For the first time in his six-year collegiate career, Derrick Walker is heading back to his home town of Kansas City to play a game on Saturday.
The Huskers will face Kansas State at T-Mobile Center, the second matchup in a three-year series that includes a home game for both teams and Saturday’s neutral site meeting.
“This is the first time that I’ve gotten to play in K.C. since being in college, so it’ll be very fun just playing right in the middle of my home and also playing another Kansas team as well. So that will be really fun.”
Walker said he’s expecting 30 to 40 friends and family to be in the arena on Saturday, and managing ticket requests has been a daily hassle. However, he managed to get everything taken care of and is focused on getting a win in a game that carries a little extra motivation.
“K-State didn’t recruit me, Mizzou didn’t recruit me, Kansas didn’t recruit me,” Walker said. “So it was bittersweet, just because that’s hometown and when you first want to go to college, you really don’t want to go super far, especially when you’ve got good programs around you. But if I ever get a chance to play those teams, I want to kill them.”
Coach Fred Hoiberg is no stranger to T-Mobile Center (formerly named the Sprint Center), nor is his son Sam, a redshirt freshman walk-on on the team.
“I’ve got a lot of great memories in that building and cutting down the nets in back-to-back years; winning Big 12 tournament championships is something that I’ll always remember,” Hoiberg said. “I still have a picture in the basement: Sam and Charlie, my twins, up there cutting the nets down. It seems a little bit weird now with the size of Sam, but I have some great memories in that building and it’s a cool place to play as far as the size of it. It shouldn’t be that much different than what we play in at at home every night. But it’s going to be unique, these neutral site games. Hopefully we get a good crowd in red down there and I know Kansas State, they’ve always got a great fan base, so I know they’ll be there, being 45 minutes from their campus.”
Kansas State is off to a 9-1 start under new head coach Jerome Tang, who spent nearly two decades as an assistant a Baylor on Scott Drew’s staff before accepting the Kansas State job this past offseason.
“Jerome was huge in the success of Baylor, a lot of really good Baylor basketball teams, the championship that they won a couple years ago,” Hoiberg said. “So just playing against Scott Drew’s teams where Jerome Tang was a huge part of that staff as far as bringing in the talent, and I’ve been impressed with what he’s doing on the floor. And again, the pressure that they apply to you on the defensive end, you can see the passion that he coaches with over there on the sidelines. So it looks like his team has really bought into that.”
Hoiberg highlighted Kansas State’s length, athleticism and pressure when discussing what stands out on film. Kansas State is ninth nationally in opponent turnover rate, forcing giveaways on 25.5% of their defensive possessions.
“They’ve done a phenomenal job turning the teams over,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going to really have to do a good job of handling that if we want any chance of winning. We have to get back in transition; they’re very fast up the floor. Their defense turns their offense, and their deflections turn into offense on the other end. So Jerome’s doing a really good job in his first year and they accumulate a lot of talent and their length and athleticism is what stands out to me, and they’ve got guys that are skilled that can make shots all over the floor.”
Kansas State is sixth in the country in percentage of field goals that are assisted at 66..1%, and that starts with senior point guard Marquis Nowell. The 5-foot-7 playmaker is averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 assists, though he’s only shooting 38.9% from the floor included 33.3% from deep.
“He is really dynamic and does a phenomenal job getting downhill,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a guy that can really step out and hit from anywhere; he’s got deep, deep range on his shot. He’s fourth in the nation and assists right now … Nowell does a great job getting them into their offense, and then they’ve got guys that pose a lot of problems just based on their size.”
Nowell is one of just two returners from last ears squad, the other bing Ismael Massoud. The team’s leading scorer is a transfer who visited Nebraska before committing to Kansas State: former Florida Gator Keyontae Johnson. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound senior was the preseason SEC Player of the Year heading into the 2020-21 season bur played in just four games before collapsing on the court with a heart condition. He missed all of last season but Kansas State’s doctors cleared him to return to the floor and he’s averaging 17.3 points and 6.4 rebounds on incredible efficiency in 31 minutes per game for the Wildcats.
“Keyontae Johnson poses a huge problem on the other end as well,” Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier for that kid, for everything he went through, similar type story with heart disease in our backgrounds and to see what he is accomplishing, it’s a great story after what he went through. So really happy for him, but he is really good. He is very talented, he’s got incredible length, he’s really quick off the floor and he’s right now 59% overall, 50% from the 3 and over 80% from the free-throw line. So the kid’s having a phenomenal year.”
Kansas State is currently 55th in KenPom, 25 spots ahead of Nebraska. The Wildcats are 78th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 41st in adjusted defensive efficiency. They’re 77th in effective field goal percentage and crash the glass hard when they do miss with a 32.9% offensive rebounding rate (ranked 68th).
The players have had a full week in between games to allow them to focus on finals, and Hoiberg said the players have all done well in the class room this semester. Now it’s about getting back to competition as the Huskers look to end their two-game slide.
“It’s an emotional time as well, especially when you came off of last week and then you have the lull of a week without playing games, and now we’ve got to get back into that competitive spirit,” Hoiberg said. “We tried to have good, hard competitive practices, but nothing compares to that game-type action. Really, we haven’t played a team like this in a long time that has this type of length across the board and athleticism. They’re really good on the offensive glass and we have to get back and we have to get our defense set, probably pretty similar to Creighton as far as getting back and getting them into the half court, maybe sacrifice a little bit on the offensive glass.”
After having to play without point guard Sam Griesel at Indiana last week because of an illness, Hoiberg said he’s had a few guys dealing with issues this week including one who missed practice on Thursday, though the player in question was back on the court Friday and Hoiberg said he anticipates having everyone available on Saturday as the 6-5 Huskers look to bounce back from back-to-back Big Ten losses.
“Mentally, we’re still hungry,” Walker said. “We felt like we let a couple slip last week and we know these two next games going into the break are really important for us, heading into conference. So mentally, we’re all hungry and I feel like we’ve got a lot more energy now because of the days off. So we can’t wait to play.”
Tipoff at T-Mobile Center on Saturday is set for 6 p.m. and a stream will be available for ESPN+ subscribers with Pete Sousa and Bryndon Manzer on the call.
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.