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Padding the Stats: Opening Day Thoughts on Nebraska Basketball

November 09, 2022

The college basketball season has finally arrived.

After numerous open practices, closed scrimmages, exhibition games and hours upon hours of speculation and chatter, the march to March began on Monday with hundreds of teams in action.

Nebraska was one of those teams on the men’s side as Fred Hoiberg’s squad managed to pull away from Maine in the second half for a 79-66 victory. It didn’t necessarily look pretty, but after dropping the season-opener in two of his rest three season in Lincoln, I’m sure Hoiberg will take it.

Chief among the positives for me was the performance of Sam Griesel, who scored 18 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, and he did it in an efficient manner (7-of-10 from 2, 1-of-2 from 3, 5-of-6 from the foul line). In all three games he’s played as a Husker (including the two exhibitions), he’s let the game come to him and figured out what the team needed from him as the game went on.

Griesel added nine boards and three assists to his stat line, but he also had to play 37 minutes, which isn’t something you want to see in a buy game. Nebraska managed to stay afloat with its point guard on the bench (the Huskers were plus-1 without him), but Hoiberg apparently didn’t feel comfortable enough to leave him on the bench.

That backup point guard spot could become a real issue as the Huskers get deep into Big Ten play and the minutes start to pile up on Griesel. It appears as if freshman Ramel Lloyd Jr. will not be an option at that spot as Hoiberg announced that the highest-rated member of Nebraska’s 2022 recruiting class will likely redshirt this season.

“Right now the conversation, we’re likely to redshirt Ramel,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been really good. He’s got to stay ready. You never know what might happen. But that’ll keep some flexibility for him. He’s really improving, really getting better. He’s getting in the gym, really working on his craft. But Ramel has got a really bright future ahead of him.”

In the meantime, it seems Hoiberg will try to get by with Emmanuel Bandoumel running the point while Griesel is on the floor.

The other star of the opener was Keisei Tominaga, who went off for 19 points and did so with just three made 3-pointers. He had three strong takes to the rim plus a cut for another layup. At one point, Tominaga got a little too aggressive (he fired up 10 shots in eight minutes in the first half) and Hoiberg sat him down for a bit to reign him in then sent him back out there to play important minutes in the second half.

Tominaga isn’t going to score that much on a consistent basis, and there are going to be some tough match-ups in conference play where he doesn’t get much run at all, but if he’s ready to take a step forward in his second year in the program, there’s certainly a role for him on the team. If Nebraska can get something like six made 3s per game on upper-30s in terms of percentage from the trio of Tominaga, Bandoumel and C.J. Wilcher, they should be in decent shape. They need at least one of those guys to have the hot hand every night.

This program is no stranger to scoring droughts, and we saw our fair share of them in the opener. That is one area where the team felt the absence of Derrick Walker. The veteran big man isn’t going to put up 20 a game like some of the other big-name big men in the Big Ten, but he has grown into one of the more efficient players in the country who can get his own shot in the post reliably. It would have been nice to have him out there to dump the ball down to when the team went a few trips down the floor without a bucket.

Hoiberg is going to have his work cut out for him until Walker is cleared to return. He has some options, but none of them can replace what Walker brings to the floor. Blaise Keita is trying to find his footing at the Division I level and Oleg Kojenets is still very raw coming off the redshirt year. The two combined for just two points and two rebounds in 15 minutes, and neither one is equipped to chase stretch-fives out on the perimeter.

I did like what I saw from Wilhelm Breidenbach at the five, which is where he spent most of his minutes on the floor after Hoiberg started Juwan Gary at the four and brought Breidenbach off the bench. The 6-foot-10 sophomore scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds in 17 minutes, tying his career high in points and setting a new one on the glass. Breidenbach has struggled at times chasing fours out on the perimeter or trying to put the ball on the deck against them to make plays, but he faced up on his man out of the high post and drove by him for a couple of finishes at the five spot on Monday.

I’ll be curious to see how that frontcourt rotation shakes out once Walker is back in the lineup. Nebraska appears to have four players who are best at the five and is lacking depth in natural fours beyond Gary. Denim Dawson will likely play at that spot some, especially if Breidenbach is filling in at center, but Hoiberg also likes him at the point of attack defensively which would leave someone like Wilcher or Griesel to defend opposing fours.

The men weren’t the only ones who tipped off on Monday, however. The women got the party started with a noon tipoff against the Omaha Mavericks — and promptly ran them off the floor. Nebraska won 100-36 with all 11 active players knocking down at least one 3-pointer. Nebraska also hit triple digits without attempting a single free-throw.

Alexis Markowski has gotten most of the preseason publicity, and with good reason. However, her frontcourt partner in Isabella Bourne probably deserved some of that run as well. The fourth-year forward led Nebraska with 21 points and nine rebounds in just 22 minutes in the opener, scoring inside and out.

After a terrific sophomore year, Bourne deferred a little more last season with the arrival of Jaz Shelley and the emergence of Markowski. Her points and assists dropped, but she improved her efficiency significantly, shooting a career-high 37% from 3. With Sam Haiby on the shelf, the Huskers could look to play through Bourne a little more this season, and I think she’s more than equipped to deliver in that role.

Another player who will need to step up with Haiby out of the lineup is sophomore guard Allison Weidner, and if Monday’s game is any indication, she’s ready to embrace her expanded role. Weidner wasn’t far behind Bourne, putting up 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting (1-of-2 from 3), nine rebounds and three assists in just 19 minutes.

Weidner will make a strong one-two punch in the backcourt with Shelley, who hit just one of her six 3-point attempts but still dished out 10 assists. She’s as dynamic and entertaining a guard as Nebraska has had during my time covering the Huskers, and she threw some pin-point passes on Monday to get her teammates easy looks.

Monday was the Nebraska debut for South Dakota transfer and Millard South graduate Maddie Krull, and she made a good first impression with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting (4-of-6 from 3) and two assists. She was the one who knocked down the 3 in the final minute to crack 100, putting an exclamation point on a memorable first game. She’s not going to score like that every game for the Huskers, but she will be a vital part of the rotation coming off the bench.

Looking ahead, the only match-up between two ranked teams in all of college basketball — men or women — on opening day took place in Brookings, South Dakota. The 23rd-ranked Jackrabbits hosted No. 21 Creighton, who Nebraska will visit on Tuesday, and the Bluejays pulled away in the second half for a 78-69 win to open the season behind 30 points from junior Lauren Jensen, who began her career at Iowa (and who sent the Hawkeyes home in the NCAA Tournament last season with a late 3-pointer).

Tuesday’s game at D.J. Sokol Arena between the 21st-ranked Bluejays and the No. 22 Huskers has a chance to be spectacular and a great early-season test for both teams with aspirations of making a deep postseason run this year.

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