Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: A Good Day for Husker Hoops

March 30, 2022

Tuesday was a very good day for basketball fans in Lincoln, Nebraska.

First, Sam Haiby announced she was coming for a super senior season for Amy Williams. 

Then, a few hours later, Derrick Walker said he’d be back to play one more year for Fred Hoiberg as well.

When listing the most talented or productive players on either team, you’d likely toss out a few names on both teams before you get to Haiby and Walker, but ask their coaches and they’ll tell you the two veterans were as important as anybody on their team.

Let’s start with Haiby. She WAS the best player on the team last season, averaging 16.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists. This year, Jaz Shelley emerged as a star after transferring from Oregon, leading the team in scoring and assists (and steals and blocks too as a 5-foot-9 guard). Alexis Markowski also stepped into the starting lineup midseason and racked up award after weekly award on her way to the Big Ten Freshman of the Year honor. She was second on the team in scoring and led the team in rebounding.

Haiby was actually fourth on the team in scoring this year, narrowly behind Isabelle Bourne. But when it was go-time in the fourth quarter, Haiby was often the one who stepped up and put the team on her back. 

While Shelley is a terrific perimeter shooter and dynamic passer, Haiby excels at getting to the rim and can make plays for others that way as well. The duo complements each other incredibly well and causes all kinds of problems for opposing defenses.

The Huskers did lose their other senior with remaining eligibility as Bella Cravens put her name in the transfer portal over the weekend. Cravens was a valuable part of the team these past two seasons after transferring in from Eastern Washington, but an injury knocked her out of the starting lineup this year and Markowski proved to be too good to bench once Cravens returned to full health. Nebraska also has Tatiana Popa coming off a redshirt, dual-sport and bluechip recruit Maggie Mendelson set to join the team once she finishes up the volleyball season plus Bourne and Annika Stewart at the four. Nebraska has plenty of depth in the frontcourt.

In addition to the value she’ll provide on the court, Haiby is also one of the team’s leaders. I think she’ll be particularly beneficial for Allison Weidner, the Humphrey native who had a promising freshman season and shares a lot of similarities with Haiby in terms of the way she plays the game.

Haiby’s return means Nebraska will bring back its top five scorers from a team that went 24-9 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and now Williams and her squad will be looking to take the next step in 2022-23.

The men’s team doesn’t have the same success on which to build, but Walker’s return is still important as Hoiberg attempts to get the program headed in the right direction.

Walker has been in Lincoln almost as long as Hoiberg has. He was part of Hoiberg’s first recruiting class in Lincoln, but he’s only played in 48 games as a Huskers these past three seasons. He redshirted that first year as a transfer then served an NCAA suspension — the result of an infraction during his time at Tennessee — to open the second year. Since then, he’s started every game.

Walker wasn’t anywhere close to an all-league performer, but in a conference filled with giants, the undersized five more than held his own and was one of the steadiest players on the team. He averaged 9.5 points on a single-season program record 68.3% from the field. After three seasons of abysmal free-throw shooting (39.7%), he turned himself into a respectable shooter at 72.6% this year. He also led the team in rebounds and blocks.

Walker made such a leap offensively that Hoiberg changed his offensive system midseason — something he said is incredibly rare — to feature Walker more prominently, both as a scorer and a distributor. 

I’m particularly intrigued by the pick-and-roll pairing of Walker and North Dakota State transfer Sam Griesel. Walker shot 76.6% as the roll man last season, scoring in the 93rd percentile. Griesel scored in the 81st percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler factoring in both his scoring and passing. It was small sample size (just 37 possessions), but he was in the 84th percentile in feeding the roll man at 1.243 points per possession.

Walker’s return plus Blaise Keita sticking with his commitment means Hoiberg will have a pretty formidable center rotation to work with next season. I’m curious to see how he’ll attempt to maximize the two of them as neither one really has any kind of shooting range. But that’s a problem for Hoiberg to sort out this offseason.

Hoiberg managed to keep his entire 2022 recruiting class together following the departure of Matt Abdelmassih, and now it appears that will be the only coaching change Hoiberg makes (other than eliminating Doc Sadler’s special assistant to the head coach position) as Nate Loenser and Armon Gates are both set to return.

I wouldn’t expect Lat Mayen to return, and I think it will be a while before we know Trey McGowens’ final decision as he will likely take part in the pre-draft process to gauge his professional opportunities. But Walker’s return is a big win for a team looking for some stability.

As of now, Hoiberg’s core for the 2022-23 season looks to be Griesel, Walker, Keita, C.J. Wilcher, Wilhelm Breidenbach and Ramel Lloyd Jr. with Denim Dawson and Jamarques Lawrence looking to factor in as well. Add in Keisei Tominaga and redshirts Quaran McPherson and Oleg Kojenets and Nebraska is sitting on 10 scholarships pending decisions from Mayen and McGowens. 

The Huskers will likely be looking for someone who can play the four as well as some scoring punch on the perimeter to round out the roster. Hoiberg solidifying his coaching staff could help him to fill out his roster as well, and it does seem like there may be some movement on that front.

But for the time being, Walker’s return is a big boost for the program. “Get old and stay old” is a method that works in college basketball, and Walker will turn 25 during the first week of the season.

I wouldn’t say either Haiby’s or Walker’s decision was particularly surprising, but I’m sure both coaches were thrilled to hear them.

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