Finals week at Nebraska is officially in the books, but the Huskers still have one more test on the court they need to pass before they can head home for break as North Dakota is coming to town for a Saturday evening clash.
“I’ve liked the energy in our practices,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It is a unique week with the finals schedule, being off a little bit. We had one day where we just came in and did skill work. The coaches all got out on the road and recruited on the day. But the days we’ve been in here, I’ve really liked our work ethic and I’ve liked how we built on the momentum that we had from that Purdue game. Hopefully we can carry that over the rest of the season.
“We need to have great energy tomorrow. I remember this week; it is a draining week, finishing off the semester and studying all night for finals. Our guys seem to be procrastinators like I was and kind of waited until the last minute. But that’s what this week is all about was to get these guys through this first semester and then hopefully have great energy in our game tomorrow and give us something to feel good about over the Christmas break.”
One thing for the Huskers to feel good about is the return of junior guard Jervay Green to the court. Hoiberg suspended Green for a violation of team rules ahead of the Huskers’ game at Indiana and that suspension lasted through the Purdue game. Hoiberg confirmed that Green will be reinstated for Saturday’s game.
“He did everything that we asked him to do here this past week and we’re excited to get him back on the floor starting tomorrow,” Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg said Green spent a lot of time getting some extra skill and conditioning work in during his suspension so that he would be ready once he returned. Hoiberg said he’ll roll with the same starting lineup on Saturday as he used the last two games — with Thorir Thorbjarnarson starting in place of Green. He’ll bring the 6-foot-3 guard from Western Nebraska Community College off the bench.
“Our big thing going in there is, not just Jervay but all our players, when your name is called, go out there and play your minutes to the best of your ability and go out and play with great energy and defend and rebound and get out and run and play simple basketball on the offensive end,” Hoiberg said about working Green back into a lineup that had really seemed to jell in his absence. “It’s not just one player, everybody has to go out there and play like that. We’ve had good solid minutes, but we’re excited to get him back. He’s a big part of our team moving forward.”
With Green, the de facto back-up point guard in addition to being a starting off-guard, not available, sophomore point guard Cam Mack played 80 of the 85 minutes against Indiana and Purdue. He had a double-double against the Hoosiers with 15 points and 10 assists and then stepped it up with a triple-double against the Boilermakers with 11 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
“I think he’s just playing simple, easy basketball,” Hoiberg said. “He’s not going out there and trying to do too much. He’s taking what the defense gives him. He’s attacking when he needs to attack. He’s shooting the ball with a lot of confidence right now. He’s got great trust right now with his teammates and he’s going out and making the right, simple play. That’s what it’s all about, you don’t need to go out and hit home runs. With Purdue especially, you look at our assist-to-turnover ratio — 22 assists and 11 turnovers — that’s pretty darn good against that team who really gets into you and presses you. I thought Cam made the right decision for the most part all game long against Purdue.”
One of the primary beneficiaries of those decisions has been Thorbjarnarson who has scored in double figures four straight games with a lot of those buckets coming when Mack hits him on a cut or spotting up on the perimeter.
“It’s unbelievable to play with him,” Thorbjarnarson. “He sees you wherever you are on the court. I like that a lot because I make all these cuts and he always knows where I’m at. It’s very nice to play with a point guard like that.”
The other guard who picked up his play in Green’s absence was Dachon Burke Jr. who is leading the Huskers in scoring on the season at 13.7 points per game. In the two Big Ten games, he totaled 43 points on 55.2% from the field including 8-of-15 from 3.
“I attribute Dachon’s week to going out there and not trying to force the issue,” Hoiberg said, continuing the theme of simply plays. “He had some games early in the season where he’s taking step-back shots. Now he's taking step-in shots and those are a lot easier to make. It’s just simple basketball for Dachon. He’s not trying to do too much. He’s making a lot more simple plays as opposed to holding onto it and trying to attack and drive it into a pile. He’s made big strides in that area.”
The Huskers split those Big Ten games but looked much better in both of them than they had recently, especially coming off the ugly losses at Georgia Tech and Creighton.
“We’ve been talking a lot about trust, trusting each other, and I think after that first half at Creighton is something that we don’t want to let happen again so we just have to go out there every game and keep pushing,” Thorbjarnarson said. “We know now what it takes.”
For a team that has already lost two buy games at home, the Huskers can’t afford to overlook anybody, even coming off the win against Purdue. North Dakota is 5-7 overall and 2-7 away from home so far this season under first-year head coach Paul Sather.
“We need to come out and play well,” Hoiberg said. “It’s a team that will come out and play with great intensity. They’ve got very good shooting, they’ve got a very good point guard and they’ve got a big in there that’s really good and crafty in the paint with shooting surrounding him. We have to come out with the right mentality if we’re going to win tomorrow.”
Former Creighton point guard Marlon Stewart is leading the Fighting Hawks with 14.5 points and 4.9 assists per game and is shooting 42% from 3. Filip Rebraca, a 6-foot-9 forward from Serbia, isn’t far behind in the scoring department at 14.2 points per game and is leading the team in rebounding at 9.0 per game. Brady Danielson, a 6-foot-4 guard from York, Nebraska, originally committed to Sather at Division-II Northern State and then followed him to Grand Forks when Sather took that job. He’s played in every game so far as a true freshman, contributing 3.5 points and 2.8 rebounds off the bench in 20.2 minutes per game.
Tipoff on Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 5 p.m. The game will be streamed on BTN+ for subscribers.
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.