Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Looking to Adjust Post-Injuries as Northwestern Visits the Vault

January 24, 2023

The hits keep coming for a Nebraska basketball team that suffered its third season-ending injury of the 2022-23 campaign on Saturday.

Nebraska will be without senior guard Emmanuel Bandoumel — the team’s top perimeter defender, starting off-guard and back-up point guard — for the remainder of the season following a knee injury at Penn State on Saturday. The Huskers lost Juwan Gary to a season-ending shoulder injury the previous week.

“I think the big thing is just Emmanuel’s spirits right now,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s the same guy that he’s always been, came in with a big smile on his face and was a great leader for our guys over on the sidelines. So I think when they see that, they know that he’s going to continue to be with them and lead them. Obviously it’s a huge blow for our guys.” 

Hoiberg said Bandoumel had not suffered so much as an ankle sprain during his career prior to the knee injury, and he’s sick to see a career ended in such a way. Hoiberg called him a catalyst for the program’s turnaround this season and said he’ll meet with Bandoumel and his family in the near future to discuss surgery options. The focus now is helping him through the rehab process and setting him up for a long professional career.

As for the current team, the loss of both Gary and Bandoumel changes things dramatically for a team built around its defense. 

“You’re taking our two best perimeter defenders off the floor with he and Juwan in the last week and there are going to have to be adjustments,” Hoiberg said. “Different guys are going to have to play different roles. We’re going to have to play a little bit more like we did at Purdue when [Sam] Griesel was out of the lineup with some big-big lineups. Sam Hoiberg is going to have to be ready to go out there and play … Different guys are going to play different positions and they’re going to have to play a lot of minutes, but they’re ready for it. 

“So the sting of losing your emotional leader on the floor, your defender, the guy that kind of is the head of the snake and gets it all rolling for you, he’s not going to be there anymore in these last 11 regular season games. So guys are going to have to step up. I’m confident they will and we’re going to continue to go out there and battle and play hard and and and leave everything on the floor.” 

Griesel said the on-court eldership from Bandoumel and Gary will be missed as much as their more tangible contributions, but he’s excited to see the team’s underclassmen step up.

“Obviously we’re going to need some guys to step up, some pretty big roles to fill, but we have a next man up mentality with this culture, Griesel said. “I know from the top down, we all believe in each other. That’s what this whole thing has been based off of. So it’s just the belief and trust in your teammates and we we trust that some of the younger guys are going to step up. I’m personally really excited to see them tomorrow and moving forward, just how they’re going to provide some energy and just fill those roles whatever way they can.”

Hoiberg said he won’t decide on a staring lineup until game day, but he’s more interested in identifying a closing lineup anyway.

Jamarques Lawrence will have to fill in at both the one and and the two, filling in as the primary initiator when Griesel is on the bench. Redshirt freshman walk-on Sam Hoiberg would be next up at point guard. Denim Dawson will likely take on the toughest defensive assignment as the most athletic player in the lineup.

Blaise Keita is still dealing with his high-ankle sprain which leaves Nebraska with eight healthy scholarship players for the time being. Cale Jacobsen and Henry Burt appear to be redshirting, which leaves Hoiberg and Jeffrey Grace III as the available walk-ons, bumping the roster count to 10.

Hoiberg said he had a discussion with freshman Ramel Lloyd Jr., the highest-ranked member of the team’s 2022 recruiting class, about pulling his redshirt in the wake of the injuries, but they’ve opted against doing so.

“The decision moving forward with that is you’ve got to do what’s best for the kid,” Hoiberg said. “Do you pull the redshirt to get him to play 10 or 11 games, a third of the season? I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do. His mindset would be a complete shift of running other team’s things, which has been great for Ramel. He’s learning the league every game, every day, seeing what other teams are running, being the featured player in those systems. You’ve got to shift to get into our stuff, which he obviously hasn’t gotten a lot of reps with that with the decision being made to redshirt this season. So yeah, I thought thought about it, had a really good talk with him, and for right now we’re going to keep him in his redshirt.”

The Huskers gained one more day to work on themselves post-injury with their game previously scheduled against Northwestern being pushed back to Wednesday. The Wildcats had to postpone two games because of a COVID-19 pause that also included players sidelined by injuries. They made up one of those games on Monday, beating Wisconsin 66-63 at home, and will now head to Lincoln.

Northwestern is 53rd in KenPom on the strength of their defense, but they’ve put together a 13-5 record including a 4-3 mark in conference with wins over Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana in addition to the Badgers.

The Wildcats saw their two best interior players transfer to the ACC over the offseason but returned a dynamic backcourt in Boo Buie and Chase Audige, both averaging just north of 15 points per game while combing for nearly eight assists per game.

“Obviously those are two really dynamic basketball players and tough to defend,” Griesel said. “We know a lot of the time we can guard them for 20 seconds or whatever and it’s usually going to end up on one of those two guys’ hands, and it’s going to turn into some isolation. So we’ve really been harping on ‘guarding our yard’ as we call it, keeping our guy in front of us and the basket, and just trying our best to do that. Ultimately, defense is a team thing. It’s not one-on-one the whole time, so just being in the right help positions, and then finishing on the glass.”

The Wildcats are 340th in the country in effective field goal percentage (44.3% from 2, 31.8% from 3) but they only turn the ball over on 15.4% of their possessions (18th nationally) and they are 19th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, holding teams to 41.7% shooting inside the arc (first nationally) while forcing turnovers on 22.3% of their possessions (34th).

“Obviously Buie and Audige are both having phenomenal seasons and both coming off great games last night in a very impressive win against Wisconsin,” Hoiberg said. “Defensively, they’re phenomenal this year, I mean top 10 in the country in defense. They’re a high-steal team; Audige is number one in the league, Ty Berry’s number five in steals. That creates a lot of offense for them. They just put you in a difficult spot. I’ve been really impressed with [Matthew] Nicholson and his development; he puts a lot of heat on the rim. And with [Robbie] Beran when they slide him into that small lineup, a guy that can step out and shoot it, it just puts a lot of stress on your defense.”

With the spring semester under way, Hoiberg said the team is excited to get back in front of a home crowd that includes the student section after a long semester break.

“It’s going to be awesome to get them back in the building tomorrow and we’re excited to play in front of our fans,” Hoiberg said. “I think the fans appreciate what this group has brought and they’re going to continue to bring it. We’re down some guys but that doesn’t change our approach, that doesn’t change our goal of going in every night and giving ourselves a chance to win. We appreciate everything we’ve gotten from a support standpoint this year and we promise that we’re going to continue to go out there and dive on the floor and try to get every loose ball and play hard and be the harder-playing, more-together team. That doesn’t change even though we’re down some pretty darn good players out there. So we appreciate everything and we’re going continue to go out there and do everything we can to make our fans proud.”

Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. CT Wednesday on FS2 with Kevin Kugler and Nick Bahe on the call.  

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