MINNEAPOLIS — A younger and skinnier Sam Griesel celebrated his 19th birthday on the biggest stage of his life.
Griesel remembered around 19,000 in attendance for North Dakota State’s NCAA Tournament game against top-seeded Duke in 2019. As the Bison freshman sized up future pros Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish before the game, he wondered:
“What am I doing here?”
Four years later, Nebraska recruited Griesel because it knows he doesn’t ponder those questions anymore.
Success breeds confidence, which often breeds more success.
The Huskers, who have finished last or second to last in the Big Ten for three straight years, lacked both during last year’s 10-22 campaign. So Fred Hoiberg’s staff went portal shopping for players who could help.
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One of their first calls? Griesel, who helped lead NDSU to two 20-win seasons after making the NCAA tournament his freshman season.
“I think playing in the NCAA Tournament my freshman year … really prepared me for the rest of my career,” Griesel said Wednesday at Big Ten media days. “It’s like, if I can do that and play well on that stage, I can do anything in college basketball. That’s something I’ve taken each year … just remembering where I came from.”
Griesel’s new teammate practices the same habit.
Sixth-year senior Derrick Walker, who transferred to Nebraska from a Tennessee team that won an SEC title and made the Sweet 16, said he “takes a lot” from those memories. Those Volunteers were a pain for opponents to play, Waker said. They imposed their will.
“We had pride,” Walker said. “(We were) going out every night and telling teams like, ‘Hey, if you want to win, we’re not going to give you the game. You have to take it from us.’”
Last year’s Huskers, by contrast, “let our hype get to us,” Walker said. They thought they could win on talent alone. They were wrong, and their early stumbles snowballed as the season progressed.
Hoiberg cited a 4-10 record in games within two possessions with two minutes to play, which to him suggested a team that lacked confidence in those scenarios. When Hoiberg played for good teams, his teammates knew they would win the close ones, even if they didn’t always do so. His best Iowa State teams did the same thing.
Why? Because they had done it before.
“If you find a way to get over the hump, then you have the confidence to know you can do it,” Hoiberg said. “There’s a lot of factors in play, but confidence is as big a factor as any in closing out those games.”
Griesel knows what Hoiberg means from his North Dakota State days. Winning takes “a certain mentality,” he said. A willingness to do the little things.
Griesel’s Bison teammates had both. So did Walker’s at Tennessee. And both see similar qualities in this year’s Nebraska team.
Emmanuel Bandoumel played in two NITs and never experienced a losing season at SMU. Juwan Gary won an SEC championship and made the Sweet 16 at Alabama.
Those newcomers have injected the program with a winning spirit and “innate toughness” that Hoiberg thinks is mandatory in the Big Ten
“A lot of times, you either have it or you don’t,” Hoiberg said. “I think this group has the grit to help us compete.”
“We didn’t have a chance to win many ugly games when the ball wouldn’t go into the hoop a year ago. But this group, I think, if the ball isn’t going in, it’s still gonna have a chance to win because of the identity that they’re trying to build on the defensive end of the floor. I think we have the size and that toughness. If you’re gonna compete in this league consistently, you have to have the mental toughness to be able to do that.”