walker, much to Walker’s surprise.
“It’s funny, yesterday we had a donor luncheon and we were kind of talking about it and he was like, ‘Man, I don’t ever get any love from the conference, from the refs; there’s no way I’m going to make a team,’” Sam Griesel said. “And I was like, ‘You sound crazy.’ So I’m happy. I’m really happy, obviously. It’s a well-deserved honor for him. He works really hard, he’s been at this thing for a long time and I couldn’t be be more happy for him.”
Walker averaged 13.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 58.7% from the field this season. He recorded three double-doubles, five games of 20-plus points and eight games of five or more assists.
“I think it’s awesome,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We all know how valuable Derrick is and for the coaches to recognize that says a lot. We play through Derrick, we rely on him for so many things and it’s great to see him get this recognition after all that he’s been through in the four years since he’s been here and to see him going out on a high note. It’s very well deserved and all of us in this program, we’re very proud of Derrick.”
Keisei Tominaga also learned honorable mention recognition from both he coaches and media. He closed the season strong to average 12.8 points 50% shooting including 40.3% from 3 and 85.4% from the free-throw line. He scored in double figures in 13 of his last 14 games including seven games of 20-plus.
Griesel was Nebraska’s selection for the Sportsmanship Award.
The postseason honors follow in the wake of the final Big Ten weekly honors which included a Freshman of the Week nod for Jamarques Lawrence. The 6-foot-3 guard scored 15 points — a new career high — in both of his games last week, shooting 7-for-10 from the field against Michigan State with just one 3-pointer and following it up with a 5-for-8 performance from deep at Iowa.
Now Nebraska’s attention turns toward the postseason as the Huskers head to Chicago for the Big Ten Tournament.
Nebraska is the No. 11 seed after finishing the Big Ten regular season at 9-11 (and 16-15 overall) and will face No. 14 Minnesota (8-21, 2-17 Big Ten) in the late game on Wednesday. Nebraska has yet to win a game at the Big Ten Tournament under Fred Hoiberg but is 2-0 against the Golden Gophers this season.
“We’re going to have to respond well to adversity playing the late game again and hopefully go out there and and compete and give ourselves a chance to win and then move on,” Hoiberg said. “That’s what it’s all about right now for our group. They’re excited, they’re hungry and hopefully we go out and play a complete game and move on.”
The Huskers are playing to extend their season, but Hoiberg is stressing the importance of taking it one game at a time and focusing on the task at hand.
“We can’t look at this as this monumental task of you’ve got to go out and win five games to make the tournament,” Hoiberg said. “You’ve just got to go out and win one and then worry about the next one. We know we’re playing a team that is playing their best basketball this season. Since they came back from the pause, they’ve had five one-possession games — our game included in that — and they won against a very tough Rutgers team and had a great chance to beat Wisconsin at home in their last one. So they’re playing really good basketball.”
Minnesota is ranked 222nd overall in KenPom (240th on offense and 189th on defense),but the Golden Gophers snapped a 12-game losing streak with a 75-74 win against Rutgers on Thursday then nearly followed that up with a win against Wisconsin, falling 71-67 on Sunday.
“They’re shooting over 40% from 3 in their last five, and when they go with that big lineup, that puts a lot of pressure on your defense just with their size,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously you saw what happened to us on the glass in the last game against Iowa. Well, we’re gonna have to do a much better job if we want to have a chance of winning this game. And taking care of the ball — ball security is going to be very important in this tournament, can’t give teams free baskets and give them a pick-six type situation. So taking care of the basketball is important. Finding a way to compete on the defensive glass is going to be as important as anything in this game.”
Blaise Keita could help in the rebounding department, but his status is still up in the air as he works his way back from a second ankle injury. Keita has missed the last three games after going down in overtime against Maryland on Feb. 19.
“He did a little bit more today,” Hoiberg said. “He’ll go through our shoot-around in the morning and we’ll see where he’s at, but he’s still got some soreness in that ankle. Hopefully if our trainers and doctors are OK with that, we could throw him out there for a few minutes. He’s going to be important; if we can get a couple minutes out of different guys, that’s sometimes all it takes to get a guy a little bit of rest. We’re going to need Oleg [Kojenets] in this game. Oleg played last time we played Minnesota. So we’re going to hopefully have [Keita] but he still has some soreness. He did a little bit, but still has a little way to go.”
Dawson Garcia (6-foot-11, 230 pounds) is leading the Gophers with 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per gamed recorded a double-double in both regular season games against Nebraska, though the Huskers held him to 36.7% shooting. Freshmen Pharrel Payne (6-foot-9, 255 pounds) and Joshua Ola-Joseph (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) have both had some success against Nebraska offensively this season as well.
“No matter who you are, it’s tough beating a team three times,” Walker said. “They’re big, they have really good size in the post, and even on the wing with their guards, they’re big. They rebound the ball, they can shoot the ball really well and they go to the glass like all other teams. So if I’m Minnesota, if I’m the coach, I’m telling his kids to crash the boards because they have a size advantage over us, especially with Blaise being up and down and we’re not sure where he’s at yet. So for me I‘ve got the challenge of having to box out more and be more aggressive on the boards.”
Juniors Jamison Battle (12.8 points per game) and Ta’Lon Cooper (9.8 points and 6.1 assists per game) provide most of the team’s perimeter firepower.
The Huskers will have plenty of underclassmen seeing their first postseason action in Chicago, which is where the experience of veterans like Griesel and Walker comes valuable.
“For me personally in conference tournaments, I’ve always played in the conference championship, made the conference championship, and so I guess I know that feeling and what it takes to go out and win a few games in a row,” Griesel said. “It’s all just staying in the moment and taking it one by one. So that’s our focus in this one.”
Tipoff on Wednesday from the United Center is set for 25 minutes after the conclusion of the first game between No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 13 Ohio State, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. CT. Brandon Gaudin, Robbie Hummel and Andy Katz will call the game on Big Ten Network.
The winner of Wednesday night’s game will face No. 6 Maryland on Thursday in the late game, with the winner advancing to face No. 3 Indiana in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.