In 2010, Dana Altman left Creighton to take the head coaching job at Oregon, starting a chain of events that will forever link Greg McDermott and Fred Hoiberg.
“It’s kind of funny how things work out; we’ll always be connected,” Hoiberg said after practice on Friday. “I guess it started with Dana Altman when he took the Oregon job. Greg left for Creighton and that opened up the job at Iowa State. Had that not happened, I don’t know if I would have gotten in this crazy business. We’ll always be connected in that way.”
Hoiberg went on to coach McDermott’s son, Doug, with the Chicago Bulls, calling him one of his favorite players he’s ever coached.
“Greg’s a very good friend of mine and Theresa’s a good friend of my wife’s and I think the world of him,” Hoiberg said. “I think the world of him as a person, I think the world of him as a coach. He’s done an unbelievable job … The McDermott family, we’re very close to them. But when we get out between the lines, he’s going to be competing to win and I’m going to be competing to win.”
McDermott and Hoiberg will face off on Saturday for the first time at their current schools. Hoiberg got the win in their only previous meeting as Iowa State knocked off Creighton in 2010 in a game that featured a buzzer-beater that came after the buzzer (the event did not have replay available).
The Huskers got the best of the Bluejays last year with a 94-75 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena in which the Huskers shot 14-of-27 from 3. Creighton brought a lot back from last year’s team while Nebraska’s roster is almost completely new. The only one on the team who has played in this series is junior Thorir Thorbjarnarson who logged one minute in that win and did not play in the game as a freshman.
“The two biggest basketball schools in the state, a lot of Creighton fans, a lot of Nebraska fans, a lot of Jayskers or whatever you call them—it’s probably a tough one for them,” Thorbjarnarson said. “Since I’ve been here, this has always been talked about as the biggest game of the year. It’s just a privilege to be able to play in front of the fans. That arena is something special too with 18,000 people so it’s going to be really loud in there.”
Hoiberg said he talked to his team about embracing the rivalry with a team that looks to play a similar style of basketball.
“Rivalry games are always more electric,” Hoiberg said. “In my opinion, when I played in them, I thought they were fun. I loved going in and playing on the road, an opportunity to go out there and have a great test, a basketball test of will. You have to be really sharp in everything you’re doing. It starts with Creighton in transition. They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen as far as getting the ball down the floor quickly. They score a ton on the break with 3-point shots. If we’re not committed to get back in transition, we may as well not get off the bus. It’s going to be a long night if that happens.”
Creighton (6-2) is shooting 37.3% from 3 on 25.1 attempts per game this season. Junior guards Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitchell Ballock are a combined 46-of-100 from deep while sophomore point guard Marcus Zegarowski is shooting a respectable 37.3% on even more attempts than the juniors. Nebraska will need to know where those three are at all times as they’re all averaging over 12.5 points.
Against Georgia Tech, Nebraska (4-4) lost the ACC’s leading scorer in Michael Devoe often enough for him to shoot 4-of-8 from deep on his way to 26 points. In a loss to George Mason in the Cayman Islands Classic semifinals, Jamal Hartwell II got loose for 23 points including 5-of-10 from deep. In the season-opening loss to UC Riverside, Nebraska allowed a pair of Highlanders to knock down four triples apiece.
After getting crushed on the glass most of the season, Nebraska did a much better job against Georgia Tech on the defensive boards and in second-effort defense, limiting the Yellow Jackets to just seven second-chance points. Instead, Georgia Tech got extra possession off turnovers as Nebraska coughed the ball up 18 times.
“We need to do a good job of taking care of the basketball; we had too many turnovers in our last game on the road which led to Georgia Tech getting out in transition,” Hoiberg said. “If we turn it over, it’s going to be a basket. Attention to detail is very important in games like this. This will be really the first hostile environment that we play in … How are we going to respond? I wish I could tell you; I don’t know. We have to withstand runs. We have to go out there and stay together. We have to fight together as a team, stay together as a group and if we do that hopefully we’ll at least give ourselves a chance.”
Like Nebraska, Creighton plays a four-guard lineup with 6-foot-7, 205-pound sophomore Christian Bishop at center. Kelvin Jones, a 6-foot-11 grad transfer, left Creighton’s 72-60 win over Oral Roberts on Tuesday with an injury and his status is up in the air for Saturday.
Senior guard Haanif Cheatham continued his streak of double-digit scoring games against Georgia Tech with 14 points and 11 rebounds for his first career double-double. Thorbjarnarson scored a career-high 11 points off the bench as well.
“I knew going into the game they were going to run a lot of zone,” Thorbjarnarson said. “For me, I’m good at finding open spaces and I saw many opportunities to get open looks, especially under the basket. So I tried to stay available and aggressive and I think that went well for me in that game, but I’m disappointed we didn’t get the win.”
Nebraska will need more out of its other three starting guards on Saturday. Against the Yellow Jackets, Cam Mack, Jervay Green and Dachon Burke Jr. combined for 26 points on 9-of-33 from the field and 3-of-8 from the foul line.
Tipoff at CHI Health Center on Saturday is set for 1:30 p.m. on FS1. Vince Welch and Nick Bahe will call the game.
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.