Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Run it Back: Nebraska’s Run in the ESPN Events Invitational

November 28, 2022

Nebraska’s trip to Orlando for the ESPN Events Invitational likely didn’t go the way Fred Hoiberg and the Huskers were hoping for going in, but Nebraska did salvage the trip with a win in the finale to finish 1-2.

Let’s take a look back at the tournament as a whole and reflect on what we’ve learned about this year’s squad.

Let’s start with the win itself. Nebraska smacked Florida State, 75-58, in the seventh-place game after losing to Oklahoma and Memphis. It’s the first win over a high-major team of the season for Nebraska.

Let me get this out of the way off the top: Florida State is a complete mess right now. The Seminoles are 1-7 and raked 164th in KenPom. The only other high-majors ranked below them are Louisville and California. Their only win is against Mercer and four of their seven losses have been to mid-major teams.

Florida State is a poor shooting team from pretty much everywhere on the floor, it’s a poor rebounding team and it’s a really undisciplined defensive team. Nebraska scored 50 points in the paint, and a lot of that is because of Florida State mistakes.

That being said, outclassing an opponent you’re clearly better than isn’t something we’ve always seen from Nebraska, and to do that on Sunday is a good sign. The Huskers did what they needed to in order to take care of business and get back above .500 at 4-3.

I thought the Oklahoma game in the first round was a big opportunity to score a feel-good win based on the Sooners’ early results, but perhaps Porter Moser’s team just needed to settle into the season as they went on to win the whole thing and are currently 31st in KenPom. Memphis went 2-1 after beating Stanford on Sunday by eight; the Tigers’ only loss was on a banked 3 at the buzzer to Seton Hall in the first round. I thought beating Memphis was a tough ask for Nebraska at this point in the season. The Huskers needed at least one win in Orlando, and they got it.

The biggest storyline from the Orlando trip is obviously the return of Derrick Walker. Hoiberg said on Tuesday that Walker was getting closer, and it turns out “closer” meant missing one more game. He was back in the starting lineup against Memphis after missing Nebraska’s first five games plus the exhibition against Colorado.

His debut was a mixed bag. He played 35 minutes in his first game back and notched a double-double with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 12 rebounds, but he also turned the ball over nine times. A lot of that was likely him working off rust and the team around him adjusting to having him back out there.

Whatever it was, he cleaned it up in game two as Walker was far and away the best player on the floor on Sunday night. He finished with a career-high 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, 13 rebounds (six offensive), four assists and just one turnover in 32 minutes. The Huskers outscored the Seminoles by 24 points while Walker was on the floor.

The most notable thing about Walker’s performance is the we he got those 20 points. Only three of his 10 buckets were assisted. He didn’t get any traditional post-up scoring opportunities (where a lot of his offense came from last year). He had one put-back and then his other six buckets all included Walker taking his man off the dribble in various ways.

Florida State’s 7-foot-4 sophomore center simply could not handle Walker as the more nimble veteran went around him multiple times and also just straight-up bullied him once. Their 6-foot-10 freshman back-up didn’t fare any better, and Walker abused Caleb Mills twice when the guard switched onto him (once for a seal and lob pass for a finish and once for a face-up bucket where Walker beat him with his first step then just powered through him for the finish).

As a passer, Walker ran give-and-go plays with cutters from the high post for layups (once with Sam Griesel and once with Keisei Tominaga), and his other two assists were kicks to the corner where the recipients were able to blow by their man to finish at the rim. Walker also appears to be Nebraska’s press break as the Huskers looked to get him the ball to bring it up the floor all game long, and he also pushed it ahead after rebounds more often than not.

It turns out having your best player back makes a difference. Who could have guessed? 

Walker’s presence also lightens the burden on Sam Griesel as he now has a pressure release that wasn’t there previously. Griesel had a great second half against the Seminoles and fell just short of a double-double with 13 points (including a pair of catch-and-shoot 3s), nine assists and just two turnovers in 30 minutes, and I thought he drew a brutal whistle throughout the game or his numbers might have looked even better. With two legitimate playmakers in Griesel and Walker, it made life easier for role players like C.J. Wilcher and Keisei Tominaga.

One thing worth noting is Nebraska recorded 22 assists on 33 buckets against Florida State after dishing out 17 assists on 22 buckets against Memphis. That is the way Nebraska is going to have to play on offense if it hopes to have success. Nebraska needs to generate catch-and-shoot looks or opportunities to attack closeouts for guys like Wilcher, Tominaga and Emmanuel Bandoumel, while the majority of Juwan Gary’s offense needs to come on offensive rebounds or cuts (all five of his buckets against the Seminoles were on cuts to the basket).

In addition to Walker’s return changing the way the team plays, it changes the rotation as well. Blaise Keita played just two minutes in each of the games Walker started while Denim Dawson logged just five minutes against Memphis and four against Florida State. It appears Hoiberg is going to rid his starting five with Tominaga serving as the sixth man playing 20-plus minutes and Wilhelm Breidenbach spelling Gary and Walker at the four and five. Dawson, Keita and Jamarques Lawrence will get spot minutes here and there but likely won’t see extended rotation minutes.

To boil things down, despite not shooting well from 3, Sunday night is what this team was supposed to look like, with Walker and Griesel setting the table for everyone else. From this point moving forward, we can truly start to evaluate this team.

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