Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Big Month Ahead for Fred Hoiberg and Nebrasketball

April 12, 2023

When Athletic Director Trev Alberts recently praised the progress Fred Hoiberg’s team made this season during his monthly appearance on Sports Nightly, he also noted — rightfully so — that it would be a big offseason for the Huskers.

The guys most responsible for the change in culture and on-court success are gone, leaving big shoes to fill with no obvious replacements already on the roster. Enter the transfer portal.

So far, Nebraska has seen two players — Denim Dawson and Oleg Kojenets — enter the portal and none come out while Sam Griesel, Derrick Walker and Emmanuel Bandoumel have exhausted their eligibility. Eli Rice is the lone 2023 high school signee, giving Hoiberg four scholarships to play with.

Nebraska needs a point guard and a big, and a couple of wings probably wouldn’t hurt either. So far, Hoiberg and his staff are still working on that.

The coaches have cast a wide net, reaching out to seemingly every high-major-caliber player that hits the portal. That initial contact doesn’t tell us much, however; it’s all about the list cut-downs and the visits.

Nebraska showed interest in Brown grad transfer Paxson Wojcik as Fred Hoiberg visited him, but the sharp-shooting guard committed to North Carolina. Nebraska hosted Arizona point guard transfer Kerr Kriisa for a visit in Lincoln, but he committed to West Virginia.

We’re currently in the middle of a dead period, but that ends soon, and things look to be heating up for the Huskers. The coaches (and fans) need some good news to get the ball rolling.

Brice Williams, a sharp-shooting wing from Charlotte, visited Lincoln over the weekend. He’s a career 39.5% 3-point shooter after three seasons with the 49ers but isn’t just a shooting specialist. He’s capable of scoring at all three levels and led Charlotte at 13.8 points per game despite coming off the bench in 23 of his 36 games this past season. At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, he offers some positional flexibility as well.

A pair of in-state products will be visiting soon as well.

First, Omaha Central product Latrell Wrightsell Jr. is visiting on Friday. The 6-foot-3 guard entered the portal after a breakout third season at Cal State Fullerton that saw him averaging 16.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists while garnering All-Big West honors. He shot 38.3% on 6.3 3-point attempts per game and is a terrific mid-range shooter as well.

Wrightsell narrowed his list to three schools including Nebraska, and he’s working to set up visits to his other finalists, Alabama and Minnesota, as well.

Second, Millard North grad and former Gonzaga Bulldog Hunter Sallis will visit next weekend, April 21-23.

Nebraska pursued the blue-chip guard coming out of high school, but the Huskers didn’t make the cut when he narrowed his list to 12, eventually choosing Gonzaga. He spent two seasons as a reserve with the Bulldogs, embracing his role as an impact defender but showing little offensively. Part of that has to do with his skill level — his jump shot certainly still needs work as he shot 16-for-62 (25.8%) from 3 in his 69 career games as a Zag — but part of it also had to do with the role Mark Few asked him to play with veterans like Andrew Nembhard, Drew Timme, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton dominating the offensive touches.

Sallis is likely looking for somewhere that will provide him more offensive freedom and opportunity, and Nebrasketball under Hoiberg could be a good fit, particularly with the improvements Hoiberg has made from a cultural and competitive standpoint compared to the last time he was recruiting Sallis. Hoiberg and assistant Nate Loenser flew out to Spokane to meet with Sallis and his family on Sunday, and now he’ll make the return trip next weekend. I have to imagine Hoiberg is using Bryce McGowens tape to show Sallis what he could do in this system, especially with an upgraded supporting cast compare to what McGowens had (if this offseason goes according to plan).

Two others to keep an eye on in Sallis’ recruitment are Wake Forest (Steve Forbes flew out to Spokane over the weekend as well) and Georgetown under new coach Ed Cooley. Forbes lost nearly 19 points per game from his lineup with the departure of prolific point guard Tyree Appleby who thrived in his one season as a Demon Deacon after transferring in. Cooley is likely feeling Sallis on the opportunity to help him get the Hoyas back to national prominence.

Kario Oquendo, an athletic slashing guard and former Georgia Bulldog, tweeted out on April 6 that he would be focusing his recruitment on Nebraska, Oregon, Utah and Auburn. Oquendo shot 27% from 3 during his two seasons with the Bulldogs but averaged better than 12 points per game both seasons because of his ability to get to the rim and draw fouls. I have a hard time seeing Nebraska taking both Sallis and Oquendo, however.

A possible point guard replacement for the departed Griesel is Javian McCollum, a transfer from Siena who has a visit set for this weekend. McCollum is incredibly slight at a listed 6-foot-2 and 155 pounds but is electric with he ball in his hands, particularly in ball screen situations.

In the frontcourt, Hoiberg is also hosting Pitt transfer John Hugley IV, a physical interior scorer who is familiar with Nebraska after Tim Miles recruited him coming out of high school. He’ll check out campus again the same weekend as Sallis. Nebraska also happens to be holding its Red-White Spring Football game that Saturday. Hugley’s time at Pitt was littered with both successes and struggles on and off the court, but Nebraska is interested enough to bring him in for a visit.

Another name to look out for is Rienk Mast, a skilled post who entered the portal after leading Bradley to a 25-win season and a Missouri Valley regular season title. Mast is a talented scorer in the post, he’s a plus passer and he’s capable of stepping out and hitting shots from the perimeter (35.3% on 2.3 attempts per hame last year). Iowa was one of the other schools in the mix for his services, but Fran McCaffery just received a commitment from another MVC big man transfer in former Valparaiso forward Ben Krikke.

One final name to know isn’t a transfer at all. Brady Dunlap is a 6-foot-7 top-150 recruit from California who decommitted from Notre Dame in January and is still looking for a home. Dunlap will also be on campus for a visit starting on Friday.

Any combination of the players listed above would put Nebraska in good shape to build off of last season, but Hoiberg and staff still have work to do to pull that off. We’ve already seen this cycle that visits don’t guarantee anything.

After this season, it became clear to me that Hoiberg absolutely still has the coaching chops to succeed. What I still wonder is whether or not he and his staff can recruit well enough at Nebraska for the coaching to matter. We could get the answer to that question here over the next few weeks. If he strikes out on this crop of targets and has to start over with a new group, I’d feel pretty discouraged if I were a Husker fan. Land one of the bigs and two or three of the perimeter players listed above to go with the returning core of Jamarques Lawrence, Ramel Lloyd Jr., Blaise Keita and perhaps Keisei Tominaga, then Hoiberg may have something.

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