The guards draw most of the headlines with this Nebrasketball team, and with good reason. But Nebraska is going to need some interior production as the Huskers head into Big Ten play, which is why freshman center Yvan Ouedraogo’s double-double against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is a great sign for the Huskers moving forward.
Ouedraogo tied his career-high of 11 points and set a new career-high with 14 rebounds including six on the offensive end. However, understandably considering his age, his play as been up and down this season with more valleys than peaks at this point.
“I talk about this a lot,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said after the win over the Islanders. “Sometimes we forget Yvan is still a 17-year-old kid. You look at him out there and he’s got a big, strong body, he’s a big, physical kid, but in reality he probably should be playing in high school this year. So we’re asking a lot of him to go out there and start in a conference that’s as physical as any in the country.”
The 6-foot-9, 260-pound teenager from Bordeaux, France, is shooting 41.9% from the field and 46.2% from the free-throw line. He’s shown flashes of some nifty work down low, but he’s also missed two many bunnies. He’s leading the Huskers with 6.4 rebounds in just 20.8 minutes per game including 2.6 per game on the offensive end, but he’s also carrying a 17.8% turnover rate and has had far too many rebounds and passes slip right through his fingertips.
“It’s been an unreal, eye-opening experience, just coming from where he’s coming and putting himself in this situation, D-I basketball at the high-major level, it’s a little different for him,” assistant coach Armon Gates said during the Husker Hoops Show on Sports Nightly a few weeks back. “It’s different in terms of his teammates trusting, him being our really only true big on the roster. He’s getting it left and right from each teammate, if he doesn’t catch a ball, if he doesn’t finish it well. So I’m right there in his ear telling him, ‘Hey, what he’s trying to tell you is this. Just hear it, don’t take how he’s saying it, but here’s the message.’ Because he’s a big guy and he can get frustrated.”
Gates also praised Ouedraogo’s maturity despite his young age, and that served him well against the Islanders. He missed both of his shot attempts — pretty badly — in the first half, scoring just one point in 11 minutes. He didn’t let that discourage him, however.
“At the halftime I was just thinking about ‘Don’t think about your missed shots and everything, just keep going, keep going hard, keep bringing some energy and the ball’s going to fall in,’” Ouedraogo said. “I kept focused and that’s it.”
Ouedraogo hit all three of his field goals and four of his five free-throw attempts in the second half, scoring 10 points in 14 minutes. Nebraska is going to need plenty more of that, starting with Friday against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights start a 6-foot-11, 255-pound giant inside in Myles Johnson (9.1 points per game, 72.2% shooting, 8.7 rebounds per game) and bring the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Shaq Carter off the bench.
“He’s going to have a battle on Friday against a very physical, maybe the most physical team in our league in Rutgers,” Hoiberg said. “Not only Yvan, but Kevin [Cross Jr.] as well. I thought those guys did a good job doing their work early. You have to do that when you’re giving up size.”
Ouedraogo has already gotten a brief taste of Big Ten play in Nebraska’s December conference games against two of the biggest front courts in the league.
In the Huskers’ overtime loss against Indiana, featuring a starting front court of Joey Brunk (6-foot-11, 245 pounds) and Trayce Jackson-Davis (6-foot-9, 245 pounds), Ouedraogo was big on the glass with 10 rebounds, five on each end of the floor. He struggled offensively, however, scoring nine points on 4-of-11 shooting including a big miss at the rim late in the game. He played 33 minutes.
Against Purdue, with the 7-foot-3, 245-pound Matt Haarms and the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Trevion Williams starting beside him, Cross saw 23 minutes to Ouedraogo’s 17. The Frenchman scored six points on 3-of-6 shooting and grabbed six boards.
It may not have been against a Big Ten opponent, but the Corpus Christi game is his most complete performance to date. The rebounding will be particularly important moving forward, but he’ll need some help from the perimeter as well.
“For Yvan to go out and get that double-double was huge with the 14 rebounds,” Hoiberg said. “We have to have that. With this game, we’ve played two of the bigger, longer teams in our league so far with Indiana and Purdue and we’ll see another one on Friday. Our guards are going to have to go in there and help out. One of the reasons I think we won that game against Purdue was [Dachon] Burke got seven [rebounds] and Cam [Mack] got 10. The guards went in there and helped when our bigs were in a wrestling match with those guys. But Yvan, the six offensive rebounds and I thought he finished better as the game went on, and his free throws looked good. I really liked his free-throw stroke today.”
The Rutgers game is just the beginning. After that, the Huskers will take on the Iowa Hawkeyes featuring Luka Garza, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound center who put up 44 points in a game earlier this season. After that, it’s Northwestern with 6-foot-10, 235-pound freshman Ryan Young (10.8 points per game) in the middle. Then it’s Ohio State with arguably the best big man in the conference in Kaleb Wesson (6-foot-9, 270 pounds). Then it’s a rematch with the Hoosiers, and I could go on and on. The Big Ten is filled with very large and talented post players.
Nebraska is going to need Ouedraogo to continue to grow and mature as the season plays out. To have a chance at stealing some conference wins, he’s going to have to hold his own to a certain degree against the likes of Wesson and Garza. The Coprus Christi game is a big step in the right direction, but Friday will be a much bigger test.
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.