By Jessica Schwager
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
While NU center Jorge Brian Diaz cites the food and the weather to be the two main differences between his native country of Puerto Rico and Nebraska, he found out all too soon that the physicality of American college basketball is much different than in international high school contests.
With less than a minute off the time clock during NU’s second game of the season, the 6-11 redshirt freshman took an elbow to the mouth, causing a loosened tooth that forced Diaz to sit out the rest of Nebraska’s game against St. Louis.
However, prior to even stepping onto the court during the 2009-10 season, Diaz knew the physicality, speed and athleticism of American collegiate athletes would be much different than what he was used to in Puerto Rico prep play.
Diaz joined the Nebraska basketball team on Jan. 17, 2009, just in time for NU’s Big 12 conference season. Although he could have made an immediate impact as the Huskers’ tallest active player, Diaz and the NU coaching staff agreed to have him take a redshirt during his first year at Nebraska to gain strength and knowledge of the game.
“The coaches are very close to me and they gave me advice and pretty much told me that it was better for me to redshirt last season,” Diaz said. “They said that I was still young and that I needed to improve my strength and see the game better. They wanted me to prepare better for the games in the conference season.”
Using his redshirt season to bolster his strength and athleticism, Diaz has made leaps and bounds since first stepping foot on Nebraska’s campus one year ago. His non-conference season statistics certainly show his talent, as Diaz has posted one of just three Husker 20-point games this season, going 9-of-10 for 22 points against TCU early in the season. He has also been a force on defense for Nebraska, leading the Huskers with 22 blocked shots. Diaz ranks sixth overall in the Big 12 with an average of 1.57 blocked shots per game. His strength has powered him to be a defensive wrecking ball for the Huskers.
“I think I’ve gotten stronger in the past year,” Diaz said. “I’ve also adjusted a little bit more to the speed of the game. Now I know more what the team is doing on offense and defense. Last year, when I got in on the middle of the season, I was not sure if I could help the team a lot. I think I am way better now than last year. Last year, I was just too young.”
While practicing and preparing during his redshirt season, Diaz also had the opportunity to watch several 2009 Big 12 games, a benefit which should help him as this season’s Big 12 conference play quickly approaches.
“He was able to see some teams in the league in person last year while he was sitting out,” Nebraska Coach Doc Sadler said of Diaz. “I believe it will benefit him by giving him an idea of what it will be like going against the top teams in the country, because that’s all you will see in this conference. Only time will tell how that will serve him, but he can now go out there and have an idea of what to expect. It’s not exactly the same because you never know what it’s like till you experience it, but it should help him.”
Although Diaz has only played witness to the Big 12’s rugged action, Coach Sadler simulates the physicality and intensity of conference play for young players like Diaz to understand. And, with conference play only two games away, Coach Sadler has even incorporated the mental part of basketball into his practices, an aspect that Diaz finds extremely helpful.
“Practices recently have been pretty tough,” Diaz said. “Coach Doc makes everything, like, I don’t know if I’m joking, but he tries to make everything way tougher than they are so we get prepared mentally. Everything we do in practice, we prepare a lot mentally and get mentally tough for the games. We run a lot, we do a lot of drills and everything has to be full speed and have energy, so I think that helps a lot.”
Despite the tough practices, Coach Doc Sadler has seen improvements in Diaz as the Big 12 season approaches.
“Obviously with the loss of Christopher Niemann at center (to injury before the season), Jorge has had to get ready to play quicker,” Coach Sadler said. “There’s been more need for him to be on the floor as a freshman and he’s taken advantage of the time and continued to work hard. I think in the last week or so, he’s had some of his best practices of the year and you can tell he’s getting ready to compete in this league.”
Nebraska opens its Big 12 conference season against Texas A&M at College Station on Saturday, Jan. 9, and Diaz will bring his strength and physicality along to help the Huskers push past its Big 12 foes this season.
“I just want to help the team win games,” Diaz said. “That’s all I want to do. If we win games, I think we’ll be good.”