Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Dissecting a Disappointing End and Looking Ahead

March 15, 2023

On Wednesday night, Amy Williams’ squad plays on with an opportunity to extend its season in the WNIT.

Fred Hoiberg’s, on the other hand, has likely already begun (or perhaps has completed) exit interviews. The NIT looked to be within reach as the Huskers made their late-season surge, but their postseason hopes died when they bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament in the first round.

All season long, Nebraska had managed to avoid bad losses. That — even above the differing style of play — is what separated this year’s team from the first three under Hoiberg’s watch. 

Based on KenPom ratings, Nebraska’s worst two losses were at St. John’s (85th) and against Oklahoma (54th) in Orlando. Both those losses happened before Derrick Walker was in the lineup. With Walker, the worst loss was at No. 43 Michigan.

For the most part this season, Nebraska took care of business against the teams it should have beaten and pulled off a few upsets along the way. That’s what made the season-ending 78-75 loss to Minnesota so shocking. The not-so-golden Gophers are ranked 217th nationally, fifth-worst among all high-major teams.

Nebraska made so many mistakes throughout that game, and especially in the closing moments. Ball-watching, dying on screens, blowing rotations, miscommunications on switches, fouls a the worst times… it was all there. A bad offensive team picked apart a team whose defense was its calling card for much of the season, and the Huskers couldn’t even take advantage of Minnesota’s second-best player fouling out with nine minutes to go.

That’s not the way this team deserved to go out, and that goes double for Sam Griesel whose last real play as a Husker (besides an in-bound heave to Keisei Tominaga at half court for a prayer at the buzzer) was a turnover. He gave everything he had to this program during his one season as a Husker — he easily led the team in floor burns in additions to assists, free throws and steals — and I hope that play doesn’t stick with him too long.

The way the season ended leaves a bad taste after a season that seemed like a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t completely erase everything this team accomplished. Nebraska’s KenPom finishes in Hoiberg’s first three seasons were 162, 109 and 140. This year it was 95 — still plenty of work to be done, but a clear and significant improvement (backed up by the 16 wins after totaling just 24 of them in the previous three years combined).

Now we look ahead. The NIT started on Tuesday (with Rutgers and Michigan both losing in the first round), but the offseason started last Friday for the Huskers. The first bit of attrition already happened as Oleg Kojenets entered his name in the transfer portal on Tuesday.

We know Griesel, Walker and Emmanuel Bandoumel have exhausted their eligibility. We know Eli Rice is joining he program as Hoiberg’s only 2023 signee from the high school ranks. Beyond that, we don’t know much.

The key decision hanging over the program is that of Keisei Tominaga and the extra season of eligibility available to him. He’s already played four seasons of college basketball — two at Ranger College and two at Nebraska — and he participated in the team’s senior day ceremony with his parents in the crowd. As an international student, the path toward being able to earn NIL money is complicated and difficult. After averaging 19.3 points on 53.4% from the field (42.4%from 3) and 79.4% from the free-throw line, he’ll likely have lucrative offers to play professionally back home in Japan.

Juwan Gary should have two more years of eligibility remaining, though next season will be his fifth in college. It feels pretty safe to pencil him in for a significant role again. 

Jamarques Lawrence showed some real flashes down the stretch, averaging 9.0 points on 42.7% from the field including 38.6% from 3 and 1.9 assists in the 12 games after Bandoumel went down. You can pencil him in for a big role in the backcourt.

I think it’s probably safe to assume Sam Hoiberg will be back next year as well. He averaged 6.6 points on 57.8% from the field (47.4% from 3) and 81.8% from the line, 2.9 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 21.5 minutes per game over his last 12 after Juwan Gary’s injury.

The redshirts are a complete wildcard, but Ramel Lloyd Jr. certainly seems like a guy who could be a part of the core moving forward based on his pedigree as a recruit.

I’m not really sure what to expect from C.J. Wilcher, Wilhelm Breidenbach and Denim Dawson moving forward. I’d personally be surprised if all three return. Wilcher took a step back from last season rather than a step forward, shooting just 31% from 3 while still struggling defensively and off the bounce. Breidenbach had more fouls than field goals and free throws combined and shot 37.8% from the field. For whatever reason, things just haven’t clicked for either one of them.

Dawson is a little different as a redshirt freshman, but he saw his playing time reduced as the season went on. He had more fouls and turnovers than field goals and missed 12 of his 20 free-throw attempts. Dawson has to get better offensively if he wants to carve out a consistent role next season.

I don’t really know what to make of Blaise Keita, and I’m not sure Hoiberg does either after two ankle injuries derailed his season. There’s a lot to like defensively there, but can he do enough offensively to play a featured role at center?

Nebraska currently has nine scholarships spoken for next season, which gives Hoiberg at least three spots to fill with transfers with any further attrition opening up more.

First and foremost, Nebraska needs to add as much talent as it possibly can. No disrespect to Gary or Bandoumel — who both played significant roles in helping the team achieve the success it did — but if they’re the highest level of player the coaching staff can attract to Lincoln, this thing isn’t going to move forward. They need to find and land players at least as talented if not more so than Griesel and Walker if they want to build on this season. They probably need to land at least a point guard, a big and a wing scorer all capable of starting in the Big Ten, and perhaps a role player or two that fit as well.

I believe Hoiberg and his staff did a terrific job navigating the injuries and getting the most out of this year’s team. Hoiberg showed he can adapt to what the team needs and change his style as necessary. But in college, it always comes down to the Jimmies and the Joes.

In order to build on this season and make it more than a temporary blip, Hoiberg and his staff are going to have to show they can elevate their recruiting and piece together a team that can compete to stay out of Wednesday in next year’s Big Ten Tournament. 

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