Sam Griesel has had Sunday’s game against Creighton circled on his mental calendar for a while now.
The Lincoln native grew up watching the in-state rivalry as a Husker fan. The Bluejays showed some interest but, like Nebraska, didn’t offer him a scholarship out of high school. He played at Creighton during the 2020-21 season, but the CHI Health Center was mostly empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he had to watch from home when the Bison played at Creighton last season.
Griesel said he’s looking forward to his chance to play against Creighton in a Nebraska jersey.
“But just as we’ve gotten closer to it, I think it’s really important for me and our team to realize that we can’t let the moment get too big for us and it’s just a basketball game at the end of the day,” Griesel said. “Two teams that really want to win and play at a high level, so it’ll be a fun afternoon.”
Derrick Walker is the only player who was on the team the last time Nebraska played in Omaha, but even he wasn’t in the lineup that day. Sunday will bring a brand new experience for everyone on the roster as the game is sold out. Coach Fred Hoiberg said he has tried to properly contextualize the meaning of the game for his team as they’ve worked through their preparations.
“Growing up in a situation, obviously two different teams in a hometown of a rival game with Iowa State-Iowa, it was always a little extra, a little something extra with that game, and I tried to talk to my teammates that were from different parts of the country, different parts of the world about the importance of that type of game,” Hoiberg said. “But you can’t change the way you play just because of all the hype that surrounds this game. They’re a top-10 team in the country. When it’s all said and done, that team is going to be competing for a national championship. So we have to go in there and really play to our principles.”
Sunday’s game will provide one final installment in an individual rivalry of sorts as well with Griesel and Baylor Scheierman, a South Dakota State transfer and Aurora native. The two have had some fierce battles over the years in the Summit League, and now they’ll square off in a brand new setting.
“It’s cool story for us,” Griesel said. “Obviously, came from two different universities and now being Nebraska kids, obviously representing different schools, but just to get that feeling for us, it’ll be a cool moment for both of us.”
Griesel said Creighton’s pace is the first thing that stands out to him on film.
“Obviously, we can’t have costly turnovers, because they get out, they run,” Griesel said. “All five of their guys know how to make the right plays in the right situations and obviously they shoot it really well as well.”
Creighton did not shoot it really well on Thursday, but the No. 7 Bluejays still found a way to take No. 2 Texas down to the wire in Austin in a 72-67 loss, the second straight defeat for Creighotn after opening the season 6-0 with a pair of top-25 wins against Texas Tech and Arkansas down at the Maui Invitational.
“It’s an incredibly talented team and I think he saw that on full display against Texas the other night,” Hoiberg said. “They shoot 4-of-27 [from 3] and still had a chance to win that game against the No. 2 team in the country. So just-high powered, high-octane. We’re going to have to be very smart with our attack. We can’t be trying to go over [Ryan] Kalkbrenner at the rim; he’s an elite level shot blocker, and when he blocks shots, it’s basically a turnover that leads to a basket. So you have to be really smart. You can’t go over top of him, you have to try to get into his body if you’re going to shoot in that situation.”
Kalkbrenner is the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year averaging 1.6 blocks but altering many more shots than that number indicates. The Bluejay defense is predicated on funneling ball-handlers to their rim protector and forcing contested shots at the rim or mid-range pull-ups. However, unlike a lot of the teams Nebraska has struggled against, Creighton doesn’t typically assert a lot of pressure or look to turn teams over at a high rate (344th in the country in opponent turnover rate according to KenPom).
Shot selection will be key for Nebraska, as will continued ball movement. The Huskers have assisted on 60 of their 87 buckets (69%) in the three games with Derrick Walker in the lineup, up from 50% in the five games without him.
“After that second game, we kind of changed some things offensively and obviously getting Derrick back helps a lot,” Griesel said. “I think we’re seeing just unselfishness of this team. Maybe we don’t have a guy that scores 25, 30 points a game, but we’ll have five or six guys in the 10 to 15 range, and I think that, on the back end, is actually harder to prepare for and we’re going to use that to our advantage.”
The Bluejays have a talented starting five with four playmakers surrounding Kalkbrenner (16.6 points per game on 77.8% shooting) in point guard Ryan Nembhard (13.3 points and 5.8 assists per game), combo-guard Trey Alexander (11.6 points per game, 40.9% from 3), Scheierman (12.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, 39.3% from 3) and forward Arthur Kaluma (12.5 points per game). The backcourt in particular is dynamic and Nebraska will have to find a way to keep Nembhard and Alexander out of the point.
“Once they start playing downhill, they’re unstoppable,” Hoiberg said. “So we’re going to have to get off to a good start. Understanding it is one of the toughest places to play in the country and if you can get off to a good start and play with energy, match what Creighton is going to do. I know they’re coming off that loss, so it’s going to be a huge energy game to start.
“But I’ve been really impressed with their group. Scheierman is so gifted in the open court and his ability to make plays, make shots. Nembhard with the ball in his hands. elite level, rim-attack player, getting downhill. And all their guys make shots. It’s just it’s skill all the way across the board. Every guy that’s on the floor is a threat. They run so many plays, you have to really have a conceptual-type game plan. You’re not going to be able to cover everything that they run, and they play with a lot of freedom. So it’s going to be a heck of a challenge.”
Tipoff on Sunday is set for 3:30 p.m. CT on FS1 with Lane Grindle 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.