Face of the Program
On Monday, the Nebraska men’s basketball program held the first in a series of summer press conferences for players, both new and returning.
First up? Sam Griesel. Because who else would go first?
The Lincoln East grad is back at home, and had just started getting used to being a Cornhusker in his hometown.
“I’m not going to lie, it took a little bit of an adjustment period, but I’m loving it,” Griesel said. “It’s definitely on a different scale going from a mid-major to a high-major, and just the amount of people in Lincoln that care about Husker sports has been really cool to see. But I’m really enjoying it.”
If Nebraska is going to take a step forward this season, Griesel is going to have to be the one to lead the charge forward.
The Huskers lost a lot of firepower from last year’s team with the departures of Bryce McGowens and Alonzo Verge Jr. in particular, and Fred Hoiberg’s 2022 recruiting class didn’t include a 5-star prospect like McGowens or a proven high-major scorer like Verge. I like a lot of pieces, and Hoiberg was clearly focused on adding size, length and defensive versatility after fielding one of the worst defensive teams among high-majors last season.
With the newcomers to the roster plus the arrival of Adam Howard as an assistant coach, Hoiberg definitely put an emphasis on improving defensively. But you still have to put points on the board to win games, and I’m not sure there’s a pure bucket-getter on the roster.
Hoiberg brought Griesel in to run the point, and as such he’ll play a big part in shaping what this offense is going to look like. Derrick Walker is dependable, C.J. Wilcher is the best shooter on the team, Blaise Keita was arguably the top center in junior college last season and Ramel Lloyd Jr. was a 4-star recruit, but if Nebraska is to succeed, I think Griesel has to be the best player on the team this season.
He hasn’t gotten a chance to step on the floor just yet thanks to a postseason hip surgery to repair his labrum, but he’s already established himself as a leader on the team and as a mentor for the youngsters, and with him batting lead-off this summer — so to speak — I think its a clear indication of how Hoiberg views the North Dakota State transfer within his program.
A couple more pieces of Nebraska’s nonconference schedule came into place over the past week with the release of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and Gavitt Tipoff Games matchups, and Nebraska’s opponent in both should sound pretty familiar.
First, the Huskers will travel to St. John’s in the Games, then they’ll visit Boston College in the Challenge. Nebraska played both of those teams in those respective events during the 2017-18 season. If you’re curious, they split those games with a win over the Eagles.
This is the fifth repeat match Nebraska has had in the 12 years of participating in the event. The others are Georgia Tech, Clemson, Miami and Wake Forest. Boston College is coming off a 13-20 season but returns its top three scorers and adds a couple of 4-star recruits. Not the most exciting match-up, but the Huskers won’t get one of those until they climb out of the Big Ten cellar. They’re 5-6 overall in the Challenge but have lost three in a row.
As for the Gavitt Games, St. John’s is the first repeat matchup for the Huskers, though Nebraska has been left out of the Games twice so far and last year the conferences got lazy and made the annual Creighton-Nebraska meeting part of the event. Nebraska’s lone win came against Seton Hall in 2017-18 — an 80-57 beatdown of a Pirates team that went on to make the NCAA Tournament.
St. John’s went 17-15 last year and lost the Big East’s leading scorer but added a familiar face for Huskers fans in Illinois transfer point guard Andre Curbelo.
Depending on how the MTE in Orlando shakes out, the Huskers will play either 26 or 27 high-major opponents this season.
We’ll stick with basketball for this final section, but the Huskers won’t be the focus. June is a big month for high school basketball in Nebraska. Kids take a break from their grassroots teams to compete with their high schools in tournaments, team camps and summer leagues throughout the month.
I watched close to 100 games and saw nearly 50 different teams over the past month, both in an effort to shine a spotlight on the kids competing and to better educate and prepare myself for the season to come. Here are some of my takeaways.
First, we’ve been spoiled by the amount of talent we’ve seen suit up for high schools in Nebraska over the past few years. The 2021 class was special with the likes of Hunter Sallis and Chucky Hepburn, but 2022 was strong as well with high-major talents Jasen Green and Isaac Traudt plus mid-major commits including Jayden Dawson, William Kyle III, Luke Jungers and Sam Hastreiter, not to mention Cale Jacobsen who tuned down D-I offers to walk on at Nebraska.
The 2023 class is going to have a tough time stacking up to the previous two as Josiah Dotzler is the only player in the class who looks to be a surefire Division I player. There are a number if kids in the 2024, ’25 and even ’26 classes that will have a chance to get there down the road, but I don’t think we should take for granted what we saw the last few years.
I saw more of Bellevue West than any other team, and the state runner-up from the last two seasons looks to be the clear Preseason No. 1 heading into 2022-23. Dotzler is a big part of that, as he was terrific in the games I watched, especially over the past two or three weeks. He’s not the only one, though. Junior guard Jaden Jackson looks to be a good bet for a breakout season (and has the attention of Division I coaches) while sophomore forward Robby Garcia got better and better as June played out.
Beyond Bellevue West, though, it looks wide open. Any of a number of teams could fill out the rest of the top five from what I’ve seen. Gretna and Omaha Westside should both be in the mix, but both of them were missing key pieces for most or all of June so it was difficult to get a true read of how good they might be.
Back-to-back reigning champion Millard North lost four starters and six of its top eight, but the Mustangs benefitted from some key transfers (Elkhorn North forward Paxon Piatkowski, previously home-schooled forward Caleb Steele and Omaha South guard Jacob Martin) and should benefit from some talented youngsters continuing to develop as well. How good they are might come down to how consistent junior guards Elijah Gaeth and Neal Mosser can be.
As for Lincoln, I think the Knights of Southeast have a chance to take the biggest leap. Coach Joey Werning (a former Nebrasketball manager) played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last season and he Knights took their lumps asa result, but now those guys are basle-tested and ready to compete. Senior forward Wade Voss is a consistent presence on the block and has picked up a couple of Division II offers recently while Lincoln North Star transfer Jake Hilkemann added size and toughness on the wing to an otherwise guard-dominant team.
In Class B, Omaha Skutt looks to be the clear favorite again after coming up just short of a state title last season. The SkyHawks have more size than most Class A teams with the likes of seniors Jake Brack (6-foot-8), Mitch School (6-foot-6) and Jack Healy (6-foot-9) plus one of the best 3-point shooters in the state in senior guard JJ Ferrin.
Platteview will likely be one of Skutt’s main challengers with the most prolific player in the state in Connor Millikan, two other returning starters and a key transfer in former Millard South guard Trey Moseman to replace departed senior Michael Wiebalhaus. Bennington returns three starters as well and should have a chance to be in the mix come March.
In C-1, Wahoo looks like the early favorite after losing just one of its top seven from a team that went 23-3 last year. Junior Marcus Glock leads the way, but the Warriors have a well-rounded lineup and senior wings Benji Nelson and Anthony Simon have both taken big strides.
Ashland-Greenwood lost the best player in the class in Jacobsen, but they return two starters in Brooks Kissinger, who is poised for a breakout senior year as the lead guard, and Cougar Konzem. I like the pieces around those two as well including Dane Jacobsen, Cale’s younger brother who played an important role off the bench as a sophomore.
I could go on and on, but this is already too long so I’ll cut it off there. With June drawing to a close, it’s back to the grassroots grind for me and players all throughout the state.
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.