After missing the first five games of the season (plus an exhibition), senior big man Derrick Walker made his season debut for the Huskers in Orlando, playing in the last two games of the ESPN Events Invitational.
Walker worked off some rust in Nebraska’s loss to Memphis, balancing out a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double with nine turnovers as he and his teammates looked to re-establish chemistry in the face of the Tigers’ relentless pressure.
However, he was the best player on the floor in Sunday’s game against Florida State, dropping a career-high 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, 13 rebounds and four assists in a 17-point win against the Seminoles.
“I just wanted to start off this talking about how great it is having Derrick back on the floor,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Tuesday. “You see the impact that he has on his team, how much we missed him, especially playing against the pressure that we’ve been facing every night and having a guy that can just flat out go make a play for himself or make a play for a teammate.”
Four other Huskers scored in double figures against the Seminoles (13 apiece from Sam Griesel, C.J. Wilcher and Keisei Tominaga and 10 from Juwan Gary) as Nebraska scored 50 points in the paint and recorded assists on 22 of their 33 field goals.
“I really liked our cutting and slashing in our last game and again, when you‘ve got a guy at the top of the floor that can make a play and take advantage of that, it makes things a lot easier on everybody,” Hoiberg said. “So just awesome having Derrick back on the floor, I’m proud of him for getting back out there. It’s not easy when you have an extended time off to go out there and make that type of impact.”
Walker said he’s still working on getting his conditioning in order after missing so much time, and he had a tough time getting up and down the floor early in the game. However, he played in 67 of the 80 minutes in the last two games.
“The first, I think, about two minutes of the game … he could hardly breathe,” Hoiberg said. “We got him out and then got him back in there and couldn’t play without him. We just had to have him on the floor. Just to have a guy to really be the security for this team, to go out and make plays on both ends of the floor and finish off possessions with the rebounding, and being able to handle it when those smaller guards are eating our point guard and shooting guard up, to be able to bring a 7-footer away from the basket is just huge for our offense and for our system. We missed a lot of good looks the other night but still had a very efficient game and a lot of that had to do with this guy sitting next to me.”
Hoiberg used the phrases “heath care reasons” and “medical condition” to explain Walker’s absence from the lineup and said he’d leave it up to Walker to elaborate further if he so desired, but the sixth-year senior declined to do so on Tuesday.
“Just health reasons,” Walker said. “I don’t want to go into specific details. But most importantly, I’m happy to be back. Hopefully I can put this behind me and just focus on the future which is playing with my teammates and ensuring that we can do whatever we can to win the games moving forward.”
Walker said he didn’t care about the stats he put up; he was more excited about the win and seeing his teammates look happy on the court with him back out there. He said having to sit out — for the third time in his four seasons at Nebraska (he redshirted in year one and saved a suspension to start year two).
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Walker said. “It’s sad when you you want to go to battle with your brothers and you feel like you’re leaving them out there to fend for themselves. But they did great, they got through it and I’m hearing now and all we can do is just move forward.”
Walker will make his home debut on Wednesday as the Huskers return home to host Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Eagles are 5-2 with losses to Maine and Tarleton State, and Nebraska will be their first high-major opponent of the season.
“I’ve seen a team that has very good guard play; I’ve been really impressed with their guards,” Hoiberg said. “They can get downhill, they post them some. They’ve got bigs that can step out and knock down shots. It’s a team has good size and length. We’re going to have to do a good job with our physicality and hopefully limiting them to one shot. They do a good job going after the ball once it goes up on the board. Hopefully we can get out in in transition on them. But they’re well coached, they play hard. It’s a very solid team and we’re going to have to play well tomorrow.”
Boston College has been strong defensively against its light schedule, ranking 52nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. However, the Eagles have struggled to score the ball, ranking 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 298th in effective field goal percentage at 46% (including a 28.4% mark from deep).
Makai Ashton-Langford, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, is leading the team with 12.6 points and 2.6 assists per game but is shooting just 10.5% from 3 (2-of-9 in seven games). Jaeden Zackery, a 6-foot-2 sophomore guard, is the only other double-digit scorer at 11.6 points per game on 39% shooting. CJ Penha, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward, leads the frontcourt with 9.0 points and 4.4 rebounds while T.J. Bickerstaff (6-foot-9, 207 pounds) is chipping in 7.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game shooting 42.6% from the field (all from 2-point range).
Prince Aligbe, the team’s top-rated 2022 recruit, put up 16 points and nine rebounds in his debut for the Eagles but went down with an injury a minute into game two and hasn’t played since.
Husker fans will see a familiar face on the Boston College bench as former Nebraska assistant Jim Molinari is on head coach Anthony Grant’s staff.
This year is the 24th and final edition of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Big Ten has an 8-12-3 record in the challenge overall while Nebraska is 5-6 and looking to snap a three-game losing streak.
Wednesday’s game is also Nebraska’s annual Toys for Tots Drive. Fans are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped toys to the game, and they can also make cash donations. U.S. Marines will be stationed at both Pinnacle Bank Arena entrances to accept donations.
Tipoff is set for 8:15 p.m. CT on ESPNU with David Saltzman and Mark Adams 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.