The Huskers got back to work on the practice court this week, taking advantage of their 10-day gap between games to squeeze in a break for Christmas then work on themselves once the team returned to Lincoln.
Between flight delays and non-COVID-19 illnesses, Fred Hoiberg didn’t have his full team back on the court until Thursday’s practice, but the Huskers still got a lot of work done this week as they prepare to dive into Big Ten play.
“It’s been good, hard, long practices for this time of year especially, and with what we have coming up, this really is our last time with a significant amount of practice opportunity,” Hoiberg said. “I think we’ve got one bye week where we’ve got five days to practice, but for right now we felt it was a really good opportunity to get back to the basics, to really get after it, continue to add to the package of the new system that we’re continuing to add and just try and get better and I feel we’ve taken a step in the positive direction.”
Among the players who have hit the practice court this week is a newcomer in Denim Dawson, a member of Nebraska’s 2022 recruiting class who enrolled for the second semester and plans to redshirt this season. He’s a 6-foot-6, 185-pound wing from San Bernardino, California, whose athleticism and motor should be an asset for the Huskers on the practice floor.
“I have absolutely loved what I’ve seen,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve had him for two days after he cleared his medicals. He’s dove on the floor in two days probably more than we’ve had as a as a team combined. He’s just got a toughness and a throwback type personality to him, he talks. He’s got great feet on the perimeter. I can’t wait to see what we have in Denim for the future. But just really, really tough kid, high-flyer athlete and he’s done everything we’ve asked of him so far.”
Unfortunately, Trey McGowens was not one of the Huskers back on the practice floor, but Hoiberg said he’s progressing through his rehab for his broken foot. His most recent X-ray showed significant progress from the previous one and he’s been cleared for stationary shooting without his walking boot.
“He’s excited; nobody’s more excited to get on the floor than Trey. We have to make sure that he’s patient with this and we’re looking at this thing long-term for what’s best for his future. So we’re not going to put him back on the floor until he’s 100% ready, and until the doctors give him full clearance. But he’s made great progress, he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be at this time. The six-to-eight week mark that when you have the Jones fracture, puts it about the middle of this month. So we’re going to keep progressing him as tolerated with everything he’s got going and then hopefully get him back in a couple of weeks.”
Programs across the country have gone on COVID-19-related pauses upon returning to campus from the Christmas break, but the Huskers have managed to avoid that so far. But as Nebraska discovered last season, there are no guarantees while trying to hold a basketball season during a pandemic.
“It’s scary,” Hoiberg said. “Any day at any time, this thing could completely shut down. But you can’t worry about that, all we can do is worry about what we can control and let’s try to go out and put a game plan together and compete and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Hoiberg said that his entire team is vaccinated, and although not every player on the roster has received a booster shot just yet, their plan moving forward is to only test those that show symptoms.
“In talking to our medical people, talking to the doctors and talking to the Big Ten office, right now that is the plan that is in place for our team,” Hoiberg said. “We are fully vaccinated, and we are testing players that are symptomatic right now, which again, we’ve had some of those and we’ve tested and thankfully we tested negative, but that’s that’s the plan that we will continue on with moving forward.”
At one point, Nebraska’s upcoming game was in doubt as No. 13 Ohio State, its opponent on Sunday night, was one of those teams that had to go on pause. The Buckeyes had to cancel their last three games — Kentucky on Dec. 18, Tennessee-Martin on Dec. 21 and New Orleans on Tuesday — and have not played since Dec. 11.
“It’s something that can happen to any of us at any time,” Hoiberg said. “I know one thing, they’ll be ready. I know Chris [Holtmann] will have this group ready to go. He does a phenomenal job getting this team to go out and just play with incredible toughness. They’re going to run the same stuff, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to punch that thing inside, they’re going to run high-low actions, they’re going to get that thing into the paint first and again, you have to match the physicality every time down the floor.”
Ohio State is 8-2 with wins over Seton Hall and Duke among others. The Buckeyes went 2-0 in their December conference games with double-digit wins against Penn State and Wisconsin. Their top three scorers are all big men and the team is among the very best in the country in the post. The Buckeyes are scoring 1.1 points per possession on post-ups according to Synergy, ranked ninth nationally on much higher volume than any other team in the top 10 (15.9% of their possessions).
Junior forward E.J. Liddell (6-foot-7, 240 pounds) has put himself firmly in the Big Ten Player of the Year race with an All-America-caliber season thus far, averaging 20.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.7 assists while shooting 56% from the field, 35.3% from 3 and 72% from the free-throw line.
Sophomore Zed Key (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) is a strong second option, averaging 10.4 points on 62.5% shooting and 5.4 rebounds, and he does all of his damage around the rim. Liddell and Key are two of the best post scorers in the country and are almost identical in their volume and effectiveness.
Super senior Kyle Young (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) is chipping in 10.0 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Senior wing Justin Ahrens is the team’s top perimeter shooter, averaging 43.1% on 5.8 3-point attempts per game while scoring 8.7 points per game. The Buckeyes aren’t particularly dynamic in the backcourt as Holtmann doesn’t have a guard clearing 7.0 points, but Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler has been solid in his role at the point, averaging 6.3 points and 4.4 assists.
“They’re good in transition and they’ve really opened games up by stringing together transition possessions, four or five in a row where they get dunks and then hit Ahrens for 3s,” Hoiberg said. “He’s one of the best shooters in our league and in the country and he takes great shots, so we’ve got to get back, we’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to stay with the game plan for 40 minutes.”
Ohio State is third in the country in transition efficiency, scoring 1.283 points per possession,. The Buckeyes are in the bottom third nationally in possessions per game, but when they do choose to run they’ve been incredibly effective. They’re one of the better shooting teams in the country at 38.6% shooting on 22.3 3-point attempts per game, making double-teaming the post a risky strategy. Defensively, the Buckeyes are holding opponent to sub-40% shooting and 67.5 points per game. However, Ohio State have not played a game in three weeks and Holtmann didn’t have close to his full roster on the practice court until later in the week, so rust could be a factor.
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday is set for 7 p.m. on Big Ten Network with Jeff Levering and Nick Bahe 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.