Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga practices for the team's first-round college...

Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga practices for the team's first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. Credit: AP/George Walker IV

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Even his own Nebraska teammates look at Keisei Tominaga and think he just doesn't look that athletic.

Then the 6-foot-2, 179-pound guard from Japan gets a basketball in his hand or steps foot on a court.

Watch out.

Tominaga is referred to as the “Japanese Steph Curry” for his 3-point shooting that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the four-time NBA champ and for the joy and swagger the guard plays with — dribbling the ball between his legs or around his back. He leads the eighth-seeded Huskers against Texas A&M on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in the South Region.

It's why fans back in Japan will be watching closely Friday even with a 14-hour time difference.

“He’s kind of a celebrity over there, I heard," guard Brice Williams said.

Tominaga draws just as much attention on the court. He leads Nebraska averaging 14.9 points a game this season and had a career-best 31 points in an overtime loss at Illinois on Feb. 4.

Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga, foreground, practices for the team's first-round...

Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga, foreground, practices for the team's first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. Credit: AP/George Walker IV

Forward Rienk Mast said it's special to play with someone who attracts hype and excitement. The added bonus? It gives his teammates more room to play.

“I definitely look for him and try and feed him the ball whenever I can during the game,” Mast said.

Tominaga's father, Hiroyuki, was a center on Japan's national team that played in the 1998 FIBA World Championship. Tominaga himself played 3x3 basketball representing Japan during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and he helped Japan qualify for the 2024 Paris Games. When Tominaga rejoined his Nebraska teammates after helping Japan qualify, Mast recalled how Tominaga took over in three possessions in a row during a 5-on-5 session starting with a normal 3.

“When you let him hit one 3, he gets on fire, like, right away,” Mast said. “So then he hit a step-back 3. And then right the next possession he got switched, the 5 switched out on him and he took him one-on-one and hit another step-back 3, like, three possessions in a row. That was the first time that I really saw what type of player he was in person, and he’s been special this year."

Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga practices for the team's first-round college...

Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga practices for the team's first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. Credit: AP/George Walker IV

Williams said Tominaga is even more impressive after practice or shootarounds. That's when the guard hits turnaround half-court shots. The higher the degree of difficulty, the better Tominaga seems to shoot.

“He won’t look at the basket,” Williams said. “Him and Rienk do it every time after shootaround. But Keisei makes them on a regular — it’s just crazy the stuff he does off-camera.”

Mast noted coach Fred Hoiberg teaches the Huskers to hold the follow-through after the shot. Not Tominaga. All he needs is to get a somewhat decent look and get the ball out of his hands cleanly.

Tominaga started his playing career in the U.S. at Ranger College under coach Billy Gillispie.

Hoiberg said it isn't easy playing for Gillispie, a demanding coach that helped Tominaga grow. He talked to Gillispie while recruiting Tominaga to Nebraska, and all he heard was how much Gillispie loved Tominaga and his competitive spirit. Gillispie told Hoiberg he could yell at him and only get a smile in return.

Part of that was the language barrier. Hoiberg said a Japanese trainer at Ranger College helped Tominaga start learning some English, which improved when he joined Nebraska in 2021. Getting a girlfriend also helped.

Hoiberg said he's proud of how much Tominaga has grown over the past two years when he simply got overwhelmed physically in his first season.

Now Tominaga doesn't back down from anyone.

Hoiberg said the guard will make contact and has been phenomenal at creating separation. The coach said he's proud of Tominaga's development, which is why he's attracting so much attention. That has Nebraska trying to limit distractions for a team that has never won an NCAA Tournament game.

"He’s played on the world stage,” Hoiberg said. "He helped his national team at Japan accomplish something that’s never been done before. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish here at Nebraska."

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