Fred Hoiberg last coached a college basketball game in March of 2015. In the four seasons since, the landscape has changed quite a bit. Basketball has evolved at the college level, both from a style of play standpoint and from a recruiting standpoint. Teams are playing faster and shooting more 3s and transfer recruiting is at an all-time high.
Speed, 3s and transfer recruiting was Hoiberg’s game plan in Ames and he executed it to great success. But that plan isn’t quite as unique as it was five years ago. Will it still work? Hoiberg and his staff believe so, even in a Big Ten that isn’t quite as progressive as many other conferences.
“I do see great potential here,” Hoiberg said during his introductory press conference. “There’s no question about that. A big thing for us is if you can get these kids on campus, there’s a lot of great things to sell. And that’s going to be something we’re going to do … We expect to get some high level kids in here and hopefully sell them on what we have to offer and put a really good, competitive team on the floor next year.”
Armon Gates, who has plenty of experience in the Big Ten at Northwestern and Nebraska, made the same point — it’s about the players. If you can get the talent into your program and develop it, you’re going to win regardless of style. The new staff is certainly off to a great start on the recruiting front, retaining highly-touted junior college commit Jervay Green and securing a commitment from another in Cam Mack as well as bringing in a pair of graduate transfers in Haanif Cheatham and Matej Kavas to help make the transition smooth in year one.
But what about the pace part of that game plan? That is the common theme in all of Hoiberg’s teams — he wants to push the pace as much as possible. The Big Ten doesn’t.
Last season, North Carolina led all high-major schools with a 74.3 adjusted tempo (possessions per 40 minutes adjusted for opponent according to KenPom.com). The Big Ten had just two teams in the top 150 nationally in tempo — Illinois led the conference and was 52nd nationally at 70.6 while Iowa was 84th at 69.5.
Nebraska was right in the middle of the conference at 66.4, good for eighth in the Big Ten. KenPom expects that to change drastically under Hoiberg.
And largest expected increases:
1. Siena (+4.8)
2. Nebraska (+4.6)
3. Cincinnati (+4.0)
4. Troy (+3.8)
5. UMES (+3.2)
— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) April 29, 2019
An increase of 4.6 possessions per 40 minute would put Nebraska at 71.0, tops in the conference and inside the top 40 nationally (and inside the top 10 for high-major teams).
Illinois was a guard-oriented team who liked to push the pace, often gambling for steals to spark their fast breaks considering they were a pretty bad defensive rebounding team. The result was a 12-21 record and 72.7 points per game (167th in the country despite being 52nd in tempo). The problem is the Illini were an average 3-point shooting team (34.5 percent) and a bad finishing team inside the arc (48.2 percent). More shots isn’t going to help if those shots don’t go in.
Just three of the top-seven teams in the Big Ten in adjusted tempo made the NCAA Tournament last season (Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State) while five of the bottom seven (Maryland, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin) went dancing.
Iowa (23-12) was a good perimeter shooting team who excelled at getting to the free-throw line which allowed them to take advantage of the extra possessions their pace produced to lead the conference in scoring. Minnesota (22-14) was a strong rebounding team on both ends who got to the free-throw line at a high rate (though they didn’t rebound as well in conference play, leading to a 9-11 record). Michigan State (32-7) was just good at everything other than avoiding turnovers. If you’re going to play fast, you’ve got to be efficient if you want to win.
During Hoiberg’s five seasons at Iowa State, the Cyclones ranked inside the top-35 nationally in adjusted tempo four times, whit the outlier being the 2011-12 season featuring Royce White (Iowa State was only 128th at 65.8). The Cyclones’ average adjusted tempo of the other four season was 69.3. That would just crack the top-100 this past season. Hoiberg’s fastest team was the 2013-14 team at 70.2, which would be right around 60th this past season.
That’s the data that Ken Pomeroy used to come up with his expected increase of 4.6 possessions per 40 minutes. He expects the Huskers to play faster than any of Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams, likely at least somewhat factoring in the sport-wide increase in pace of play.
Hoiberg has been out of the college game for four years, but that doesn’t mean he’s stuck in the past. Hoiberg said his time in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls only helped him grow an evolve as a coach, an assertion that special assistant to the head coach Bobby Lutz echoed.
“I can promise you this, I’m a lot better coach right now because of my years in the NBA than I was before when I got there and you have to be when you’re coaching against the best minds in the basketball world and that helped make me a better coach,” Hoiberg said. “The years we had at Iowa State, I couldn’t be more proud of what we accomplished there and I’m really happy with that way that program has continued to evolve in a positive direction under the leadership of Steve Prohm…
“When you coach at the different levels, the good thing for me is I’ve seen it at every level. I’ve seen it as a player in a power conference, I’ve seen it as a player in the NBA, different rosters, on experienced teams, on young teams where I was the captain, as a front office executive who spent some time as a general manager, and now going back to coach in college and the NBA. So I’ve had again pretty much every way you can look at it and I’ve taken on those experiences and I know I have a long ways to grow. “
Nebraska is going to play fast, even if the rest of the Big Ten isn’t. Hoiberg isn’t going to change, even if what he wants to do has evolved. Tempo is a big part of what Nebraska will do, but the key to success is how well the Huskers can take advantage of those extra possessions.
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.