We’re currently in the heart of the basketball offseason. This is the time where players often make their biggest strides. Fred Hoiberg hopes that will be the case for his team which features a good bit of continuity for the first time since he arrived in Lincoln.
Hoiberg told a group of Huskers fans during a Big Red Blitz stop in Grand Island last week that he knew they’d take some lumps the first couple of years while building up the program from where it was when he inherited it. In year one, they had 30 days to assemble a roster. Heading into year two, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the offseason. Now, with 64% of the team’s minutes and 63% of the team’s scoring returning plus a top-15 recruiting class, Hoiberg is focusing on making up for lost time in terms of skill development.
“What we’re doing right now with our group now, it’s all about fundamentals,” Hoiberg said. “This is the time of year you work on those fundamentals. We’re working on our passing, we’re working on pivoting, footwork, all those little things. When you can start your practice basically two weeks before you can start playing games, you really have to get into the meat of what you need to do with your system, offensively, defensively. Right now it’s all about fundamentals, so small group, skill work, and once July hits we’ll start incorporating rating that.”
Hoiberg compared what they’re doing now to “The Karate Kid” movie. Like all the chores Mr. Miyagi had Daniel perform eventually paid off and proved to be valuable training, Hoiberg said the skill work they’re doing now will end up producing overall improvement for the Huskers.
“We do have more shooting, there’s no doubt about that,” Hoiberg said. “That’s the biggest area we felt we needed to improve and we feel we’ve made a big step and a big jump in that area. In the world of analytics that we live in now, you try to create as many shots in the restricted area right in front of the rim and the 3-point line … So now 84% of our shots came in those two areas; now I think we’ve got personnel where we can take advantage of that. We were No. 1, Alabama was No. 2. So we’re getting the shots where we want them, now we just need to increase our percentages, and we need to take much better care of the basketball. That was a big issue for us and we’re really addressing that now with the fundamental workouts that I talked about earlier.”
The headliner for the newcomers and a big part of that shooting improvement is Bryce McGowens, the 5-star wing from South Carolina and Legacy Early College.
“The first 5-star recruit in the history of Nebraska basketball,” Hoiberg said. “He is a fluid, three-level scorer. Very athletic finisher in the paint and can really shoot the basketball. Just effortless in his movements.”
The other highly-touted high school recruit is Wilhelm Breidenbach, a skilled 6-foot-9 forward/center from Mater Dei in California. Hoiberg said that when he had five guys on the floor who can shoot and make a play at the same time at his previous collegiate spot, they had the best offense in the country, and he believes Breidenbach fits right into that mold.
Hoiberg called transfers C.J. Wilcher (Xavier) and Keon Edwards (DePaul) guys that can “really shoot the basketball,” which is also the case for JUCO transfer Keisei Tominaga.
“He was unbelievable in his run in the junior college national tournament where his team got the runner-up, 55% 3-point shooter,” Hoiberg said about Tominaga.
Among the returners, Hoiberg spoke highly of the progress freshman center Eduardo Andre has made as he has packed on 20 pounds since the end of the season and is now weighing in at 240 while still maintaining his mobility.
“We did hire a new strength coach this year [in Kurt Joseph],” Hoiberg said. “Basically everything with running efficiency to powering explosiveness. We’ve already seen it; three of our guys — Trey McGowens is probably the best athlete on the team, Eduardo and Derrick [Walker] had their highest jump numbers since they’ve been here.”
The summer-workouts stage lasts for eight weeks, through Aug. 3. At that point, Hoiberg will give his team a couple weeks off to go home and recharge before they return to campus to begin school. They’ll get that first week of classes off so they can better assimilate back into school life and then fall workouts will begin. The first day of official preseason practice will be Sept. 27.
In addition to a closed scrimmage and an exhibition game against a small Nebraska college, Hoiberg also teased a charity exhibition against another high-major team which will give fans their first look at the team’s newcomers and allow them to see the gains the returners have made.
Will the work they’ve done and are doing this offseason be enough for the Huskers to vault themselves out of the Big Ten cellar?
“Obviously we feel it’s the best league in the country,” Hoiberg said. “I talked to John Beilein, the former coach at Michigan about this when I got the job and was going through some struggles. He said when he got into the league, there were 10 teams and six of them were going through rebuilds. He said ‘You come into the league and there’s 14 teams and you’re the only one rebuilding.’ So we came in at a very tough time in the conference.
“But we feel like we really added the right pieces to fit exactly how we want to play that will play well in this league. We’re always going to be a fast-paced team. We were top five in pace our first two years as far as Power Five conferences go. Possession-length, we’ve been top five as well. We’re going to continue to play hopefully an exciting brand of basketball. Now it’s just taking advantage of those opportunities. We also have length; we have really good length on this team which will allow us to play different lineups, more versatile lineups. We feel we can play small, we can play big, and when you have that depth it certainly gives you an advantage.”