Emmanuel Bandoumel apparently still had a smile on his face in practice.
After his college career ended Saturday with a torn ACL, the Nebraska senior guard offered encouragement this week to his teammates.
“They know he’s going to continue to be with them, and lead them,” coach Fred Hoiberg said Tuesday.
Just not on the court. And right as NU loses its best perimeter defender, comes an opponent whose three-point shooting has scalded Hoiberg teams like few others.
Northwestern. The Wildcats are 6-0 against the Huskers in the Hoiberg era. They’ve averaged 76 points in those games. They’ve hit an average of 10.2 threes in those games, too. In the last four games, that total hikes up to 11.75 trios at a nearly 40% clip. Northwestern guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige each average 15 points per game, shoot better than 85% from the free throw line, and can save a bad possession with an isolation play late in the shot clock.
In short, the Wildcats can bite. And NU just lost the “head” of its own “snake” in Bandoumel, Hoiberg said.
“They just put you in a tough spot based on their system and the players — where they put them on the floor,” Hoiberg said of Northwestern. “You see what it is — when you’ve got five guys out there who can make shots, it puts you in a tough position defensively.”
The Huskers are not exactly scrambling for alternatives — they’ve seen what backup freshmen Denim Dawson and Jamarques Lawrence can do on defense — but they’ll experiment with various lineups through the final third of the season.
Hoiberg’s son, Sam, will have to be more ready to play, Fred said. NU will use bigger lineups at times, putting Derrick Walker and Wilhelm Breidenbach on the floor more often together, or even sliding Walker to the power forward spot while 7-foot reserve Oleg Kojenets plays center. Highly-touted freshman guard Ramel Lloyd won’t burn his redshirt — not the best decision for Lloyd, Hoiberg said — and while he’s finalizing a new starting lineup, it doesn’t much matter which five trot out for introductions.
“It’s who’s gonna be there at the end,” Hoiberg said.
If one could argue Hoiberg’s previous Husker teams weren’t built to defend good-shooting foes, he’s crafted this version differently. Until Juwan Gary ripped up his shoulder. And Bandoumel ripped up his knee. Here, then, are wounded Huskers (10-10 overall and 3-6 in the Big Ten) aiming to rebuff the rubbing salt Northwestern packed for the trip.
Through 20 games, NU ranked eighth (all games) and fifth (conference games) in the Big Ten in opponent three-point percentage — a jump from 11th in each category last season. And opponents take a lot of threes against Nebraska, too — 25 per game, tops in the league — because Hoiberg and Adam Howard’s defense tend to swarm and harass post players into passing the ball back out to the perimeter.
That was a winning strategy in wins over Iowa and Ohio State. They missed 21 and 26 three-pointers, respectively. But the plan depended in part on Bandoumel, who’d grin with joy while playing defense. He had a good wingspan. He had instincts honed over five years of college basketball, too, and rarely gave up easy baskets.
Dawson — 6-foot-6, athletic, aggressive — may draw either Buie or Audige. How Nebraska accounts for the rest of Northwestern’s offense — including 6-9 shooting forward Robbie Beran, who has multiple double-digit games in his career against the Huskers — boils down to “guarding your yard,” senior Sam Griesel said. Not letting Wildcats blow by to get layups or kick-outs for easy threes. And not letting Buie and Audige make hay as the shot clock expires.
“Defense is a team thing, it’s not one-on-one the whole time,” Griesel said. “Just being in the right help position and then finishing on the glass.”
Northwestern’s own defense is stingy. The Wildcats (13-5 and 4-3) have designs on an NCAA Tournament bid because they rank second in the Big Ten in steals — Audige averages 3.1 per game in league games — and hold foes to 60.9 points per game. Hoiberg called it “phenomenal.”
In a 66-63 slugfest win over Wisconsin on Monday night, Northwestern showed no particular ill effects from an eight-day COVID pause. Audige harassed Badger star point guard Chucky Hepburn into a 4-for-16 shooting night while Wisconsin posts Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl — a strong 1-2 post punch — struggled, too.
And while Gary and Bandoumel were better known for their defense, the duo combined for 18 points per game. For a team that ranks 331st nationally in three-point percentage and 336th nationally in free throw percentage, that’s no small chunk to replace. Does CJ Wilcher take more shots? Is Breidenbach more aggressive with his offensive game? Do Dawson and Lawrence — warming up as scorers — drift further from the pool's shallow end and dive into one of the Big Ten’s best defenses?
Nebraska has to find out on the fly, leaning more on freshmen who just got their first taste of league play. Bandoumel’s grin will still be in Pinnacle Bank Arena. His game is on the shelf.
“I trust the younger guys to come in and provide a spark for us,” Griesel said. “Because, the fact of the matter is, we need them.”
NEBRASKA MEN at vs. Northwestern
Where/When: Pinnacle Bank Arena, 6 p.m.
TV | Radio: FS2 | 1400 AM in Lincoln, 590 AM in Omaha (Huskers Radio Network)
Northwestern (13-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten)