When Fred Hoiberg accepted the head coaching position at Nebraska in 2019, he brought with him two assistants with whom he had worked previously in Ames, hoping to recapture the magic from Iowa State.
Matt Abdelmassih was Hoiberg’s first hire, and soon after Doc Sadler stepped down from his head coaching position at Southern Mississippi to return to Lincoln as an assistant. Now, after three seasons and a 24-67 record, Hoiberg has parted ways with both of them, signifying a seismic shift in how Hoiberg runs his program.
At Iowa State, Hoiberg and his staff found success by embracing the transfer market before its rise in popularity to supplement a core of talented high school players and junior college transfers. That model led to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances after one rebuilding year, and Hoiberg hoped to follow the same plan in Lincoln.
Hoiberg structured his staff in such a way that Abdelmassih served almost more as the team’s general manager than as an assistant coach. He’s largely been responsible for almost all of the team’s recruiting efforts.
With Abdelmassih leading the way, Nebraska has added 26 new scholarship players to the program in Hoiberg’s first three seasons. As Abdelmassih moves on and we look ahead to how things might change moving forward, let’s first look back at the classes Nebraska has signed thus far under Hoiberg.
When Hoiberg first arrived in Lincoln, he found a roster short on talent. The team’s top three scorers from Tim Miles’ last team were seniors while Isaiah Roby was ready to move on to the NBA. Some of the returners chose to transfer out while others were encouraged to do so. Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Dachon Burke (who had redshirted during the 2018-19 season) were the only ones who stuck around.
Hoiberg took over in March of 2019, and by the time the summer semester started the coaches had brought in 11 new players, two of which (Jervay Green and Akol Arop) committed to Nebraska under the previous staff.
That hastily thrown together transition class was 52nd nationally and fifth in the Big Ten according to the 247Sports Composite. It included two junior college transfers in Green and Cam Mack (both 3-star recruits); two grad transfers in Haanif Cheatham and Matej Kavas; three sit-out transfers in Dalano Banton, Shamiel Stevenson and Derrick Walker; and four high school recruits in Arop, Yvan Ouedraogo, Samari Curtis and Kevin Cross, all of whom were 3-star recruits outside the top-150.
When speaking of the class, Hoiberg mentioned his first class at Iowa State that included sit-out transfers Royce White, Chris Babb, Chris Allen and Anthony Booker who became the core of his second team that won 23 games and made the tournament.
That team went 7-25 including 2-18 in Big Ten play. Hoiberg did a good job of incorporating his system and preferred style of play. Nearly 84% of the team’s shot attempts came at the rim or from the 3-point line. Unfortunately, the team as assembled was terrible at making shots from those two locations (according to Synergy: 46% and ranked in the first percentile nationally around the basket; 30.4% and in the 15th percentile from 3).
Cheatham was the team’s best player and put together a solid season. Burke and Mack both showed flashes and averaged double figures in points but struggled mightily with efficiency, and Green was a similar story while producing less.
Ouedraogo started 30 games and set freshman rebounding records but shot just 41.7% from the field with all of his shots coming around the basket. Cross shot 34.3% from the field including 27.6% from 3 as a stretch-big. Arop averaged 5.4 minutes in 21 appearances. Curtis was gone before the end of the first semester.
The team they assembled couldn’t really shoot and it was filled with poor decision-makers. Of the eight newcomers who played in 2019-20, only Ouedraogo returned for the following season, setting the stage for another roster overhaul.
Hoiberg’s second team started with the three sit-out transfers from his first recruiting class added to Thorbjarnarson and Ouedraogo as the only returners who played the previous season.
Hoiberg signed a seven-player class ranked 67th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten. It included one grad transfer in Kobe Webster, one traditional transfer who gained immediate eligibility in Trey McGowens, one Division II transfer in Trevor Lakes, two junior college transfers in Teddy Allen and Lat Mayen and two high school recruits in 3-stars Eduardo Andre and Elijah Wood.
The Huskers went 7-20 that season, though the month-long COVD-19 pause and subsequent jam-packed schedule to close out the year are worth remembering. It saw only minor improvement in finishing around the basket (51.3%, 22nd percentile) and shooting the 3 (33.2%, 49th percentile).
Allen proved to be the most productive player on the team, but his style didn’t always fit with what Hoiberg wanted to do and he left the program late in the season. McGowens served as the team’s top perimeter defender and averaged double figures scoring for the third straight year after doing it his first two seasons at Pitt, but he shot under 40% from the field. Mayen started every game as a stretch-four but proved to be just an average shooter at 34.8% while Webster got hot later in the season and led the team at 38% from 3.
As for the sit-out transfers, Banton stuffed the stat sheet prior to Nebraska’s shutdown but struggled mightily in the second half and went pro after just one season of playing in a Nebraska uniform. Walker played in just 16 games because of an NCAA suspension and was solid but unspectacular. Stevenson struggled to carve out a consistent role and played just 14.3 minutes per game.
Ouedraogo took a step back and ultimately got passed up by Andre, who still averaged just 2.7 points per game. Lakes only played in 14 games and shot 33.3% from 3 as a stretch-four after gaining eligibility midseason. Wood essentially only played in garbage time.
In addition to struggling to hit shots and convert at the rim at a high enough rate, the team also sported a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. Defensively, the team improved from 152nd in adjusted defensive efficiency (according to KenPom) to 40th, but after the season defensive mastermind Doc Sadler moved into an off-court role to make room for Nate Loenser to join the staff.
Thorbjarnarson chose not to take advantage of his extra season of eligibility while Webster did opt to return for one more year. Allen, Ouedraogo and Wood all departed via the transfer portal while Banton and Stevenson also moved on to go pro.
The Huskers lost two of their top three scorers but returned four of their top six to give Hoiberg the first real continuity during his time in Lincoln. He had a core to build around in McGowens, Walker, Mayen and Webster.
To that core, Abdelmassih and Hoiberg added the school’s highest-ranked recruiting class during the recruiting websites era including the program’s first 5-star signee out of high school. The class, ranked 18th nationally and third in the Big Ten, included eight players: one grad transfer in Alonzo Verge Jr., two traditional transfers in C.J. Wilcher and Keon Edwards, one junior college transfer in Keisei Tominaga and four high school signees in 5-star Bryce McGowens (who wanted to play with his brother), 4-star Wilhelm Breidenbach and 3-stars Quaran McPherson and Oleg Kojenets.
Thanks to a late-season surge, the Huskers finished 10-22 including 4-16 in Big Ten play — progress, but not the kind the Huskers and their fans were expecting.
Hoiberg said before the season that the staff made adding 3-point shooting a priority, with Wilcher, Edwards, Tominaga, McGowens and Breidenbach all carrying reputations as shooters. However, the team actually took a step back in that area, shooting just 32%. The Huskers also took a massive step back on defense, falling to 172nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The combination of Trey McGowens’ injury, the lack of foot speed on the perimeter without him and overall inconsistent effort and discipline made it tough for the Huskers to get stops on a consistent basis.
Walker developed into a key piece and a difference-maker in his third season on campus — the only scholarship player who has been in Lincoln for Hoiberg’s entire tenure. Trey McGowens’ broken foot totally derailed his season, though he made a big difference down the stretch after getting healthy and returning to form. Mayen and Webster took steps back.
Outside of more consistency from 3, I don’t think Hoiberg could have asked for much more from the younger McGowens as he led all freshmen nationally in scoring and won eight Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards. He was the lone Husker to garner All-Big Ten honors, cracking the third team.
Breidenbach cracked the rotation but struggled a bit and played just 10 games before an injury cut his season short. McPherson and Kojenets both redshirted.
Wilcher, the transfer from Xavier who had four seasons of eligibility remaining when he arrived in Lincoln, lived up to the billing, shooting 40.6% from 3 including 43% in league play and leading the team in 3s. Tominaga shot just 33% and fell out of the rotation late in the season after starting 11 games. Edwards, a DePaul transfer, started five games and played in 19 but scored just 10 points all season.
Verge was a late addition to replace Banton after he decided to remain in the 2021 NBA Draft. The Arizona State transfer led the Big Ten in assists and was second on the team in scoring. He played a big role in the team’s success late in the season, but it was a bumpy ride throughout the season as he tried to learn to play point guard in Hoiberg’s system on the fly after playing primarily a scoring off-guard role at Arizona State.
Overall, the team never really clicked for any extended period of time. The shooters didn’t shoot well enough to overcome their weaknesses in other areas and too many players had similar weaknesses that overlapped. The result was a team with a very small margin for error.
Verge and Webster are out of eligibility. Lakes, who was rarely healthy during his two years in Lincoln, entered the transfer portal and is seeking a medical redshirt designation for this season to extend his eligibility. Trey McGowens, Bryce McGowens, Mayen and Walker all could choose to return, but only Walker seems like a realistic possibility.
With Abdelmassih still leading their recruiting efforts, the Huskers put together a four-man 2022 signing class that is ranked 32nd nationally and seventh in the Big Ten. It includes 3-star junior college big man Blaise Keita, 4-star combo-guard Ramel Lloyd Jr. and three-star guards Denim Dawson and Jamarques Lawrence.
Dawson is already on campus after enrolling mid-year and redshirting this past season. Of the three others, Lawrence seems the most likely to make it to Lincoln. Lloyd and Keita — the two most well-regarded members of the class — are the two to keep an eye on.
Hoiberg made his first post-Abdelmassih addition on Sunday when North Dakota State transfer and Lincoln East alumnus Sam Griesel announced his commitment to Nebraska. Hoiberg recruited him to play point guard, so consider that one hole filled. At 6-foot-6, Griesel falls more into the Banton mold than the Verge/Mack one.
Individually, Abdelmassih managed to land some highly-touted players (three of the program’s four highest-rated recruits came in the past two years — McGowens, Lloyd and Breidenbach. However, the teams as a whole never clicked. Too often over the past three years, players struggled to execute the roles they were recruited to play at a high enough level for the Huskers to play in the Big Ten.
Adding more talent is always the goal of a college coach, and it will certainly be key for the Huskers if they want to take a step forward. However, perhaps just as important will be fit. As spelled out above, the players that the Huskers have brought in over the past three seasons simply haven’t been able to execute what Hoiberg has wanted them to do at a high enough level to beat other high-major teams. Good decision-making and consistent shooting are two of the most important traits in Hoiberg’s system, and landing players who possess them will go a long way toward getting the program headed in the right direction.
We’ll have to wait and see what kind of effect this shift in staff structure and personnel will have on team success. Perhaps a more engaged staff with more eyes focused on evaluating and voices collaborating will produce better results. That’s what Hoiberg seems to be betting on, at least.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.