The Nebraska basketball team got a chance to test itself against someone other than itself for the first time since its trip to Italy in August as the Huskers took on Wichita State in a closed scrimmage on Saturday.
The Huskers fell 89-75 to a Shockers team that went 22-15 and made it to the NIT semifinals last season. Wichita State lost its top two scorers but brought everyone else back and added a junior college transfer on the wing who led the way with 18 points and 11 rebounds against the Huskers.
Six of Wichita’s 11 rotation players were freshmen last season and the Shockers have five players that are at least 6’8″ and 230 pounds including their leading returning scorer Jaime Echenique (6’11”, 258), junior Asbjørn Midtgaard (7′, 267) and Omaha Central grad Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler (6’9″, 250).
“First of all, I thought it was the perfect game for us just because the personnel of the team that we faced was very similar to what we’ll see in conference play,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said during a Monday press conference. “They were big, strong, physical, had a size advantage pretty much at every position. So it was a good experience for us. We had some really good moments.
“I thought our transition game was excellent, when we got the rebound. That’s one thing I’ve talked a lot about with our group is we’ve got to find a way to gang rebound. Guards have to do a good job of getting in there and once we did secure the ball, I thought we did a really good job of getting out on the break and I think we scored 34 in transition. So that was a positive. But too many offensive rebounds and again, that’s something that every time that thing goes up we’ve got to make first contact, we’ve got to go hit bodies, we can’t let them make contact with us just because we’re giving up too much size.”
Hoiberg has acknowledged since his roster came together that its lack of size would make things difficult on the glass, and the scrimmage against a big Wichita State team gave the coaches a chance to see what that match-up looks like.
“It was very helpful because we just don’t get that look a lot in practice,” Hoiberg said. “You get a little bit with Dalano [Banton] and with Derrick Walker, two guys that sit out for us this year. Both those guys have excellent size, so you do see it some. But to have all five guys and the way Wichita plays, how hard they play, it was a really good experience for our guys to see it. We had a good film session today and got after it again on the court after a day off yesterday. Tomorrow we’ll start shifting our focus a little bit more to preparing for the exhibition game on Wednesday but, for us, it was a really good opportunity to get out and play against another team and give us a barometer about where we are right now.”
One of the things Hoiberg has harped on since the team first started practice in July leading up to the Italy trip is fighting through adversity. Hoiberg said it’s going to take a while for everything to truly come together, but he did see some resiliency from the team against the Shockers.
“We have to hit adversity in a game situation to see exactly how we’re going to handle it,” Hoiberg said. “I thought for the most part, when we hit adversity the other day, the guys stayed upbeat, they stayed positive, they tried to battle through it. We made a lot of runs when we got down double-digits. A big problem in the scrimmage, we got down 10 right out of the chute. We had a deal where you get fouled and it was one free throw for two [points] and I think we had five shooting fouls in the first seven possessions and we missed all five free throws, so you’re leaving 10 points on the board with that.
“But as far as the chemistry, I’ve been very happy with the way the guys have gone out there and competed for each other. How will it happen once we start playing real games? I don’t know yet, but we’re trying to put them in situations on the floor to try to handle adversity and handle it well. I think our guys have grown in a big way in that area.”
The Huskers have spent a lot of time going against each other since practice began, and when both sides know what the other is going to do you can only learn some much from those situations. The scrimmage gave them a different look as the coaches look to gauge where the team is in terms of executing Hoiberg’s offense and Doc Sadler’s defense.
“Now you get against another opponent like we had on Saturday, they played us a completely different way,” Hoiberg said. “Our reads at times were very good, at times we needed to do a better job of taking what the defense gave us as far as just running to a spot. We still have a ways to go on that and as we continue to play opponents that are going to play us different ways, we probably won’t have it all the way down, but we’re certainly working in practice on different coverages and hopefully it will click with our guys soon. But I’ll say this, as far as today versus a month ago, we’re head and shoulders above where we were. I’ve been pleased with the way guys picked things up.”
Sophomore point guard Cam Mack, a transfer from Salt Lake Community College, led the Huskers with 17 points, six assists and six rebounds against Wichita State. Mack missed a lot of practice time as he awaited the results from one last class he needed to become eligible at Nebraska during the summer and then an illness that put him in the hospital and forced him to miss the team’s overseas trip, but he’s doing what he can to make up for lost time.
“He just brings a whole different element to our team,” Hoiberg said. “He’s extremely fast with the ball. If there’s a seam to attack, he hits that seam with great pace. He’s a very good decision-maker once he gets in there. Guys benefit playing with him. Matej [Kavas] had a very good game as far as hitting shots and a lot of those came off of Cam’s penetration. It took him a while just because of the illness that he had, the weight that he loss and the strength that he lost, now that he’s starting to get it back and having consecutive practices the way he has here the last couple weeks, you can see him really starting to take off. So I’ve been really pleased with Cam Mack.”
Kavas, the 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Seattle, finished with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Jervay Green, the transfer from Western Nebraska Community College, added 14 points and a pair of triples.
The Huskers are still waiting to hear news about an immediate eligibility waiver for Nevada transfer Shamiel Stevenson. If the NCAA denies his appeal, he won’t be eligible to play until after the first semester ends.
“Shamiel’s out there practicing every day,” Hoiberg said. “That’s one thing: we’re preparing as if Shamiel will be out there with us, but we don’t have any update as far as where are with a waiver yet.”
Nebraska opens the season with an exhibition game against NAIA Division II Doane on Wednesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.