Big Red on the B1G Stage
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Four players made the trip up to Minneapolis to represent Nebraska at Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday, none of which came as a surprise.
Sam Griesel and Derrick Walker accompanied Fred Hoiberg while Jaz Shelley and Alexis Markowski joined Amy Williams.
Let’s start with the men, since that’s the beat I cover. Walker was a no-brainer; Hoiberg himself is the only person outside of some support staff who has been in the program longer than Walker who was part of Hoiberg’s first recruiting class in Lincoln. He’s seen a lot, he’s been through a lot, and he chose to come back for one last ride — his sixth season of college basketball.
Griesel is a newcomer, but he’s been a Husker at heart since he was a kid and has earned the opportunity to achieve a dream. He developed into a really good player at North Dakota State and will be integral to what Nebraska does this season. He’s also a terrific person and a hard worker, the kind of guy that Nebraska fans will want to root for this season no matter what happens on the court.
Last year’s representatives were Alonzo Verge Jr. and Bryce McGowens — a guy with a big personality who had dropped a 40-piece at his previous school and the program’s first 5-star, soft-spoken but brimming with talent. Walker and Griesel are both more solid than flashy. They excel at being stars in their roles and doing the little things. It’s fitting to have those two in Minneapolis because that’s the way this team is going to have to win. I don’t think there’s anybody on this year’s team as singularly talented at creating offense as Verge and McGowens, so they’re going to have to rely on teamwork and toughness.
As for the women’s team, Shelley is an easy pick as well. She transformed the team after transferring from Oregon and breaking out as one of the most dynamic guards in the Big Ten. She still has an extra season of eligibility if she wants it, but she seems to be approaching this as her senior season.
Markowski’s rise has been fun to watch. Originally committed to South Dakota State, the daughter of former Husker Andy Markowski and Lincoln Pius X graduate flipped to Nebraska later in the recruiting process. She initially played off the bench, but when Bella Cravens missed time with an injury, Markowski stepped into the starting lineup and locked that spot down. She went on to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year and make the All-Big Ten second team. This year, she’s a preseason first-team pick.
Sam Haiby’s injury is a crushing blow for this team, but the Huskers still have plenty of talent and Markowski is more than deserving of accompanying her head coach to Media Days.
I also think it’s pretty cool for the school and its fans to have both teams featuring a home-grown player who will factor heavily into the team’s performance this season.
The Big Ten doesn’t have its coaches or media vote on a preseason poll for basketball, but the The Columbus Dispatch and The Athletic team up to conduct one of their own every year. They released this year’s poll on Monday, and Nebraska came in at No. 14 out of 14, which is hard to argue with at this point.
Nebraska has finished in last, last and tied for last during Hoiberg’s first three seasons, and the Huskers have won the fewest games overall of any Big Ten team in all three of this seasons. Hoiberg lost five of his top seven scorers from last year’s team and enrolled the 49th-best recruiting class according to the 247Sports Composite, which factors in transfers as well as prep recruits.
I don’t think Nebraska has anyone as individually offensively talented as Teddy Allen, Verge or McGowens, and Nebraska still couldn’t win even when they had those guys. They’re going to have to find a different way to win games.
The favorite to win the conference is Indiana, which returned seven of its top nine and added the 11th-best recruiting class in the country led by the media’s pick for Freshman of the Year, 5-star guard Jalen Hood-Schifino. Trayce Jackson-Davis came up just one vote behind Hunter Dickinson in Player of the Year voting and could easily take home the award come postseason.
Indiana provides the best combination of returning and added talent, so they make sense as a conference favorite for me.
Illinois was picked second despite losing six of its top seven including Mr. 20-and-10 Kofi Cockburn. Mark Underwood put together the top recruiting class in the conference, ranked seventh nationally thanks to a mix of transfers and blue chip high school talent. Underwood landed Terrance Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech and Mathew Mayer from Baylor, two talented wings who will likely step into the starting lineup, as well as Dain Dainja, a back-up big from Baylor who Nebraska recruited once upon a time. Skyy Moore, one of the better points guards in the 2022 recruiting class, headlines the prep signees. Coleman Hawkins is the top returner and the complete opposite of Cockburn as a center, but he has major breakout potential.
No. 3 Michigan lost six of its top eight scorers but returns Dickinson, the preseason Player of the Year. Juwan Howard signed the 10th-ranked recruiting class featuring his own son, Jett Howard, and a talented transfer point guard from Princeton in Jaelin Llewellyn. I don’t love the backcourt talent outside of Llewellyn, but that frontcourt should be a beast to deal with.
After that, however, I think it falls off. No. 4 Michigan State was middle of the pack last year and lost its top three scorers. No. 5 Purdue returns the 7-foot-4 behemoth in the middle in Zach Edey bust lost five of its top eight. David Jenkins Jr. will add some shooting to replace Sasha Stefanovic, but how does Matt Painter replace an athletic freak like Jaden Ivey?
No. 7 Ohio State hit the transfer portal hard to replace five of its top eight, but I don’t know that Chris Holtmann landed any all-conference caliber guys to replace the departed E.J. Liddell. Iowa returns six of its top nine and many are projecting a breakout year for Kris Murray, but I don’t see him quite replicating what his twin brother Keegan Murray did last year.
Looking at the rosters of the bottom half of the conference, I think there’s a chance that all seven of those teams have less talent than they did a year ago.
Dawson Garcia is an intriguing addition for Minnesota and Jamison Battle is a bucket-getter, but the Gophers are extremely thin and already lost two players for the season (for the second straight year). Northwestern lost two of its top scorers to the transfer portal from a sub-.500 team. Rutgers lost Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker, Wisconsin lost Johnny Davis and Maryland lost three of its top five, and none of them signed even a top-60 recruiting class. If there’s a team that could jump and outperform its preseason pick, it might be No. 11 Penn State.
I really think there is an opportunity to steal some wins with the conference taking a bit of a step back. Is Nebraska ready to take advantage of that? We’ll see.
The big football news on Tuesday was receiver Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda announcing that he had entered his name into the transfer portal and intended to redshirt this season after playing in just four games.
The New Mexico transfer made a great first impression, catching four passes on seven targets for 120 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern. He went on to make one more catch (for zero yards) on three targets in the next three games. He did not play in the last two, and the fact that Nebraska gave No. 2 to Tommi Hill after moving the former starting cornerback to wide receiver probably should have provided a hint of the news to come.
The significance of Garcia-Castaneda announcing the news on Tuesday is that it was the final day for players at Nebraska to enter the portal. Under the new portal format with designated transfer windows, student-athletes are granted 30 days after a midseason coaching change to hop in the portal; otherwise, anyone who wishes to transfer would have to wait until the window opens after the season.
That Garcia-Castaneda was the only Husker (at least that we’ve heard about at this point) to exercise that right speaks to Mickey Joseph’s connection with the players and the buy-in he’s received from them.
I have no idea if Joseph is equipped to turn the program around as the full-time head coach, but I think he’s done about as good of a job as the interim as one could have hoped for.
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.