Hello, Husker fans. Welcome to Padding the Stats, my weekly Friday column that will now be running on Wednesdays. Check back here at this same time each Wednesday moving forward to read about whatever happens to be on my mind or in the news that week. Mostly, that will be basketball at this time of the year, and this week is no exception. Let’s get to it.
A flat second half on Saturday turned a chance at a quality win against Penn State into Nebraska’s seventh straight loss. For the first time in a while, Nebraska wasn’t competitive, and even worse, it happened in front of a full Pinnacle Bank Arena, something that visibly frustrated Coach Fred Hoiberg.
After the game, he promised it wouldn’t happen again.
“My competitors that show me they want to be on the floor, they’re going to be on the floor,” Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg promised this week of practice would be a difficult one. Nebraska doesn’t suit up again until Saturday, so the Huskers have plenty of time to really get after it and still recover before the trip to Iowa. On Monday’s Husker Hoops Show on the Husker Sports Network, Hoiberg told Greg Sharpe that the team got after it on Monday and that Tuesday would be one of their toughest practices of the season before they ease up a bit and get ready for the Hawkeyes.
Cam Mack has been the MVP of this team, but he showed up late to a team event for the second (possibly third) time, came off the bench and went scoreless for the first time as a Husker. He certainly didn’t bring the energy against the Nittany Lions.
As Hoiberg said on the show, Dachon Burke Jr. never lacks for effort; his problem is knowing how to channel that energy into productivity within Nebraska’s scheme on both ends of the floor. He had 11 points on 15 shots and some bad defensive gambles.
Haanif Cheatham and Thorir Thorbjarnarson played pretty well individually, but as a team Nebraska had no answers for the Nittany Lions as their lead swelled to 24 before Hoiberg sent in his reserves.
Those reserves promptly cut the deficit down to 12 by the final horn. One of the standouts from that group was freshman forward Akol Arop, who checked in at the 3:07 mark and put up four points (on a driving layup and a dunk), two rebounds, one assist and one steal.
“He’s gotten better as the year’s gone on, there’s no doubt about that,” Hoiberg said about Arop during the Husker Hoops Show. “He practices well, he’s always working on his game. If he’s not the first guy in the gym in the morning he’s the second guy in the gym and he’s getting work on his jump shot which is greatly improved. His feel for the game is improving, and he’s as athletic as anybody on our roster … I put him in the game before and he went in and battled [Jon] Teske and fronted him and got into his legs. I’ve talked to him about this; I said because how much he’s improved to stay ready. There’s going to be an opportunity to get out there and play important minutes.”
The first opportunity came against Michigan as Hoiberg said. When Kevin Cross Jr. picked up his fourth foul and Yvan Ouedraogo hoisted up an ill-advised airball, Hoiberg turned to the 6-foot-6, 190-pound freshman from Omaha to give him a couple of minutes at the five.
“I just felt like Akol was the right guy to put in because I knew he’d give us great energy on that end and I thought he held his own against a 7-1 guy,” Hoiberg said. “He’s giving up damn near a foot and going out there and competing extremely hard. I knew he would do that, and I thought he followed that up with good minutes the other night against Penn State.”
There’s that word again: “competitor.” Hoiberg’s looking for them, and from his own words it sounds like Arop fits the bill. With seven straight losses and 15 in total this season, might it be time to give him a chance?
I’ve been watching Arop play basketball since the eighth grade. I know his strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone — I’m not going to pretend like he’s the solution to the losing streak. However, when energy and defense and rebounding are all problems, throwing Arop out there for a few minutes here and there could be a good way to inject some life into the rest of the lineup.
He’s logged 17 minutes this season (granted, 15 of those have been in garbage time) and has pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked two shots in the time. He’s obviously capable of finishing above the rim like he did on his second field goal against the Nittany Lions, but the first was arguably more impressive as he caught the ball on the perimeter and drove it in for the layup. Hoiberg acknowledged that his ball skills are coming along nicely, and it’s not like the guys currently in the rotation are lighting it up on a consistent basis.
I don’t have the luxury of watching practices every day, so it’s entirely possible that Arop’s performance in that setting is what’s keeping him off the floor on game day. At least publicly, however, Hoiberg’s been complimentary of his effort and his growth, and has apparently told Arop his time is coming.
So why can’t that time be now?
Charlie Easley has proven himself to be the kind of competitor that Hoiberg is looking for to the point where he’s gone from true freshman walk-on bench warmer to scholarship rotation player, and he even started against Penn State in Mack’s place. He’s one of the toughest and most competitive players I’ve covered, and he’s undoubtedly helped the team. But he’s also averaging less than two points and is shooting 30% from the field.
What’s the downside of giving Arop the same kind of opportunity to see what he can do?
Nebraska has nine regular season games left. It’s time for Hoiberg to put all his cards on the table and see if the Huskers can build some momentum heading into next year, when plenty of reinforcements are set to either arrive or become eligible.
Hoiberg issued a challenge to his team, and the Huskers better respond because the Hawkeyes will be looking for revenge in Iowa City on Saturday, and I can guarantee you they won’t shoot 4-of-33 from 3 again.