Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Recalibrating Expectations for Nebrasketball’s Stretch Run

January 25, 2023

We’re 20 games into Fred Hoiberg’s fourth season at Nebraska, and he’s had his whole starting lineup available for the full game in just 10 of them.

With Sam Griesel, Emmanuel Bandoumel, Juwan Gary and Derrick Walker all starting and finishing the game, Nebraska went 6-4 with just one low-major team (Queens) among that group, and the Huskers took Purdue to overtime as well. They scored 68.5 points per game and gave up 65.5.

In the 10 games where at least one of Walker, Griesel, Bandoumel or Gary have either not played or left in the first half because of injury, the Huskers went 4-6 with three buy-game wins. They scored just 64.0 points per game and gave up 68.9, but again three low-major opponents made those numbers look even better than they should be (it’s 57.7 to 72.0 in the seven games against high-majors).

This is very bad news because Nebraska won’t play another game with all four of those key players starting. In fact, Nebraska will be without at least half of them the rest of the way following the season-ending injuries to Gary and Bandoumel.

KenPom only favored Nebraska in two of its remaining games even before the injuries; the Huskers were going to have to over-perform even at full strength in order to finish above .500 or have a chance at some kind of postseason. That task has become significantly more difficult without the team’s two best defenders.

In fact, with Quaran McPherson’s offseason injury, Blaise Keita’s lingering ankle issue and Ramel Lloyd Jr.’s decision to redshirt, Nebraska will have eight healthy scholarship players against Northwestern on Wednesday night, and probably for at least a couple more games beyond that.

“It’s hard,” Hoiberg said on Tuesday. “It’s just things out of your control, and it is what it is. These things happen, you have years like this. My first year in Chicago we led the league in injuries, so it just is what it is and again, your guys prepare. Our guys do a great job coming in and getting extra work … It’s why you you train and it’s why you get all that individual work, for situations like this when they do develop, and it’s unfortunate.”

The Huskers aren’t making any excuses. Sam Griesel said they’ve had a “next man up” mentality all season and will continue to do so. That being said, there’s no denying that it complicates the evaluation process for this season.

Nebraska has already matched its win total from last season. Hoiberg and his staff went for a program identity flip, slowing the pace and going all in on defense and hustle, and that move has paid off as Nebraska boasts a top-35 defense in terms of adjusted efficiency. The Huskers beat Creighton and Iowa, and though Ohio State has hit a rough stretch recently, Nebraska still found a way to beat the Buckeyes without Gary. The Huskers also don’t have any truly bad losses.

To this point, the season has been a significant step forward for the program. But we’re only two-thirds of the way through it.

What happens if Nebraska does go on to only win one or two more games the rest of the way? Will fans still view it as a step forward? Will Hoiberg and his staff lose whatever momentum they’ve built?

There aren’t many teams (last year’s Houston team being an exception) that can lose two starters and keep plugging along, and it was already an uphill climb talent-wise for Nebraska most nights even before the injuries. That’s just the reality of the situation. With that being said, I tend to think Hoiberg’s gone a long way toward securing a year five in Lincoln barring a complete and total collapse down the stretch.

Making any real kind of run toward a postseason berth this season is probably off the table. In my mind, the last third of the season is about two things.

The first is enjoying what’s left of the two healthy seniors’ careers. Derrick Walker’s growth over his four years in Lincoln has been remarkable and he’s become a joy to watch when he puts the ball on the deck and ambidextrously finishes from every possible angle around the basket. And Sam Griesel is living out his dream, the dream of many young boys growing up in Lincoln. He’s giving everything he has to the program every time he steps on the floor and deserves your support.

The second, and perhaps even more important, is to build for the future. The injury situation means the team’s freshmen will have to be thrown into the fire; Hoiberg simply doesn’t have any other options. The players who see their roles increase most with the losses of Gary and Bandoumel are Denim Dawson and Jamarques Lawrence.

The two freshmen have seen their minutes fluctuate throughout the season with a handful of DNP-CDs between the two of them. They’ve given good effort defensively, but their offensive production has been spotty. Nebraska now needs more than just effort from them.

“Those guys have been very diligent coming in and getting extra work,” Hoiberg said. “Denim’s shot has improved in a big way. That was one thing coming in that we all knew, including him, that he needed to work on it, and you see the last couple of games he’s made a 3 for us. Jamarques, I don’t think you’re ever going to see a game again where he doesn’t make a free throw when he gets opportunities to go. He’s just too good of a shooter. And now it’s about going out there. It’s a different speed, it’s different size, but those guys compete their butts off regardless of what’s going on on the floor. Skill development is a big part of your program and you do it for these situations when guys, whether their roles increase or guys are thrust into different roles, you’re ready for it.”

Griesel and Walker are far and away the best players on the team, and they’ll both be gone next season. If Hoiberg is going to return, he needs a foundation to carry the gains from this season forward and build momentum. At this point, none of Wilhelm Breidenbach, Dawson, Lawrence or Oleg Kojenets look like those foundational pieces. The last third of the season is going to be about learning what each of those guys can be heading into the 223-24 season. They’ve all shown flashes; now is their chance to put it all together. 

“I love coaching this team, I still do,” Hoiberg said. “Whatever happens, whatever the outcomes of these games are, it’s been one of the most enjoyable years that I’ve ever coached just because of the mindset of these players and how they bring it every time they step on the floor. My first year at Iowa State, I loved coaching those guys. We weren’t were very good, but those guys were fun to coach because every day you knew what you were getting out of them. So it’s been a lot of fun. I’m going to continue to enjoy it just because of the way these guys come in and prepare, and hopefully we can find a way to get some wins.”

Hopefully the fans can have as much fun watching the team down the stretch as Hoiberg will coaching it. Getting some of those wins would certainly help, but these last 12-plus games have become about more than just the winless record.

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