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Padding the Stats: Ranking Nebraska’s Nonconference Opponents

June 14, 2019

Nebraska finally released its nonconference schedule this week and, well, let’s just say it doesn’t look much like the schedules Tim Miles and his staff put together the last few years.

Miles always wanted to challenge his team, sprinkling high-level opponents throughout the nonconference slate. There aren’t many (if any) of those on this year’s slate, however. To be fair to Hoiberg and his staff, special assistant to the head coach Bobby Lutz had assembled most of this schedule before Hoiberg and assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih had even put together a roster.

The Huskers were left out the the annual Gavitt Tipoff Games which pits the Big Ten against the Big East; that’s one opportunity the Huskers would normally get to face another high-major team that they won’t get this season. Nebraska’s finish in the Big Ten (13th place) and the uncertainty around the team heading into next season led to the Huskers drawing one of the worst teams in the ACC (Georgia Tech) in the other Big Ten conference event, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. In fact, besides the Yellow Jackets, in-state rival Creighton is the only high-major team the Huskers are guaranteed to play during the nonconference.

Even so, there is some appeal to this slate as Hoiberg will get a chance to learn what his team is capable of while his team learns how to play the way Hoiberg wants them to play. A little confidence built up by a healthy win total heading into an always tough Big Ten certainly isn’t a bad thing.

Let’s do a little power ranking of Nebraska’s nonconference opponents, shall we?

1. Creighton

There’s always a little extra juice in this game featuring combatants situated just 60 miles apart, and after the Huskers finally snapped their losing streak against their rivals to the northeast with one of their best performances of the 2018-19 season, you can bet the Jays will be looking for revenge.

Creighton brings a lot back from last season’s NIT team and look like they might be the toughest team Nebraska faces prior to entering Big Ten play. Like the Huskers, the Bluejays likely won’t have much size but they’ll have plenty of firepower on the backcourt led by sharp-shooters Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitch Ballock. Marcus Zegarowski had a terrific freshman season at point guard while combo-guard Davion Mintz is set to be the team’s only senior next season.

Add in the fact that the Huskers will have to make the trip up I-80 to face the Jays in their house (one of just two true road games for the Huskers in the nonconference) and this game should teach us a lot about who ready the Huskers are for conference play to begin.

2. Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets were not good at all last season. They went 14-18 overall including 6-12 in ACC play last season, the third under Coach Josh Pastner. However, Georgia Tech returns most of its contributors including its top three scorers and could prove to be a pesky foe for a new-look Nebraska team still trying to find itself.

The Huskers have won their last two Big Ten/ACC Challenge games, winning at Clemson last season and beating Boston College at Pinnacle Bank Arena two years ago. This match-up sets up the Huskers to make it three in a row, but they likely won’t be able to sleep-walk their way to victory. Whatever struggles it may have had over the last few years, it’s still an ACC team.

3. Cayman Islands Classic

I’m lumping these three games together here since we have no idea who the Huskers might face. However, there are enough interesting teams in the field to warrant this ranking, and I wrote about each of them previously.

4. South Dakota State, North Dakota, Doane (Exhibition)

I’m grouping these three together because each of them has local ties.

South Dakota State is the most interesting of the three. Mike Daum may be gone, and coach TJ Otzelberger may have left for UNLV (taking electric guard David Jenkins Jr. with him), but there’s still enough talent left in Brookings to make this match-up somewhat interesting.

Winnebago product David Wingett, one of the most prolific prep players in Nebraska basketball history, transferred to South Dakota State after spending his first year at Memphis, though an injury led to a redshirt season. He has a good case to get a waiver to play immediately and could be in the lineup for the Jackrabbits under new coach Eric Henderson, previously an assistant under Otzelberger. 

Aurora graduate Baylor Scheierman, one of the most entertaining players in the state last season stuck with his commitment to the Jackrabbits following Otzelberger’s departure and could be a contributor right away with his length and playmaking ability. Scheierman played two seasons of summer ball alongside Nebraska freshman Akol Arop, Charlie Easley, Jace Piatkowski and Bret Porter.

However, South Diego State will only return one player who averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season in sophomore guard Alex Arians who averaged 6.2 points and 4.9 rebounds as a freshman.

North Dakota will also have a new coach calling the shots as Paul Sather was hired following Brian Jones’ resignation. Sather comes from Division II Northern State where he had a lot of success, and he’s bringing York product Brady Danielson with him. Danielson, who also held a Nebraska football preferred walk-on offer, committed to Northern State as a scholarship recruit but announced on Tuesday that he would be following Sather to Grand Forks. Danielson will start as a walk-on his first year.

The Fighting Hawks are set to return their leading scorer, former Creighton guard Marlon Stewart who averaged 14.3 points and 3.8 assists as a junior last season.

Doane probably doesn’t belong in this group as it is an NAIA school and the game is only an exhibition, but it will be the first chance for Husker fans to see the new team in action. Doane went 9-21 last season. 

Nine of the 11 returning varsity players for the Tigers are from Nebraska including three from Lincoln. Anthony Laravie, a sharp-shooting combo-guard from Omaha North, is the team’s leading returning scorer while Trace Tupper, a 6-foot-10 center from Lincoln Northeast, averaged 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 74% from the field last season. Doane head coach Ian McKeithen also worked with Fred Hoiberg years ago.

5. Southern Utah, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, UC-Riverside, Southern

I’m throwing the rest of the teams in here because none of them really interest me in the slightest. They all finished .500 or below last season and I’ve never heard of any of the players on their rosters. These games should provide Hoiberg with a chance to experiment with lineups and get a lot of guys playing time.

There you have it: my take on the 2019 nonconference schedule.

Hoiberg scheduled similarly during his first season at Iowa State, going light on high-major opponents. The Cyclones went 13-2 with wins over Creighton, Iowa and Virginia and losses to Northern Iowa and California. Their first conference game that season was a 63-62 loss at Nebraska. The Cyclones went 3-13 in Big 12 play and lost in the first round of the conference tournament to finish 16-16.

Time will tell how Hoiberg plans to handle his nonconference schedules at Nebraska, but at least for this transition year, he chose to schedule lightly.

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