Basketball is back and a new era is beginning in Lincoln with Fred Hoiberg at the reins of the Nebrasketball program. The Huskers open the season on Tuesday against UC-Riverside, so this week we’re breaking down the roster and previewing the season. On Sunday, we looked at the new faces of Nebraska basketball. Today, we’re focusing on the two holdovers from last season.
The offseason was one of constant change for the Nebraska basketball program, with a new coaching staff, a new playing style and an almost entirely new roster.
Two players made it through the summer of change: Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Dachon Burke.
Thorbjarnarson went from seldom-used reserve for most of his first two seasons to a starter in the postseason, while Burke toiled away on the scout team last year after transferring from Robert Morris and is ready to show Nebraska fans what he can do. They’ll both play key roles for Nebraska in year one under Fred Hoiberg.
After Nebraska fired Tim Miles and hired Hoiberg, Thorbjarnarson and Burke had to watch as, one by one, their teammates left the program. Isaac Copeland Jr., James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr., Tanner Borchardt and Johnny Trueblood were all seniors, so they were gone regardless.
But then came the transfers. First, it was Thomas Allen Jr. Then it was Nana Akenten, followed by Brady Heiman. Then walk-on Justin Costello, then Amir Harris and Karrington Davis. Finally, Isaiah Roby decided to keep his name in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Then there were two.
“We came in after we came back from spring break and we looked at the locker room and we were laughing,” Burke said. “I was like ‘Thor, it’s really just me and you.’ Thor and I have a great relationship.”
The offseason of change was particularly tough on Burke, who suffered some losses in his personal life as well. But after meeting with Hoiberg, Burke was all in.
“It was just a roller coaster because I had lost my aunt, I had lost my little cousin and then I hear Miles was fired and I was like ‘Wow,’” Burke said. “I came out here after my tragedies, I met with Hoiberg and he’s a great, great, great coach. Our relationship is growing every single day on and off the court. He’s texting me, on the court he’s on me. I respect him. He’s a great coach.”
Burke had already gone through a transfer and used his redshirt, so transferring again could have been a difficult process requiring a waiver for immediate eligibility or Burke sacrificing a year of eligibility.
Thorbjarnarson, a native of Iceland, was in a different situation.
“It was a weird couple of days [after Tim Miles got fired],” Thorbjarnarson said. “I probably thought about going back home and just playing there. I wasn’t really too keen on redshirting, going somewhere else. Hoiberg came in and we had a chat, and right after that I was pretty certain that I wanted to say.”
Thorbjarnarson said continuing to progress toward his degree was important for him and his family, and the plan Wiberg laid out for the program going forward resonated with him.
“I liked everything they had to say right from the bat,” Thorbjarnarson said. “They were planning on doing something that I wanted to be a part of. It was an easy decision for me. And also, I kind of wanted to stay here at Nebraska, whatever had happened. I’m halfway through my degree and I think there are a lot of things to consider in this decision process, but ultimately I think I made the right decision.”
As a freshman, the 6-foot-6 wing appeared in just nine games, scoring eight points in 19 minutes. As a sophomore, he played mostly in garbage time situations early on, logging more DNPs than games with double-digit minutes. Them seeking a spark, Miles inserted him uno the lineup, giving him 12 or more minutes in four straight games including two starts.
His minutes continued to go up and down the rest of the season until senior day against Iowa, when he logged 17 minutes. With injuries and suspension ravaging the roster, Miles rolled with a seven-man rotation in Nebraska’s five postseason games with Thorbjarnarson in the starting lineup. Thorbjarnarson totaled 21 points, 14 rebounds, 11 steals, eight assists and just three turnovers in 123 postseason minutes. He only shot 7-of-20 from the field, but 10 of those attempts came from the 3-point line and he only made two of them.
“That’s my little brother, man,” Burke said. “Thor’s game is getting better too. He’s not getting the most hype, but I would say his game on the court, behind the scenes, he’s putting the work in. His jump shot is looking better, he’s more aggressive. He’s looking way better.”
The perimeter shot is the biggest question (he’s 6-of-28 from 3 in his career), but the rest of his game fits perfectly into Hoiberg’s system, and that’s coming from Hoiberg himself. There’s a reason Thorbjarnarson is still in Lincoln unlike most of the other Huskers from last season.
“I think what he wants and wants to run, wants to do, what he expects is something that I can really do,” Thorbjarnarson said. “The way he runs stuff is something I’m really comfortable with; I grew up back home running that kind of stuff — pace, decision-making, IQ stuff.”
Thorbjarnarson was the second man off the bench in Nebraska’s exhibition against Doane, checking in and immediately sparking a 9-0 run including a couple of layups himself on back cuts, showing off that basketball IQ. He finished with 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting, four rebounds, two steals, one assist and no turnovers in 16 minutes.
As for Burke, he last played in an official game on March 3, 2018. Tuesday’s season opener has been a long time coming for the 6-foot-4 guard who had to sit out all of last season.
“I”m not going to lie, people think redshirting is easy; it’s not as easy as you’d think,” Burke said. “You’re sitting out. At the beginning of the year it was a little fun, all the things off the court, the opening night, practicing with the team and doing media, but then once all of that phases out and the season starts, it hits you. You’re sitting at home, they’re away, they’re playing, you can’t. It’s hard. But I knew at the end of the tunnel there was light.”
Burke wasn’t just sitting at home moping, however. He was working on his game, going up against the likes of James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr. in practice every day. Hoiberg’s arrival on campus made an impact on his development as well.
“I would say my IQ and maturity and my jump shot also [improved],” Burke said. “I feel like those three things I’ve been working on a lot. Hoiberg’s been on me since he got here, just teaching me better reads and just teaching me the game a little bit better.”
As a sophomore at Robert Morris, Burke put up 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.1 steals in 32.6 minutes per game while shooting 45.9% from the field, 33.8% from 3 and 62.8% from the free-throw line. Burke’s speed and quickness and his ability to get to the rim make him a good fit for Hoiberg’s up-tempo style.
“I love his system,” Burke said. “Fast-paced game and just learning reads. It’s not too much slowing down and play-calling. There are a lot of plays we do have but it’s a lot of reads and it’s a lot of freedom we have.”
Burke was a bit too amped up in the exhibition game to start, struggling in the first few minutes, but he settled in soon after and didn’t miss a shot the rest of the way, leading the team with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting including 3-of-4 from deep.
Cam Mack, Jervay Green and Haanif Cheatham are the new faces of Nebraska basketball, but Burke is every bit as important as those three and very well might be the team’s leading scorer this season, and he’s a competitor on the defensive end as well who can guard multiple positions.
This season is all about redefining what Nebrasketball is, and in a strange twist of fate, two holdovers will likely be at the forefront of that shift.
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.