School’s Back In Session

Can Fred Hoiberg’s Bigger and Longer Team Pass the Big Ten Test?

Opinion • By Jacob Bigelow

The fall semester officially begins Aug. 22, but for Nebraska basketball, the entire summer has felt like the first day of school.

Derrick Walker, who had to do the dirty work under the basket last season at only 6-foot-9, will have help this season with the arrival of 6-11 Blaise Keita.

There are new faces and new ideas. There’s been some get-to-know-you activities. There are new assistant coaches, including one, Ernie Zeigler, who officially came aboard just eight days before the start of classes. There are super seniors who feel like they have been in school forever. And there are hotshot freshmen and newcomers still finding their way.

And most of all, there is a sense of giddiness. Is this the group that will finally bring home a pleasing report card with passing grades?

There are lots of first-day-of-school metaphors. The coach is a basketball professor who can lecture X’s and O’s for hours on end. He’s in constant search of players who can navigate his curriculum. The syllabus is a schedule that could see as many as seven high major opponents in the nonconference before the meatgrinder of a 20-game Big Ten slate.

There are questions to answer. There will be tests early and often.

And following the restructuring of coach Fred Hoiberg’s contract, I don’t think Athletic Director Trev Alberts will be grading on a curve.

Over the summer, the media spoke to a handful of players, a mix of old and new faces – it’s not a total overhaul as in recent years. The only coach we heard from was Hoiberg, who spoke highly of his roster.

The headlining off-season addition is Lincoln East product and North Dakota State graduate transfer Sam Griesel, who grew up idolizing the Huskers and will spend his super senior season looking to turn the tide for his hometown team.

The 6-foot-6 guard had surgery in the spring to repair the labrum in his hip. Once healthy, look for him to become the face of the program when the season starts.

Another player recovering from surgery is sophomore forward Wilhelm Breidenbach, whose season-ending knee injury 10 games into his freshman season affected Nebraska’s depth. Doctors repaired Briedenbach’s ACL that was injured in December as well as his meniscus which the 6-10 forward believes he injured as far back as his senior season of high school in California.

Versatile Wilhelm Breidenbach, a 6-foot-10 sophomore forward who missed most of his freshman season with a knee injury, should fit in well with Nebraska’s bigger, more defensive-minded rotation.

Also returning is big man Derrick Walker, who not only will get a third senior night at Nebraska but may very well be the biggest fan favorite of the Hoiberg Era by the time his Husker career is done. The head coach himself already waxes poetic about the 6-9 Walker, who has been at Nebraska for Hoiberg’s entire stay.

“He’s going to go down as one of my all-time favorites,” Hoiberg said.

And this could be Walker’s breakout year. He’ll have legitimate post depth around him in 6-11 JUCO transfer Blaise Keita, a touted recruit. Together, they could be a handful for Big Ten opponents who liked to feast on Nebraska’s lack of size and rebounding.

While the recruiting class going into last season centered around the first five-star recruit in program history and a purported cast of 3-point shooters who fit into Hoiberg’s pace and space offense, the new roster centers on length and versatility. Expect it to be much better defensively.

The roster won’t be overmatched in size at any position. There are also experienced transfers aside from Griesel, including 6-4 SMU grad transfer Emmanuel Bandoumel and 6-6 Alabama transfer Juwan Gary.

Both have been described as “energy” guys who were fan favorites on their previous teams. Their stats don’t jump off the page, but Hoiberg has spoken highly of both.

“I have not been around many guys like Emmanuel, just such a great character kid that is all about the right things,” Hoiberg said. “He’s all about the team. You talked about the energy-givers, the energy-takers; he’s an energy-giver.

“Juwan Gary is going to be somebody that I think our fans will fall in love with right away because of just his tenacity of going to get the ball,” Hoiberg said. “We’re changing our offensive rebounding philosophy, and we’re going to get after it.”

Hoiberg has emphasized a change in philosophy to go along with how he’s constructed the roster. It’s a long, aggressive lineup with an emphasis on defense and rebounding – two things that have lacked on previous Hoiberg teams.

But who will score?

A slimmed-down C.J. Wilcher is a proven shooter, and freshmen Ramel Lloyd Jr. and Jamarques Lawrence likely will both be in contention for playing time.

Lloyd is another long and versatile guard who is no stranger to high pressure hoops, having played at California prep powerhouse Sierra Canyon. Lawrence is a sharpshooter from New Jersey whose jumpshot has already received lots of praise from his head coach.

Young guards Denim Dawson (6-6) and Quaran McPherson (6-3) fit the new mold, and with real size down low, who knows what might open up for Keisei Tominaga.

Hoiberg made critical staff changes. He parted ways with two of his closest coaching confidants in Matt Abdelmassih and Doc Sadler, who both contributed to his success all the way back to Iowa State.

New assistant Adam Howard has a defensive-minded background and has been working with post players since arriving in Lincoln. Nate Loenser, who was with Hoiberg at Iowa State and the Chicago Bulls, came aboard in April of 2021. And now there is Zeigler, the former Mississippi State assistant who replaces Armon Gates. Zeigler has been with big-time programs as an assistant with Ben Howland, following him from Pittsburgh to UCLA in the early 2000s and then reuniting with him at Mississippi State where he’s been the past seven years. He also was head coach at Central Michigan from 2006 to 2012.

To bring this back to my comparison to the first day of school, I’ll finish with a first-day-of-school icebreaker: Two truths and a lie for Nebraska basketball.

Option 1: Fred Hoiberg likes his roster.

Option 2: Fred Hoiberg is willing to adjust his philosophy.

Option 3: We all know exactly what to expect from this team.

It shouldn’t be hard to ace that test.

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