Heading into Tuesday’s game against Michigan, freshman forward Akol Arop had played a grand total of about 12 minutes, all in garbage time situations.
But when starting center Yvan Ouedraogo threw up an ill-advised air-ball with back-up Kevin Cross Jr. on the bench in foul trouble, Hoiberg turned to the 6-foot-6, 190-pound Arop at center with 9:31 to play in a six-point game.
Arop only played for about 100 seconds of game time, but during that 100 seconds he battled with the 7-foot-1, 265-pound Jon Teske, switched too guards on the perimeter and set screens on offense, buying Nebraska time until Hoiberg felt he could put Cross back into the game.
“It kind of felt like AAU basketball again,” Arop said about matching up with Teske. “When Coach called my name, I was obviously ready because it’s moments like these where Coach tells you you have to wait on your opportunity and to get in there and do your best. When I got in there, I went all out and tried my best. He was a big guy, but I fought.”
Arop was an all-state performer at Omaha Creighton Prep where he played mostly center, putting up 19.4 points and 10.4 rebounds as a senior. He played the five on the AAU circuit for the OSA Crusaders as well, matching up with guys like West Virginia freshman Oscar Tshiebwe (6-foot-9, 258 pounds) and 2020 USC commit Evan Mobley (6-foot-11, 205 pounds). So Tuesday wasn’t anything new for him.
“I’ll say this about Akol: he’s getting better as a basketball player,” Hoiberg said after the game. “He is competing every day in practice, he’s always positive, the kid’s got a smile on his face and I thought he went out there and battled those big guys. He’s giving up about a foot to Teske but he was fronting him and he was getting into his legs. He stayed in front when got out in a switch. I thought Akol did some good things. It’d a matter of time before he was going to get an opportunity to go out there in a meaningful game and I’m proud of him for going out there and giving us a couple good, quality minutes.
“We’ll see how the rest of the year goes, but there’s going to be probably another chance where he gets out there in an important part of the game and just go out there and give us good production.”
Arop isn’t playing the role he expected when he signed with Nebraska, and it hasn’t exactly been easy watching games from the sideline, but he’s settled in now and is doing what he can to contribute.
“It was kind of hard at first, I’m not going to lie,” Arop said. “But I got used to it. I talked to Coach a couple times about my role. I think I play a big role on the team as well, staying positive and keeping everyone on the team positive and motivated for the games, always talking to them before and after the games. I think that’s really a big part of how I play my role for this team.”
Arop hasn’t often gotten the reward of playing time in games, but that hasn’t made it difficult for him to continue to grind in practice.
“You never know what’s going to happen out there in the game, when your name’s going to be called and your opportunity comes,” Arop said. “It always starts in practice and you practice how you play. If you go out and you practice as hard as you can and give it your all, maybe in the game you’ll get your time.”
Hoiberg hasn’t gone very deep into his rotation this season. Only six players have played in all 21 games this season. Former walk-on guard Charlie Easley has earned his way into the rotation while graduate transfer Matej Kavas has fallen out of it, logging DNP-CDs in each of Nebraska’s last four games. Jervay Green missed two games while suspended and was benched for two others, and his minutes have been up and down since his return to the court.
“The thing that I try to talk to any of our guys that are out of the rotation about is always keep yourself ready,” Hoiberg said. “You never know when your name’s going to be called. It happened the other night and I thought [Arop] went out there and really battled for the almost two minutes that he played. We’re probably going to need stretches like that here the rest of the way, so just continuing to work in practice — Akol’s done a great job with that and he’s really grown as a player.”
Hoiberg wasn’t ready to give any specifics about when Arop might see the floor again, but whenever it happens, Arop said he’ll be ready.
“I’m waiting for that moment and when I get out there I’m going to take advantage of it.”