Nebraska Basketball Preview: The Frontcourt
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska Basketball Preview: The Frontcourt

November 05, 2019

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. We’ve already broken down the faces of the program, both new and old. Today we’re looking at the guys who will do the heavy lifting on the interior.

Our first two preview installments have leaned heavy on the perimeter, but it might be the frontcourt that determines this team’s ceiling. Nebraska is going to be one of the smaller teams in the country among high-majors — we learned on Monday that Fred Hoiberg plans to start a four-guard lineup again in the season-opener. Once we get into the meat of the conference slate, however, the big guys are going to have to hold their own for the Huskers to have a chance to compete.

It starts in the middle with Yvan Ouedraogo, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound center who won’t even turn 18 until March. Nebraska isn’t going to ask the French teenager to create much on his own, but if he can be a threat in pick-and-rolls and on the offensive glass he can play a key role this season.

“Yvan is a big, physical body,” Hoiberg said. “He’s going to have to play a lot of minutes for us. Sometimes you forget just looking at him and his body, you forget he’s 17 years old. He’s got a long ways to go, but that will come with age and maturity. He’s got a Big Ten body already. He’s doing a really good hob, from when he first got here of kind of hesitating on his rolls to the rim. He’s collapsing the defense now and that’s opening up shots for our perimeter guys.” 

Hoiberg said Ouedraogo has been “pissing people off” with his screens in practice, and now he gets to hit somebody besides his teammates. It’s defense and rebounding where Ouedraogo should provide the most value, however.

“He’s going to have to be a huge part of our rebounding efforts,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously he’s going to be guarding the biggest guy on the floor and he’s going to have to do a great job with his physicality in there which I have no issues with him doing that. But again, with our group the way it is, it’s got to be a collective effort every time we step on the floor as far as competing on the glass.”

Ouedraogo had six points and six rebounds in 18 minutes, shooting 2-of-4 from the floor and 2-of-5 from the line in Nebraska’s exhibition against Doane.

Behind Ouedraogo is another freshman in Kevin Cross who is listed at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds.  Cross is a completely different type of player than Ouedraogo as he’s still working on reshaping his body but has the skill set to make a difference right away. Hoiberg said his versatility is what he loved about Cross when they first started recruiting him.

“The other thing with Kevin is he’s down over 15 pounds since he got in here, so he’s really put a lot of work in, and not only the weight room and his conditioning, but also what he’s putting into his body has paid off for him,” Hoiberg said. “He’s in so much better shape. When he first got here, it was two or three possessions, he’d get winded and we’d have to get him out. Now, after the trip and since he’s been back, I’ve been really pleased with the way Kevin has bought in to everything that we have to offer here as far as taking care of his body and nutrition and getting in the weight room with Coach [Tim] Wilson. 

“But that’s what I loved about Kevin in the recruiting process was his versatility. You can put the ball in his hands. With our system, our big guy’s on the top of the floor a lot as a playmaker and Kevin’s shown to be a really good decision-maker in that position.”

Cross put up a double-double in the exhibition with 10 points on 3-of-7 from the field and 4-of-5 from the foul line, 10 rebounds and three assists. On a few of those rebounds, he grabbed the ball and pushed it up the floor himself, showing off his ball-handling ability. He missed all three of his 3-point attempts, but he’s capable of knocking those shots down as well.

The first player off the bench against Doane was Matej Kavas, the 6-foot-8, 200-pound graduate transfer from Seattle. He was the second player behind Haanif Cheatham, the team’s other graduate transfer, to join the program after Hoiberg took over. 

“I picked Nebraska because they showed great interest in me through the process, and obviously playing for Coach Hoiberg is a big deal,” Kavas said. “He’s been in the NBA, played in the NBA, coached in the NBA. And also, playing in Pinnacle Bank Arena is extremely exciting.”

Kavas said he’s looking forward to playing in the Big Ten and believe he belongs at that level. He’s a career 44.7% 3-point shooter on nearly 400 attempts in 84 games as a Redhawks and had his best season as a sophomore when he averaged 15.2 points and 5.1 rebounds while starting 31 games. An injury cost him a chunk of last season and his playing time decreased, though he still averaged 10.3 points. 

“I couldn’t get the most out of last year because of the injury I had so I’m just really excited to step on the court this year and hopefully it will be a good year for us with no injuries,” Kavas said.

Now, the native of Ljubljana, Slovenia, is looking to be the kind of floor-spacer that both benefits from an up-tempo, spread-out system and makes it possible. 

One of the more intriguing pieces for this roster isn’t even eligible at this point. Shamiel Stevenson, a two-time transfer guard/forward, is currently waiting to hear back from the NCAA about his appeal for an immediate eligibility waiver. Hoiberg did not have an update when he spoke with the media on Monday, so as of now, Stevenson will have to sit until the end of the first semester. 

“Honestly, I’ve just been focusing on practicing and we’re approaching it like I’m playing,” Stevenson said. “I haven’t really been thinking about it too, too much, as hard as that is, but we’re really positive about it. Hopefully it gets granted and that’s what we’re thinking, so we’re just approaching it like I’m playing. I’ve just been focusing on that.”

Stevenson committed to Pittsburgh under Kevin Stallings and had a productive freshman year, averaging 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in 238 minutes per game. After an 8-24 season, Pitt fired Stallings and brought in Jeff Capel to replace him. After logging seven DNPs and 32 minutes of court time in Pitt’s first 11 games, Stevenson entered the Transfer Portal and chose to enroll at Nevada, where he sat out the rest of the season as a redshirt. However, after the season, Eric Musselman left Reno to take the Arkansas job. For the second time, the coach Stevenson committed to was gone.

So Stevenson entered the Portal once again and chose Nebraska and Fred Hoiberg. Even with his eligibility status up in the air, Stevenson is finally happy with where he’s at

“It’s great,” Stevenson said. “It’s really humbling and it really gives me a sense of stability that I haven’t had in a very long time. I’m really thankful and happy to be here.”

At 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical (according to his bio on Pitt’s website), Stevenson is unlike any other player on Nebraska’s roster. In addition to his study frame, his athleticism and his rebounding ability, Stevenson is also 16-of-41 (39%) from 3 in college. 

“I think it’s very, very, very useful,” Stevenson said of his versatile skill set. “Coach’s system is all about versatility and making advantage of mismatches and all that. That’s what I’m the best at, just being versatile and doing whatever is necessary on the court. So I think it’s key for us.”

The final piece of the frontcourt is the freshman from Omaha, Akol Arop. At 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds, Arop played primarily at the five for Omaha Creighton Prep but is transitioning to playing more on the wing at the next level. He’s an explosive athlete with great length and defensive instincts. The perimeter shot and ball-handling are a work in progress but he’s made great strides over the last year or two.

Arop was the 10th player off the bench in Nebraska’s exhibition, making his user debut late in the first half. He played 11 minutes, finishing with five points and two boards. His first 3-point attempt sailed over the rim, but he buried his second. He just missed on the highlight of the game, failing to convert on an alley-ooo from walk-on guard Charlie Easley, but he converted his second dunk attempt later on.

Once Stevenson becomes eligible, Arop is going to have a hard time seeing the floor unless injury strikes, but a year to focus on continuing to develop his skills and build up the body might be a good idea.

The Huskers don’t have a ton of size in the frontcourt, but Hoiberg does have a versatile group and has the ability to roll out some pretty unique lineups. The Big Ten is a big league with some talented frontcourts, and Nebraska is going to need these guys to hold their own.

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