Nebraska could be without a key piece as the Huskers open their season on Monday against Maine.
Coach Fred Hoiberg said again on Friday morning that senior center Derrick Walker missed the team’s exhibition for “healthcare reasons” and listed him as “day-to-day” moving forward. Hoiberg said again that Walker will address the situation when he’s ready to do so.
Blaise Keita started in Walker’s place in the exhibition game at Colorado while Oleg Kojenets provided good minutes off he bench. Hoiberg also tried smaller lineups with Wilhelm Breidenbach and Juwan Gary at the five against the Buffaloes.
“We’ve got some flexibility with it,” Hoiberg said. “We obviously showed a lot of different combinations the other night in Colorado. Blaise started in that game; came off the bench with with Oleg; played Wilhelm for a small stretch at the five; and then we also went really small and had Juwan out there as well. That’s the thing about this roster, it’s got some versatility to it. We can play small, we can play big, and I think you saw that with some of the combinations we threw out the the other day.”
The small-ball lineup featuring the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Gary at the five spot was something Nebraska didn’t practice with at all leading up to the game, but Hoiberg felt he had to get creative without Walker.
“I did like some of the things that I saw out of that lineup,” Hoiberg said. “Juwan at that position showed his ability to go by a defender, a bigger defender. The biggest thing is, can we compete on the glass with the size, physicality of teams that we’re going to be playing early in the schedule? We might throw some different combinations out there, but I did like what I saw out of that small lineup.”
Without Walker on the court, Emmanuel bandoumel said he and fellow fifth-year senior Sam Griesel are trying to be even more vocal to fill the void, though Walker is still trying to make an impact from the sideline.
“Derrick is still involved a lot with our bigs, with Blaise and Oleg,” Bandoumel said. “He’s been doing a great job of making sure they’re ready for the games that we have for the upcoming weeks. He’s still vocal, he’s still there, we still hear him. Every time we’re coming down on defense, we’re coming down on offense, calling the play, he’ll be the first guy to echo it, first guy to tell Oleg what to do, to tell Blaise where he’s got to be and stuff like that. So even though we’ve got a void to fill on the court, he’s still been a huge on the bench.”
After the Colorado game, Hoiberg praised the performance of his freshmen off the bench, though also said he’d be cutting down the rotation some heading into the season. Hoiberg played all 16 healthy players against Chadron State and went 11-deep against Colorado even without Walker.
“It could be different on different nights,” Hoiberg said about his rotation. “Right now, I’d say we’re nine is what we’ll start playing with our rotation and we’ll just kind of take it from there — who’s playing well, who’s got it going, if there’s guys that are showing progress in practice. The beginning of the season rotation a lot of times isn’t what it looks like at the end, and things are going to come up at all times. Guys that may not be in the rotation have to be ready when their name is called just based on situations. But we’re comfortable with our guys. They all got good quality minutes in in the two exhibition games. Going into it we’ll have a plan, but you always have to be ready to adjust.”
Griesel, Bandoumel, C.J. Wilcher and Breidenbach started both exhibition games. Walker and Kojenets looks to be the center rotation until Walker returns. Gary, Denim Dawson and Keisei Tominaga were the first three non-bigs off the bench in both exhibitions as well. True freshmen Ramel Lloyd Jr. and Jamarques Lawrence look to be on the outside looking in, though as Hoiberg said, that could change.
Regardless of who is on the floor, a key for Nebraska moving forward will be perimeter shooting. The Huskers shot 12-of-51 (23.5%) in the two exhibition games, though Hoiberg isn’t yet overly worried, in part because he chose not to run many sets to generate looks for shooters. Everything thy got came in the flow of the game off their basic actions.
“If you make the right play, you make the right pass, hopefully that will lead to quality shots, and if you get the right ones, eventually hopefully they’ll fall,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously we have not shot the ball well in the first two games, but we haven’t run much either. I put that a lot on me with those early shooting numbers and I think they’re going to steadily climb as we go into our opener. The biggest thing is continue to make the unselfish play, make the right play, make the simple play and just be ready when that ball comes.
“Shot prep, shot readiness is huge and we work with our guys a lot on that with the first drill that we do with our skill work, just talk about feet, talk about footwork, talk about body position, and then now carrying that over when the speed of the game increases.”
The Huskers will open the season Monday night against Maine, who is 351st in KenPom heading into the 2022-23 season after finishing 354th with a 6-23 record last year. The Black Bears return just two of their top six scorers.
“They’ve got a lot of new faces,” Hoiberg said. “They’ve got some key returners that that played on the big stage against high-major teams last year that had big performances. They’ve got shooting, really, all over the floor. The biggest thing is going out and playing with great physicality and playing with great purpose and getting off to good starts. They’ve got a lot of guys that are capable of having big nights. So we’ve just got to come out and hopefully get our crowd into the game early and get off to a good start. We have not gotten off to great starts in the two exhibitions. It’s going to be a key to us, hopefully jumping on teams early and having sustained effort for 40 minutes.”
The effort he expects to see from his team is a big part of why he thinks the fans will enjoy rooting for this year’s team. Ticket sales are strong again this year and Hoiberg is thankful for the support the program continues to receive.
“That’s one thing with this group, I know that they’re going to bring it, I know that they’re going to have effort every time they step on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “Now it’s about going out there and hopefully making shots, staying together and playing with great confidence. I can’t tell you how appreciative we are of everything, especially how it’s gone the last few years, to continue to get the support.
“I know it’s a huge year. It’s a huge year for me, it’s a huge year for all of us, to go out there and show significant progress and play the right way. Again, with what I’ve seen with this group, I’m confident that we will do that.”
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Monday is set for 7 p.m.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.