One month ago, redshirt freshman Sam Hoiberg — the walk-on son of Nebraska’s head coach — was spending his practice time imitating other Big Ten players and running opposing teams’ plays as part of the scout team.
Last Sunday, the 6-foot guard helped close out an upset win for the Huskers with a number of key plays late in regulation and in overtime as Nebraska took down Maryland in front of a juiced Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd.
It’s been a whirlwind of a month for Hoiberg, his teammates and his family as two season-ending injuries to starters opened the door to playing time, and Hoiberg has taken advantage of the opportunity. He’s played a key role in turning this season around, helping the Huskers win four of their last five to get back to .500.
Hoiberg has been in the rotation for eight games now, and during that time he’s averaged 6.5 points and 2.9 rebounds while shooting 63.3% from the field (53.8% from 3) and 87.5% from the free-throw line while also providing a defensive spark in 21.6 minutes per game.
“It just feels like it’s kind of come full circle, because I didn’t know when I came here if I’d really ever have this opportunity to play,” Hoiberg said. “My goal was to be playing by my third year. I knew I was going to redshirt and then try to develop, but since the injuries happened, it’s come earlier and just being able to take advantage of it, it feels really satisfying to have that come to fruition.”
Once Emmanuel Bandoumel went down with a season-ending knee injury at Penn State on Jan. 21, Coach Fred Hoiberg mentioned to the media that his son could be called upon to play real minutes. At that point, Nebraska only had eight healthy scholarship players available, and Sam said the conversation with his father was brief.
“It was on the plane after Penn State, he said, ‘You’re the ninth guy now and we might need you,’” Sam said. “I was just like, ‘OK, I’m ready.’ I’ve been preparing to be put in since that Colorado exhibition game. I’ve been preparing for a while so he knew I was ready. I’ve been telling him that all season, so that’s why it was so brief.”
He heard his name called roughly seven minutes into Nebraska’s next game against Northwestern, and two minutes later Hoiberg made a play, flying in for a put-back — his second career field goal and first outside of garbage time.
Meanwhile, 600-some miles away, Charlie Hoiberg — Sam’s twin brother — was watching from his dorm at TCU, as he does nearly every game. That put-back got him on his feet.
“I was sitting on the couch by myself and I had no expectation of him scoring even, and then he immediately gets it and I stood up off my couch and like yelled and clapped my hands together,” Charlie said. “That was unbelievable.”
He finished that game with six points and six rebounds, and the Huskers outscored the Wildcats by 11 in his 18 minutes on the floor. Nebraska didn’t pull out the win, but Hoiberg showed he could help the team. All three of his buckets came at the rim; he missed both of his 3-point attempts (one of them badly).
“I would say that first bucket, the put-back really helped me calm down a little bit,” Sam said. “I didn’t feel fully comfortable out there that whole game. I hadn’t had a lot of reps in the offense up to that point; I was doing all scout team stuff. So I wasn’t extremely comfortable. I honestly didn’t expect the 3s I shot to go in, I wanted to just get a couple reps at it first, and then that helped me get comfortable for Maryland. But by the time of the Maryland game I was fully comfortable and that showed, I feel like.”
Sam followed up that first outing with an even better performance on the road against the Terrapins. He checked in with the Huskers struggling to score and promptly poured in 11 straight Husker points to keep Nebraska afloat. He finished with 15 on 6-of-8 from the field including 3-of-3 from deep.
“When Sam first played in that Northwestern game, even though we were losing, it was still just pretty incredible to see him playing competitively at the D-I level, and it was super fun even though we lost,” said Charlie, who called watching his brother play the highlight of his week. “And then next game versus Maryland, same type deal. It kind of sucked to see the team doing poorly, but Sam had 15 points. I was like, I just am probably the happiest Nebraska basketball fan on the planet right now alongside my family, even though we just got beat by 20.”
Sam earned his first start the following game at Illinois, though he missed his only shot and played just 11 minutes as his coach went another direction with the rotation. However, he’s played at least 19 minutes off the bench and scored in each of the five games since. He was the first sub into the game at home against Maryland and played a career-high 37 minutes. He scored nine points and tied his career highs with six rebounds and two steals, and though he didn’t start, he was part of the team’s closing lineup.
“I don’t know if people realize how hard that is when you’re thrown into the fire for the first time and getting significant minutes in a conference of this caliber,” Coach Hoiberg said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with Sam is just his poise and how he’s gone out and the moment hasn’t been too big for him … I’ve been really proud of him for how he’s taken advantage of these minutes after really kind of being a guy that probably got ready in garbage time.
“I remember my first couple years when I was playing in garbage time. Hell, I was nervous in garbage time. When you get thrown out there for the first time, there’s a lot of nerves that go into that, but he’s played with such great poise. That’s the thing I’m most proud of with Sam.”
At the end of regulation against Maryland, the Terps’ star point guard, Jahmir Young, isolated on Hoiberg looking for the game-winner. Hoiberg sat on his dominant left hand, stayed in front of him and forced Young into a step-back jumper that didn’t fall. Then in overtime, he took a charge, notched a steal and then recorded another steal with less than 40 seconds to play, breaking on an in-bounds pass and taking it the other way for a layup to put the Huskers up by three. Then after a Nebraska stop, he stepped to the line and hit two bonus free throws to push it to five.
“Jahmir Young is one of the toughest covers in this league, he’s an all-league player, and this team is playing great basketball right now,” Coach Hoiberg said after the game. “Sam, I thought, really defended that last possession well. He’s still capable of making that shot, but I thought he did as good a job as he possibly could contesting one of the best players in the league. And then those two plays in overtime, that charge that he took and then obviously the steal after the timeout to put us up three, just huge plays.”
Though Fred Hoiberg played the game at its highest level, he gave more credit to his other son, Jack, for helping Sam find the confidence to play with the poise he’s displayed. Jack took the same path Sam did, walking on at Michigan State and eventually earning a scholarship before transferring to UT-Arlington for his final season.
“Jack, kind of the same thing, when he ended up getting a scholarship in his third year at Michigan State and [Tom] Izzo started throwing him out there a little bit, he was ready for it,” Fred said. “I think the biggest thing is preparing for it and working for it. I know Jack has talked to Sam about always keeping himself ready for when that opportunity comes when your name is called. When you have a similar path, I guess, with a guy that played in this league talking to him about what to expect, he’s carried that over.”
Sam said he calls Jack before every game and leaned on him for advice and encouragement before those first few games in particular when the nerves bubbled up. However, he soon settled in, in large part because of what he experienced during his first year at Nebraska. Sam said the feeling of belonging at that level came to him a lot more quickly than he expected.
“I thought last year even during my redshirt year that I felt I was getting to the level to be able to play and help out,” Sam said. “The scout team has helped me develop so much. I was forced to play in roles where I was shooting way tougher shots than I was used to but there were no repercussions for that because they get mad at you if you don’t shoot it, for example. So being able to be in those positions where I’m forced to play way more confident has made it much easier to play like that when I’m actually in the game and be confident out there.
“So that helped my development, and I think that after that, probably towards the end of the year last year is when I really started feeling like I was shooting at a level to play at this level. That’s when I felt like I was probably good enough and I knew that whenever my name would be called I’d be ready.”
Perimeter shooting was the part of his game Sam was focused on improving most during his redshirt year after shooting 30% from 3 as a senior at Lincoln Pius X, and he’s shot 7-for-13 from deep since entering the rotation (including the 0-2 start against Northwestern).
While his time on the scout team helped Hoiberg to develop his game, it made transitioning to rotation minutes midseason difficult. He had to go from impersonating opposing star guards to defending them, and from running opponents’ plays to finding his place in Nebraska’s offense.
“I was used to just straight scout team in practice,” Sam said. “I never had any reps with the main squad and I was just thrown to the fire with that the first day that we had practice after Penn State. I had to run all the plays that I had never ran at all, all the stuff from our actual offense. I knew the scout plays better than our own offense. So that was difficult at first, I would run plays with the scout guys actually after practice just to get the reps. We all were learning them, just for me and Oleg [Kojenets] who hadn’t ran them a lot to get used to them, but it was difficult and I’m still getting used to playing in this offense. But I’m definitely getting more comfortable, and the more reps I get, I feel better.”
Sam said he still calls Fred “Dad” on the practice court and on the sideline — “It’s too weird calling him ‘Coach.’” However, Coach Hoiberg isn’t able to think like a dad on the sideline. He’s too focused on the intricacies of the game, making sure the right players are on the floor and calling out adjustments.
“When I go back and watch, I guess that’s kind of when it sinks in,” Fred said. “That’s when it’s pretty cool when it’s your kid out there helping do really good things when he’s still in the early stages of his career. I had a couple coaches reach out whose kids played for them and they just said you’ve really got to savor this, you really have to enjoy and appreciate it because it goes so fast. And it does.”
Similarly, Sam is locked in during the games. The moments of reflection come when he’s on the phone with his twin, discussing the dream the two of them once shared that he’s now living out. Charlie was a standout player at Pius X as well, starting alongside Sam as a senior, but the passion for the game didn’t stick for him quite like it did for Sam.
“He’s living our dream,” Charlie said. “I always thought that I wanted to be that guy, but having him do it, I could not be happier, and it is like I’m able to live it through him a little bit because he’s doing exactly what we always wanted to do. And playing for our dad even is like a bonus to that dream, too. He calls me after every single game — we talk almost every day — and like the first 10 seconds of the call we’re just like in awe of what he’s doing. It’s just so cool seeing him do it, and I am living it through him. It was my dream, too, and it’s just the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Charlie is obviously a coach’s kid too, and he often watches the games through that lens. He’s not shy about pointing out mistakes he saw Sam make during their conversations, but Charlie always makes sure to end the critique with a simple message for his brother: you belong out there.
Fred called Charlie his twin’s biggest supporter, but Sam’s teammates have been pretty fired up about his success as well.
“We’ve battled injuries as a team and since that happened, the theme has just been when your number is called, step up,” Derrick Walker said. “Sam’s been doing an unbelievable job of it … I’m proud of him for making plays, because you don’t see him in practice. He plays hard. He plays hard and sometimes we’ve got to tell him to tone it down a little bit. But he plays hard and he deserves everything.”
Sam Hoiberg stepping up has been the feel-good story to come out of a season that once looked to be headed in the wrong direction, but he wants fans to know this: he’s just getting started.
“I’m not satisfied with where I’m at,” Sam said. “I want to keep getting better.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.