Wednesday’s loss to Georgia Tech hit hard in the Nebraska locker room. They don’t have any time to dwell on it, however, with a quick turnaround for Friday’s trip to Omaha.
“They were bothered by it,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. “That was a dejected locker room in there. Kobe [Webster] was doing a really good job of talking and trying to keep the guys’ spirits and talking about how we need to put it behind us and bounce back with a good, solid day tomorrow and get ready for one of the top teams in the country on Friday, our first road test.”
Nebraska fell apart down the stretch against a Georgia Tech team that lost its first two games to Georgia State and Mercer before turning things around to smack Kentucky. Now the Huskers will face an even stiffer test against in-state rival Creighton. The Jays are coming off a tough loss of their own as they fell to Kansas by one at Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday.
“Going into a game against Creighton, one of the top teams in the country coming off a heartbreaking loss, we know they’re going to be charged up,” Hoiberg said during his postgame interview with Kent Pavelka and Jake Muhleisen. “We have to find a way, first of all to have this bother us, bother everybody on the staff, on the team, but find a way to get over it … We’ve got to find a way to refocus and get ready for this next game on a one-day prep. Come back, have another walk-through a little bit later on before we get on the bus and head to Omaha. A great opportunity for us to get right back at it; hopefully our guys put it behind us. I’m confident they will, they’re a resilient group and we’ll play better on Friday.”
Last season, Creighton smacked Nebraska 95-76, and the game wasn’t even as close as that final score might indicate. However, only two players in Nebraska’s rotation took part in that game: senior Thorir Thorbjarnarson and sophomore Yvan Ouedraogo.
“The feeling for this game is always a little bit different,” said Thorbjarnarson, who is heading into his fourth year of the Creighton-Nebraska series. “Ever since I got here I noticed that this is a really big game, as a rivalry. It’s going to be weird this year with no fans, because this has been the biggest game maybe every year, and everyone’s really excited for it. I try to tell the guys it means a lot to the people in this state and bragging rights and all that. We have to be ready, and Creighton’s obviously a really good team as well and they return a lot of players from last year. The feel is probably going to be a little bit different with no fans, but there’s a lot of stake for this game.”
Thorbjarnarson moved into the starting lineup against Creighton last year, scoring 12 points (a new career high) on 4-of-5 shooting from deep. Hoiberg will likely be hoping for a similar breakout this season as Thorbjarnarson has struggled mightily on offense this season, scoring 13 points on 5-of-24 shooting in the first five games. He’s still contributing in other ways (seven rebounds and five assists against Georgia Tech), and isn’t too worried about his own offensive production.
“I just want to win, I want to help my team to win,” Thorbjarnarson said. “Obviously you want to score points and you want to do all that, but as long as the team is winning — I’ll find my shot. I’ll find my openings. We’re getting to know each other still with these games.”
Last year was Hoiberg’s first game in the Creighton-Nebraska series, but he’s no stranger to playing in an in-state rivalry.
“It’s always fun playing in rivalry games,” Hoiberg said. “I was part of a great one in the state of Iowa growing up, playing for Iowa State, playing for years against Iowa, and then coaching in that same rivalry game for five years. So to have nine opportunities to coach in a game that means so much to the state, it’s a privilege and an honor to do that … Certainly our guys know, they saw what happened last year with just absolutely getting it handed to hus. Creighton has a chance to be there at the end this year as a national championship contender with the players on their team.”
Creighton point guard Marcus Zegarowski, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, lit Nebraska up for 30 points and six assists. Ty-Shon Alexander added 22 points, but he’s now with the Phoenix Suns. Creighton’s other three starters are back, though, from a team that shot 13-of-30 from 3 against the Huskers.
Zegarowski and Mitch Ballock, the team’s two best shooters, have struggled this season, combining to shoot 30.9% from 3. Christian Bishop, a 6-foot-7 forward who plays at the five for the Jays, has taken a big step forward and is leading the team with 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this season. Senior wing Denzel Mahoney, a transfer who wasn’t yet eligible when Nebraska played Creighton last season, is averaging 13.3 points while shooting 40% from 3.
The series was originally scheduled to shift to Lincoln this season after last year’s game took place at CHI Health Center Omaha. The pandemic’s impact on nonconference schedules threw the game’s status in doubt, but Hoiberg and Greg McDermott worked together to get it back on the schedule, moving it back to Omaha in the process.
“It’s a game that our fans look forward to seeing every year, and I think especially this year where we can’t get out, we can’t move around, we can’t go to games live,” McDermott said. “For our state to be able to watch their two favorite teams play I think is going to be enjoyable for them. I think Fred and I recognized that and wanted to make it happen.
“We decided to move the game here. Fred asked if I would consider that. Initially I probably wasn’t too excited about it, but I understand his thinking. It’s his first few years at Nebraska. Had we went to their place this year and played in front of an empty gym and then he comes back here next year where everything’s back to normal and it’s in front of 18,000, so two of the first three years he’s playing in front of 18,000 and we play in front of nobody there. So I get it, and I would like to think if the shoe was on the other foot and I would have asked the same favor of him, he would have done something similar. The important thing was let’s figure out a way to play the game. I think it’s healthy for both fan bases that this game gets played.”
Friday’s game is scheduled for a 6 p.m. CT tipoff on Big Ten Network.
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.