Recently, the only constant in Nebraska men’s athletics is change.
Nebraska baseball is navigating its first season under new head coach Will Bolt, and Nebraska football is attempting to turn a significant corner in head coach Scott Frost’s third season. But no program, at least in recent memory, underwent a rebuild as drastic or a complete roster overhaul as fast as Nebraska men’s basketball.
It’s well-documented at this point just how dramatic the overhaul was from last season to this one. Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson was the only returning player that saw the court in 2018-19, as he and fellow junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. were the lone holdovers from the Tim Miles era.
This season has played out as one would expect from a roster of junior-college products, graduate transfers and freshmen with no Big Ten Conference experience. Add in a coach that is still in the midst of installing his fast-paced, positionless brand of basketball, and the result is a team that is currently in last place in the Big Ten.
There have been flashes of brilliance, but it hasn’t been sustainable enough to snap Nebraska’s seemingly endless 14-game losing streak.
Help is on the way, though. Hoiberg is slated to add junior-college transfers Teddy Allen and Lat Mayen, and he scored a massive commitment from Wisconsin-transfer redshirt sophomore Kobe King. All three players have extensive experience at the Division I level and figure to be significant contributors next season (if King is deemed eligible).
However, the players that could play the biggest role in 2020-21 are already on Nebraska’s bench.
Like Mayen, Allen and King, Nebraska’s three sit-out transfers this season have experience playing Division I basketball. Unlike those three, sophomore guard Dalano Banton, junior guard Shamiel Stevenson and junior forward Derrick Walker have had an entire year to develop and learn Hoiberg’s system.
Banton has the most upside of the three. The Toronto native spent the 2018-19 season at Western Kentucky. His uniqueness stems from the fact that he’s a 6-foot-8-inch point guard that does a variety of things well. A world in which he and sophomore guard Cam Mack feature as Nebraska’s primary ball handlers next season is feasible.
At Western Kentucky, Banton averaged 15.1 minutes per game in the 31 contests he played in. The signature performance of his time with the Hilltoppers was a 13-rebound, 10-assist, eight-point outing against then-No. 15 Wisconsin in December 2018.
A further look into that game with Wisconsin shows just how valuable an asset Banton can be. He made great decisions with the ball, making the easy passes to open shooters or players cutting in the lane. It’s evident that Banton is a smart player and dynamic offensive playmaker — two traits on full display in the Hilltoppers’ 83-76 upset.
What Banton did not do much of at his first Division I stop was score the basketball. He averaged 3.1 field goal attempts per game at WKU and 3.4 points per game. Hoiberg’s system works with players like Banton that are facilitators, so offensive production may not matter, as long as he limits turnovers (1.7 per game at WKU, 4.4 per 40 minutes).
Hoiberg said Banton “understands the game as well as anyone he’s been around” at a press conference in January. Efficient playmakers like Banton have a place on the floor in Hoiberg’s system, and if he can clean up the turnovers and improve his offensive output, he’ll be a starter next season.
Stevenson’s return to Division I college basketball has been a bit delayed. The 6-foot-6-inch wing planned to play this season after sitting out a majority of the 2018-19 campaign for Pittsburgh but had his waiver for immediate eligibility denied. He did see minutes in his freshman year, averaging 23.8 minutes per game, starting 13 games and appearing in 32.
A trainwreck would be too lenient of phrasing for the Panthers’ disaster of a 2017-18 season under then-head coach Kevin Stallings, a season in which Pitt went 8-24 and 0-18 in the ACC. Stevenson was a bright spot, though, averaging 8.5 points per game on 50% shooting.
He figures to be an ideal fit for Hoiberg’s offensive philosophy. Highlights of Stevenson’s game show an explosive athlete who is an above-average finisher at the rim. The show-stopping dunks are impressive, but his ability to cut and get to the rim make him a tantalizing fit with guards like Banton and Mack.
Stevenson fell out of the rotation under Pitt’s current head coach, Jeff Capel, in the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign. He appeared in four games last season before leaving the program and committing to Nevada in late 2019. Stevenson re-opened his recruitment after Nevada head coach Eric Musselman took the Arkansas job shortly after last season ended and landed in Lincoln in May.
Like Banton, Stevenson figures to play a significant role next season. The fact that he’s comfortable taking on players off the dribble and can stretch defenses with the outside shot (37.5% from 3-point range during his freshman year at Pitt) means he could have a productive season in his long-awaited return to college basketball.
Walker’s case is the most interesting, as he has yet to make a statement at the Division I level. He’s been on great teams dating back to his time on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit, playing with future NBA first-round draft picks Michael Porter Jr. and Trae Young. More recently, he featured on the Tennessee Volunteers, who won the SEC championship in 2017-18 and made the Sweet Sixteen last season.
The success the Volunteers had came without Walker making much of an impact. The Kansas City, Missouri, native played in 34 games in his freshman campaign and 30 games during his sophomore season. He averaged 1.9 points per game and 2.2 rebounds per game in his first season, and his numbers dipped to 0.8 points per game and 1.1 rebounds per game in his last season in Knoxville.
Walker’s outlook for his first season in Lincoln is difficult to predict. He’s still a bit of an unknown commodity after being overshadowed by elite talent like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield at Tennessee. He’s surely hungry to make his mark on a collegiate basketball program after averaging about seven minutes per game over his first two seasons at Tennessee.
What is known is that Walker is an above-average athlete that will provide an interesting complement and change of pace from freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo. He will look to make a significant impact next season in what looks to be his first real opportunity at a major college basketball program.
In that same January press conference, Hoiberg mentioned that the trio of Walker, Stevenson and Banton give the starting group fits during practice. The three are very talented players, and all three could easily be in the starting lineup on opening night next season.
The 2019-20 season is nearing its much-needed end for Nebraska basketball, and the pieces are in place for better days ahead, sooner rather than later. Hoiberg found significantly more success in his second year at Iowa State after he had a year to implement his system.
While Nebraska fans know the dangers of “year two” expectations all too well, there’s enough talent on the roster between recruits, redshirts and returning players to make Hoiberg’s second season a successful one.