After perhaps the longest and most eventful offseason in recent Nebrasketball history, year one of the Fred Hoiberg era will get started in earnest on Tuesday night with the Huskers’ season opener against UC Riverside at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“I think we’ve had a good week of practice,” Hoiberg said on Monday. “We had one day off after the exhibition game and then got back at it. As you get closer to the season now, you start working a lot more on special situations and execution, late game opportunities that you’re going to have throughout the course of the year, and then obviously preparing for UC Riverside who will pose some challenges for us with their size and their shooting. We need to do a great job of coming out and hopefully getting off to a great start tomorrow night and set the tone for the season.”
The Huskers certainly didn’t get off to a great start in their exhibition game against Doane. The Huskers ran away with the game 91-63, but they fell behind 8-0 right out of the gates. Senior guard Haanif Cheatham chalked that up to first-game jitters.
“Our first five, 6 minutes we were down 10-0 [sic],” Cheatham said. “I think we were really nervous, playing in front of PBA fans. It’s going to be a great experience, but I think we just have to go back to our training. We prepared for this moment as a team, as a whole new team, but we feel like we’ve been playing together for a couple years now. We’re prepared for the moment, now we’ve just got to go out there and execute.”
Execution and effort are the things Hoiberg wants to see from his team against Riverside — and in every game this season.
Hoiberg said he plans to start the same four-guard lineup he did in the exhibition game: Cam Mack, Dachon Burke, Jervay Green, Haanif Cheatham and Yvan Ouedraogo, which means either the 6-foot-5 Cheatham or the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Green will likely be defending power forwards.
“Our system is pretty interchangeable, and guys need to know every spot on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “Offensively, it really doesn’t matter. Those guys are going to be in every spot, all five spots, at any time. We invert the floor some — we’ll post up our guards, we’ll have our bigs out high on the floor. Really it’s about defensive match-ups. That’s really to me what determines the four spot.”
Cheatham said he doesn’t have any post moves offensively, but on the other end he’s more than willing to mix it up inside if that’s what Hoiberg asks of him.
“Whatever the team needs for us to win, I’m willing to do, whether it’s battling down at the four or guarding a one,” Cheatham said. “Whatever, I feel like I have a versatile defensive ability and whatever is needed, I feel like I can get it done.”
Hoiberg went nine-deep in the first 10 minutes of Nebraska’s exhibition, and he brought in a 10th player in freshman Akol Arop late in the first half.
“We’ll have a plan going into every game,” Hoiberg said. “We had to deviate in the exhibition because of foul trouble — we had two guys pick up two fouls pretty quickly — so we had to start our rotations a little bit quicker. We have a rotation set going into it every night, but we’ll see how that goes. Obviously fouls, other things will determine how we stick to those rotations.”
Hoiberg said that senior forward Matej Kavas, who landed on a defender’s foot after making a 3 against Doane and sat the rest of the game, is fine. However, he did not have an update on forward Shamiel Stevenson’s request for an immediate eligibility waiver. Unless something changes before tipoff, expect to see Stevenson in street clothes on Tuesday night. Hoiberg said Stevenson is handling the process “great.”
“He’s coming to work every day, he’s practicing, getting in extra work, getting his treatments, preparing as if he’ll be eligible,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll see what happens with it. But I’ve been proud of Shamiel for battling through a difficult time, not knowing if or when it will happen. He’s going out with a workmanlike effort and done some good things for us on the practice court.”
The Huskers will have their hands full on the interior with Riverside’s sophomore center, Callum McRae. The 7-foot-1, 275-pound big man came on strong in conference play for the Highlanders and averaged 7.6 points on 55.4% shooting and 4.8 rebounds in 18.8 minutes per game. Rebounding is going to be a key or the Huskers, as it will be all season with the small lineup.
“That’s been a big emphasis these last few days of practice because they go hard, they really attack,” Hoiberg said. “[Riverside coach] David Patrick, he’s a friend of mine, I’ve known him for many years and he’s got those guys playing extremely hard. One thing they do is they really go to the glass. It’s going to be a five-man effort. McRae is huge inside and we need to do a good job on him, but our guards have to come back and help. I think we’ve shown if we can rebound that ball, we can do good things in transition. But it starts with securing the rebound first, having a good defensive possession and finishing it off with a rebound.”
Ouedraogo, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound teenager in the middle will be tasked with battalion with McRae inside initially, but Nebraska is going to need all of the guards to get in the mix on the glass to make small-ball work and fuel transition play. Mack, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound point guard, set the tone in the regard with seven boards against Doane.
“Cam being a rebounder, getting the boards that he gets and just helping Yvan down there with the big guys, it means a lot because it gives us an opportunity to push on the fast break,” Cheatham said. “You could see when he got the rebound we ran the fast break and I honestly think we’re a tough team to guard in transition. I don’t think many people can run with us. Once Cam gets it, once any of the guards get it and we run, it’s going to be very tough to stop us.”
Outside of McRae, the primary focus for Nebraska’s defense will be 6-foot-1 guard Dikyembe Martin, a preseason all-conference pick for the Highlanders who averaged 14.8 points on 47.3% from the field, 44.2% from 3 and 85.5% from the free-throw line as a junior.
The Huskers will tip things off Tuesday at 8 p.m. on BTN.
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.