Photo Credit: Derek Peterson

Padding the Stats: Leaders Emerging for Nebraska Basketball

October 05, 2020

Fred Hoiberg returns just three players from last year’s rotation, only two of whom played significant minutes. A quick glance at the roster on shows half the team doesn’t even have headshots up yet. For the second straight year, this team is going to be a complete wildcard.

What’s going to be the starting five? Who will lead the team in scoring? How deep of a rotation will Hoiberg deploy? Who will emerge as the team’s leaders?

We’ll have to wait until we get closer to the season for the answers to the first three questions, but it’s starting to look like we might already have an answer for the fourth.

Last year, graduate transfer Haanif Cheatham—Fred Hoiberg’s first commit after he took the Nebraska job—quickly earned the respect of his teammates and emerged as a vocal leader. The season went off the rails, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on Cheatham’s part. However, now Cheatham is headed to Puerto Rico to begin his professional career. Who fills the void?

Last month, the team held a demonstration regarding social justice in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting at the hands of a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Each player on the team walked out in front of the Hendricks Training Center and said the name of a victim of police brutality and racial injustice. After the list of names, two players in particular stepped forward and delivered the team’s prepared statement—Kobe Webster and Teddy Allen.

On Tuesday, the men’s basketball beat writers got word that a couple players would be speaking on a Zoom call on Wednesday. It will be the first time this year that the players have met with the media.

Like Cheatham, Webster is a graduate transfer who will only be in Lincoln for one season. Webster was a three-year starter at point guard for Western Illinois, averaging 16.7 points per game for his Leatherneck career. He has 85 games of starting experience at the Division I level under his belt — more than the rest of the currently eligible players combined (pending Trey McGowens’ application for a waiver).

“We’ve got a grad transfer in Kobe Webster that I’ve been really impressed with—great leadership skills,” Hoiberg said on Sports Nightly earlier this month. “I just love everything that he’s about. Great communicator and certainly a guy that can make shots, a three-year starter at Western Illinois that has played in some big games.”

Having experienced leaders is important, and having one at the point guard position is even better. Webster becoming a leader isn’t all that surprising.

Allen is a different story. His path to Lincoln has been well-documented, filled with hardships and bad decisions. After winning Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Boys Town, he signed with West Virginia and had a productive freshman year. After the season, he transferred to Wichita State, seeking to be closer to his support system in Omaha, but he had to sit out the 2018-19 season and before het got a chance to suit up for the Shockers he ran into legal trouble. Following a domestic incident, Allen was expelled from Wichita State and sought to get his career back on track with a JUCO stop, landing at Western Nebraska Community College.

A lot of schools probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable giving Allen a chance, but Hoiberg did.  I’m sure part of that was a ringing endorsement from his JUCO coach, Cory Fehringer, who has since taken an assistant job at Northern Colorado. Fehringer spoke glowingly of Allen’s dedication and work ethic during the 2019-20 season.

That Allen has chosen to step up and be a voice for the program and that the coaches have signed off on that is a good sign for how seriously Allen is taking what is likely his last chance to have the kind of career his talent suggested he would have coming out of Boys Town three years ago.

If Allen is doing everything right off the court, he’s got a chance to have a huge year for the Huskers.

“He just finds a way to put the ball in the basket, and I guess when you average over 30 in a season, you just find different ways to get it in the basket,” Hoiberg said during that same Sports Nightly appearance. “He’s a three-level scorer—he can score it at the rim, he’s a very crafty finisher, shot over 40 from 3 last season, and he’s one of those guys that makes tough mid-range shots as well which I’m not in love with, but if he shows he can make them at high percentage then I’ll let you shoot them. And then I think music to everybody’s ears is he was over a 90% free-throw shooter a year ago.”

Jervay Green had a disappointing season last year after putting up big numbers in that same Western Nebraska offense, and now he’s at Pacific. The difference is Allen has already shown he can produce at the Division I level. He only played 11.9 minutes per game as a freshman at West Virginia, but he made the most of it, scoring 7.0 points per game. That translates to 23.4 points per 40 minutes. He had 11 double-digit games and cracked 20 three times. That was two full seasons ago and in a much more restrictive system than what he’ll play in under Hoiberg. If anybody’s selling, buy Teddy Allen stock now.

In addition to Webster and Allen, Nebraska has Derrick Walker coming off a redshirt year, and from everything we heard last year I expect him to be one of the more vocal players on the team. He came to Lincoln from one of the better programs in the SEC in Tennessee and has played in the NCAA Tournament. He knows what a winning culture looks like.

Add Thorir Thorbjarnarson, the longest-tenured Husker who stepped up last year as one of the voices of the program in the midst of an incredibly taxing season (no one spoke to the media more often than Thorbjarnarson except maybe Cheatham) and Hoiberg has an experienced group that he will hopefully feel more comfortable relying on to lead the team than what we saw last year.

Nebraska will likely be projected to finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten again this season, and that’s certainly justified. However, this year’s roster has the physical attributes needed to compete in this conference (something we couldn’t say about last year’s team), and if the intangible side of the equation is better too, the Huskers will have a chance to surprise some people.

It all starts with player leadership, though, and Nebraska appears to have a couple of guys ready and willing to take up that mantle.

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