For head coach Fred Hoiberg and the Nebraska men’s basketball team, last year was supposed to be a learning experience. The tough losses, offensive growing pains and occasional defensive lapses were meant to give way to a more experienced team.
Due to high roster turnover and many months of COVID-19-induced lockdown, some may think that the problems of last year will carry over into this one. Hoiberg, however, is confident that despite the aesthetics of another rebuild, the team will improve from last year.
One important returning piece will be sophomore forward Yvan Ouedraogo. Early last year, the French forward had trouble adapting to the physicality of the Big Ten and NCAA basketball in general. Among forwards, Ouedraogo’s rebounding rate was just about average for the Big Ten. Ouedraogo, however, wasn’t played as a forward, he was the primary rebounder in Hoiberg’s system. And Ouedraogo was last in rebounding rate as a primary rebounder in the Big Ten last year.
At the tail end of the season, Ouedraogo showed off some of his promise. Against Illinois in late February, he was able to pull in an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double working against talented Illini big man Cofi Kockburn. Then, a couple of games later against Northwestern on March 1, he posted up a 19-rebound, 11-point double-double in a tight loss.
“I thought he [Ouedraogo] got progressively better as the season went on,” Hoiberg said in a press conference on Tuesday. “He had a year under his belt, he had a lot of valuable experience on the floor and I think he learned a lot and understood that he needed to make changes to his body to become a more consistent basketball player.”
Hoiberg called the forward’s progress over the offseason “phenomenal,” noting that he developed his awareness and lost 25 pounds. This has helped to also improve his finishing ability at the rim and in the post.
Leadership is an important component of progression, and the retention senior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson is expected to be a big boost for the team. Last season, the Iceland native developed into a pivotal role on the offense. After shooting a rather dismal 17.4% 3-point clip in his sophomore year, Thorbjarnarson’s shot improved drastically jumping to 37.2% on an increased workload in 2019.
“I thought that Thor had a terrific year for us a year ago. He was really the guy that was Mr. Reliable for us because of everything he did,” Hoiberg said. “...Thor, going into now his fourth year, being a guy who’s been through the battles of this league and he knows what it’s all about, so he can certainly help our guys navigate through some of the growing pains that some of our younger players [have].”
One of the younger players who has yet to gain much experience in the Big Ten is sophomore guard Dalano Banton. Having only played one season of NCAA basketball at Western Kentucky before transferring to Nebraska, the guard was involved in the Hilltoppers’ upset win over Wisconsin in the 2018-2019 season.
Some of Banton’s greatest strengths include his playmaking and defensive acumen, where his 6-foot-8 stature and quick feet pose a problem for guards and forwards alike. Another one of Banton’s great strengths is his versatility.
“The thing with coach’s offense is that it’s a very fluid offense...we have multiple guys who play positionless as well as myself,” Banton said in a press conference. “So if it’s on the ball, that coach needs me, I’ll be on the ball. Just anywhere I need to be to win is the most important part to me.”
The issue of replacing sophomore guard Cam Mack’s production from last year will be important in understanding how Hoiberg will line up in the new year. Mack was the primary ball-handler and primary playmaker for the Huskers, and possessed one of the highest assist percentages of anyone in the Big Ten at 36.5%.
Hoiberg can either choose to try and have one player step into Mack’s role, or split that production over a number of players. This plays into the larger issue of how Hoiberg will decide to mix this pool of young talent, older transfers and carry-overs from last season.
“When you have guys like [Trey McGowens] and Dalano Banton playing together with Kobe Webster, with other guys, we will have multiple players who can initiate our offense this year,” Hoiberg said.
Just like last year, the starting lineup for the Huskers will be a point of interest for a squad with two returners from last year (Ouedraogo, Thorbjarnarson) and a wealth of new talent. It was fairly late in the preseason last year when it was confirmed what the starting lineup would look like, and that may be the same way this year.
The blend of new faces, perhaps older due to their stature as transfers, along with recruits like freshman center Eduardo Andre, means that competition for starting spots and spots in Nebraska’s primary rotation will be open, not only at the start of the season, but all throughout it. Even Thorbjarnarson and Ouedraogo may have to battle for their minutes in a relatively crowded field.
Last year proved to be remarkably difficult for Hoiberg, and some of the challenges from that last year, which include a team without much game-experience with each other and high levels of roster turnover, may prove to be a carry-over to this strange season. But for now, Hoiberg is concerned with who to put on the court when the season starts just over 40 days from now.
“That will all play itself out in practice. From tomorrow, we will have 42 days before we open our season and that’s what we look for, who’s going to be the players who give you the consistency to be on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “...But we are certainly on the right path, in going out and hopefully competing and giving ourselves a chance to win every time we step on the floor.”