When he took over at Nebraska, Fred Hoiberg chose to bring back just one player who got on the court for last year’s team: Thorir Thorbjarnarson. Hoiberg saw in the Icelandic swingman a guy that fit what he wanted to do in Lincoln, even though he hadn’t shot the ball particularly well from deep as a Husker.
Hoiberg knew what he was talking about. The 6-foot-6 wing has stepped into a starting role for the Huskers and has become an indispensable piece of Hoiberg’s first Nebraska team that has started off Big Ten play with a 2-2 record.
Thorbjarnarson tied his career-high with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting (3-of-6 from 3) and grabbed a season-high nine rebounds to lead the Huskers to a 76-70 win over Iowa on Tuesday.
"Thor was unbelievable, hitting those shots, made a great play to Kevin [down the stretch] … For the most part, the guys went out there and believed in the plan and believed in each other,” Hoiberg said. “We knew Iowa would go on a run and talked about that. They made the run in the first half. We responded well to that and finished the half well which we did not do the other night. Rutgers took control of that game the last five minutes of the first half and then they handled the second half run. When Iowa took the lead, guys went out and made big plays, and Thor was a huge part of that run.”
Thorbjarnarson is now averaging 7.5 points and 3.8 rebounds overall. In four conference games, those numbers jump to 13.0 points and 4.3 rebounds. Not only has he been a great fit for Hoiberg’s system, he’s been a terrific complement for Nebraska’s dynamic sophomore point guard Cam Mack, who has three double-doubles (one of which was a triple-double) in four conference games thus far after a 15-point, 10-assist outing against the Hawkeyes.
“I love playing with Thor,” Mack said. “Honestly, that’s my best friend on the court … His energy, he moves without the ball, he makes me look good, backdoor cutting. He’s just so positive and he just brings energy.”
Mack found Thorbjarnarson on one of those backdoor cuts for an important bucket in the second half against Iowa. Mack also assisted both of Thorbjarnarson’s second-half 3s, which came back-to-back after Iowa tied the game up with just over five minutes to play.
Thorbjarnarson’s emergence as one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in the Big Ten has been huge for the Huskers, a team full of mostly inconsistent perimeter shooters. After shooting 4-of-23 from 3 as a sophomore, Thorbjarnarson is third in the Big Ten this season among players with 40 or more 3-point attempts at 46.7%, trailing only Iowa’s CJ Fredrick (who did not play on Tuesday because of a stress reaction in his foot) and Michigan’s Isaiah Livers, both shooting 50%.
“Obviously it’s very important,” Hoiberg said about Thorbjarnarson’s development as a shooter. “You need guys who can space the floor, especially when you have a playmaker like Cam out there. He and Cam have really played well off each other. When Cam gets in the paint, Thor does a good job of drifting. He’s a great cutter — he had a really good back-cut layup out of the corner. But when you have a guy as Thor is shooting almost 50% from the 3-point line, you have to have that floor spacing and you can open up those driving lanes.”
Thorbjarnarson knew he was going to have to hit 3s in order to get on the floor under Hoiberg and he went to work this past offseason to make sure he could do that. With some advice from Hoiberg about his form along the way, he put in the work to build up confidence in his shot and its paying off.
“It’s always a focus, but I’m getting more reps, shooting more shots in a game so I’m just feeling very confident out there right now,” Thorbjarnarson said. “Every offseason you have to work on your perimeter shooting if you want to play for Hoiberg.”
His emergence as a shooter has been huge, but it was the basketball IQ that first won over Hoiberg, and Thorbjarnarson put that on full display against the Hawkeyes as well. After Nebraska sprung for those 3-pointers in the second half, Iowa switched the next time the Huskers set a flare screen for him. Knowing that, Thorbjarnarson told freshman forward Kevin Cross Jr. to slip the screen the next time and Thorbjarnarson said he’d get him a layup if he did so according to Hoiberg.
The Huskers got that look with their lead down to four and less than three minutes to play and Thorbjarnarson delivered the pass, leading to a foul and a trip to the free-throw line by Cross where he sank both shots in a big moment.
“He has a high-level IQ,” said Dachon Burke Jr., the only other returner from last year’s team. “He makes it simple. Sometimes I learn things from him even though he’s younger than me. I played with him last year as well and this year his game has elevated. I stay in his ear, telling him keep playing, keep staying confident because he’s playing great.”
In four conference games, Thorbjarnarson has already surpassed his point total from his entire sophomore season. He’s been a big part of the Huskers’ 2-2 start in Big Ten play and Nebraska is going to need him to keep it up if they want to win more games going forward.
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.