On Jan. 2, 2018, noted college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy released an article seeking to answer an age old question: how important is experience in deciding team success?
It would stand to reason that having a team composed of players who have played Division I basketball for multiple years would help lead to success on the court. However, this wasn’t the case in such a linear fashion. While some experienced squads in Pomeroy’s study did well, there were also plenty of teams that only played OK or not well at all. In the end, the correlation between success and experience was near negligible.
Pomeroy found, instead, that there’s a strong positive correlation between squad continuity and success. The longer a team plays together and stays intact, the more success they’ll find. With this in mind, Nebraska’s roster only has two returning starters: sophomore forward Yvan Ouedraogo and senior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson. Since continuity helps to ensure success, it may be prudent to see exactly where the two returning players will fit into the new team.
Thorbjaranrson proved his value last season after being one of two holdovers from the Tim Miles era to play under head coach Fred Hoiberg. Early in the season, Hoiberg played Thorbjarnarson in spot minutes as a sixth man, but when it became clear that he added a spark both defensively and offensively, he was integrated into the starting five.
Thorbjarnarson’s greatest value last season was as an off-ball cutter, with some secondary value as a floor spacer. This means his primary role on the team was to attack empty spaces left by other players, or to explode off of off-ball screens into hard cuts towards the basket. While these chances often ended in easy layups for Thorbjarnarson, the greatest utility of his cuts was their ability to cause havoc and open up scoring opportunities for teammates.
The best way to maximize this ability is to surround him with more agile, intelligent players who can properly play off of his cuts and exploit the space that he creates. This is a more tangential skill, requiring a player with good instincts who knows where the space is depending on the opponent’s reaction to Thorbjarnarson’s cut. While a shooter may always go out to the perimeter, and a stronger player may try to drive down into the lane, the best player to play off of Thorbjarnarson is one who can do either.
The player on Nebraska’s roster who most closely fits with this archetype is junior guard Teddy Allen, whose strong interior presence as a guard could complement some of Thorbjarnarson’s off-ball contributions. However, Allen’s 3-point shot is suspect, as he shot 12% from the 3-point line in his 2018 campaign with West Virginia on 25 attempts. Ultimately, there’s no perfect complement to Thorbjarnarson on the team, at least individually. To fully support his dynamism would take a combination of several players on the roster, and scheming around that is an unsavory outcome. It’s more than possible that Thorbjarnarson’s senior year is one without significant improvement, but his offensive game is still strong enough for him to be one of Nebraska’s most impactful players going forward.
While Thorbjarnarson is a player who could produce at a similar level and still be an easy lock for the Nebraska starting five, Ouedraogo, the other returning Husker, has serious competition for his position.
In his freshman year, Ouedraogo was expected to shoulder all of the primary rebounding responsibilities of the team, and he did an admirable job. However, he was a bit overwhelmed at times, especially when battling the elite big men in the conference. Earlier in the year, he averaged incredibly low rebounding percentages with many balls hitting him on the hands before going out of bounds. These growing pains slowly faded as the year went on, as he managed an 11-point, 10-rebound outing against Illinois in February and snagged 19 rebounds in an early-March matchup with Northwestern.
However, junior forward Derrick Walker displays some of the characteristics more valued in a Hoiberg system than Ouedraogo, meaning finding a spot in the starting five may be tough for the 18-year-old French forward. Walker’s ability to distribute the ball right off of a rebound is better than what Ouedraogo displayed last season, based on Walker’s time at Tennessee. Hoiberg’s offense is predicated around pushing hard in transition, and to do this, one would do well with a great outlet passer. If that outlet passer is the primary rebounder, it helps even more.
Ouedraogo was competent on the inside and as a screener, with his pick-and-roll connection developing well over the year. He ended up adapting to the unorthodox system Hoiberg laid out, and that experience will be valuable if Hoiberg sticks with a similar system this season. An added benefit of Ouedraogo’s ability and role is that it doesn’t necessarily need highly specialized players around it. So long as there is a competent enough playmaker and a few floor spacers, Ouedraogo can continue to produce at a similar level as he did last year.
While Thorbjarnarson’s value is highly contingent on teammates and how well those teammates play off of him, what determines Ouedraogo’s success next season is his own development. Things like whether or not he can become a force with his post moves, which were shaky last year, or whether he can find ways to add value beyond rebounding and a few points per game can be hard to track or guess. And again, it’s possible that Ouedraogo isn’t given as much of a chance to prove himself either way due to Walker’s presence on the roster and his previous Power Five experience on a Tennessee team that made the Sweet 16 in 2019.
Year-to-year continuity may never be the Huskers’ forte with Hoiberg’s propensity to take in transfers. But if a solid core of players remain in Lincoln for multiple years at a time, like Ouedraogo and Thorbjarnarson, a winning culture can be established. There’s plenty of reason to hope that the performances of Thorbjarnarson and Ouedraogo could be bright spots for the Huskers next season.