Nebraska closed out its exhibition season on Sunday evening with a 72-61 loss at Colorado. Playing without senior big man Derrick Walker, Nebraska dug itself a big hole early, rallied to make it a two-possession game then ran out of steam in the second half.
Despite the team’s offensive struggles, Hoiberg saw some things that the liked from his team in the loss.
“I saw resiliency, that’s for sure,” Hoiberg said during the Nebraska Men’s Basketball Show on Monday’s edition of Sports Nightly. “Obviously not the start we were looking for, digging a 10-0 hole out of the gate, but we responded to it … I was really pleased with our defense at the end of the first half. I think they were 4-for-21 the last eight-minute stretch. We were able to pull all the way back to within five and it was a seven-point game at halftime.
“Unfortunately we had another poor start — poor start to the game, poor start to the second half. We continued to fight, continued to battle. It was a one-possession game for a lot of the second half; unfortunately, just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Nebraska got off to a slow start in all four halves during its exhibition games. Hoiberg started the same group one through four (Sam Griesel, Emmanuel Bandoumel, C.J. Wilcher and Wilhelm Breidenbach) with Blaise Keita replacing Walker at the five against the Buffaloes. That starting group has shot a combined 6-of-24 from 3 so far, which is one reason for the team’s struggles.
Wilcher, the team’s top 3-point shooter last season, has gotten off to a particularly slow and uncharacteristic start as he went 4-for-17 including 2-of-9 from deep against Chadron State and Colorado, but Hoiberg isn’t ye worried.
“The big thing for him, it’s all about his shot prep,” Hoiberg said. “Last year, the second half of the season, he shot over 50% from the 3-point line. He’s had a tremendous offseason, a really good training camp portion of our season so far, and we’re confident that his shots are going to go, especially when we started running actions for him.”
Hoiberg’s plan was to keep things simple during the preseason, running just a couple of half court sets throughout the two games. He got close to scrapping that plan and opening up the playbook as he saw the Huskers fall behind 26-9, but the Huskers started battling back into it on their own.
Hoiberg said he and his staff will evaluate that starting five and experiment with other lineups throughout this week as the team gears up for its season opener against Maine on Monday, but he won’t rush to shake things up based on the limited playbook the team has been running.
In addition to dealing with playing on the road without one of their leaders, the Huskers also had to battle against the effects of the elevated altitude in Boulder. Hoiberg said that impacted the bigs and particular Keita, who played just 11 minutes despite starting. He scored two points and grabbed four rebounds.
“Blaise, he actually was sick this morning,” Hoiberg said. “So I think he had a little bit of a bug going into yesterday which affected him overall. He was having trouble changing ends I think we only played him 10 or 11 minutes. This was coming after one of his better practices of the year. So hopefully it was an altitude thing, not feeling great.”
With Walker in street clothes and Keita struggling, redshirt freshman Oleg Kojenets stepped up and contributed six points on 3-of-4 shooting, three rebounds and one block in 15 minutes. Nebraska outscored Colorado by 12 with the 7-footer on the court.
“I was really pleased,” Hoiberg said. “Oleg did an unbelievable job coming off — our bench had 18 points in that first half and Oleg, for really his first meaningful action since he’s been here in Nebraska after sitting out and redshirting his first year, showed great poise in the post. He had three really nice moves, showed great footwork and good patience down there and then battled on the other end.”
Playing against high-major bigs has been a significant adjustment for Kojenets, but Hoiberg has seen plenty of growth from him defensively, which started with his physical development during his redshirt year.
“He was extremely skinny when he got here,” Hoiberg said. “Kurt Joseph, our strength coach, has done a tremendous job getting him ready. We have a redshirt program for the guys that aren’t on the court playing competitively. They’re very instrumental in our practices, helping prepare the guys that are eligible to play with with working on the scout team, but working on their bodies is as important as anything and that’s what Oleg did. The other thing he’s really worked on, he had a really kind of funky knuckleball when he got to campus, and he’s really worked on that. He’s one of our harder workers. He comes in every day for extra work, and it’s great to see that hard work paying off.”
With Walker, Keita and Kojenets, the Huskers have had plenty of depth at the five throughout offseason practice. Hoiberg had to get a little creative at that spot on Sunday, however, and turned to a small lineup at one point that featured Juwan Gary at the five.
“We had not practiced one possession with Juwan at the five spot, so to go out there and run a couple different things after timeouts where we could use his quickness advantage with a big guy guarding him where he got to the basket, I thought we did a good job with that,” Hoiberg said. “But Juwan certainly has shown that he’s going to be very valuable part of this team.”
Kojenets wasn’t the only freshman who saw the floor; Hoiberg got true freshmen guards Ramel Lloyd Jr. and Jamarques Lawrence playing time in both exhibitions. Lloyd went 1-for-2 from deep and grabbed a rebound in nine minutes while Lawrence misfired on three 3-point attempts in five minutes on the court after splitting a pair of triples against Chadron State.
“I thought both of them going out there didn’t play with any fear for the first contest on the road,” Hoiberg said. “Ramel came down the floor without hesitation. The thing I liked most about Ramel yesterday was his physicality. He had two of his best block-outs of the season where he came down, cracked down on a big guy, drove them under underneath the baseline, and that was one area we really wanted to see him grow was increasing that physical makeup. He responded to that yesterday.
“Jamarques came off, no hesitation, in five minutes, got off three 3s, and that’s what his role is going to be. The potential for him coming off the bench and being a guy that can knock down a shot for us, especially on a night where we didn’t shoot well. But for Jamarques, I liked him coming out with that aggressive mentality and had three shots that, he’s a very good shooter. He’s one of the better shooters on this roster.”
Hoiberg said after the game that he’ll cut down the rotation as the Huskers head into the regular season, and he has one more week of practices to make those final decisions. He will next speak with the media on Friday ahead of the team’s opener on Monday.
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.