Nebraska is mired in an eight-game losing streak with one more tough road game left to play before the Huskers can return home to Pinnacle Bank Arena. They’re sitting at 7-16 overall and 2-10 in conference play. Coach Fred Hoiberg has talked recently about how he’s battling frustration with his team.
He’s done this once before, though.
In 2010-11, Hoiberg’s first at Iowa State, the Cyclones went 16-16 including 3-13 in Big 12 play. At one point, they lost 10 straight conference games before picking up a couple of wins back-to-back late in the season. Hoiberg had three contributors returning from the previous season but otherwise had to scramble to put together a roster with transfers and freshmen.
People rarely bring up that season when discussing Hoiberg’s time in Ames, however, because he followed it up with four straight NCAA Tournament runs before parlaying his success into the Chicago Bulls head coaching job.
How did Iowa State make the leap from three Big 12 wins to 12 in one year? How’d he turn a .500 squad into an NCAA Tournament team? He brought back a couple of key players and added four sit-out transfers and a junior college transfer to the rotation.
Royce White (13.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game), Chris Allen (12.2 points, 23 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game), Chris Babb (7.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game) and to a lesser extent Anthony Booker (3.5 points and 2.9 rebounds per game) completely transformed the team while JUCO transfer Tyrus McGee settled in as the team’s sixth man (7.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game).
Add that group to a productive senior in Scott Christopherson (12.6 points per game, 45.6% from 3) and a sophomore Melvin Ejim (9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game) and you’ve got a team capable of winning 23 games.
Hoiberg’s hoping to repeat history in Lincoln.
Nebraska has three transfers sitting out this season and Hoiberg has also received commitments from two junior college prospects. As we’ve seen this season, the junior college market can be hit-or-miss at the high-major level. However, the three players already on campus — Western Kentucky guard Dalano Banton, Tennessee forward Derrick Walker and Nevada guard/forward Shamiel Stevenson — are under the watchful eye of Hoiberg and his staff who are guiding the trio’s development every day in practice.
“We put them on a redshirt program, so they’re lifting four, five times a week … Our guys get a lot of reps,” Hoiberg said. “It’s not one of those situations where our redshirt guys sit over there on the side … Dalano for example has put on 15 pounds already. It’s something he needed to do. You can see it too the way he’s playing with his strength. The kid’s got a chance to be a phenomenal basketball player and he’s doing a lot of things in this off-year to get himself prepared for that.”
White was a one-and-done player for Iowa State, jumping to the NBA where the Houston Rockets selected him with the 16th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. I don’t know that Nebraska has a top-20 draft pick on its roster, but the player most capable of replicating what White did for the Cyclones is Banton.
White was a 6-foot-8 point-forward, though he used his 270-pound frame to bully his way to the rim to make plays for himself and others. Banton is also 6-foot-8 with a guard’s skill set, but he uses his length and athleticism to succeed more than raw power.
Banton, a Canadian native, was a top-100 recruit coming out of high school when he committed to Western Kentucky. He averaged 3.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 15.1 minutes per game as a freshman. He flashed his potential against Wisconsin, coming up a bucket shy of a triple-double with 13 rebounds, 10 assists and eight points. However, he shot just 8-of-37 (21.6%) from 3 and struggled with turnovers at times with a 31.5% turnover rate.
After the season Banton decided to look for a new program and chose Nebraska. Sitting out hasn’t been easy for him.
“It’s definitely been tough,” Banton said. “I feel like talking to Coach, knowing what I need to do throughout the year to help prepare myself for next year and just to get a better start to the year, come out with the energy that we need and everything we need to take steps forward. It’s been hard, but just doing what I have to do to get myself better and help contribute to the team every time we practice.”
Banton and Hoiberg identified a few key areas of improvement to focus on during his redshirt year.
“Definitely locking in in the weight room, gaining weight,” Banton said. “I’ve been doing well at that, I’ve been gaining weight, I put on [15, 16] pounds. My jump shot. Playing guard, having to keep shorter, faster guards out of the lane, so working on my lateral quickness and stuff like that.”
Stevenson plays alongside Banton on the scout team every day in practice and knows as well as anyone what Banton is going to bring to the team in 2020-21.
“His size, he’s a legit 6-8 point guard,” Stevenson said. “He can really handle the ball, can play-make, he can really pass and he can really get to the rim. He’s really good, he’s crafty, he’s sneaky athletic too. It’s hard to guard someone that size that’s that crafty.”
For now, however, in addition to giving the team a tough look in practice, Banton said he’s trying to bring energy on the bench by handing out high-fives and trying to be loud throughout the game.
“As the year goes on, it’s been getting easier,” Banton said. “But there will be a tough stretch for me where it’s like ‘Oh, I’m not playing,’ kind of hurt me a little bit. But I have a lot of coaches and support team behind me.”
Banton can’t make an impact on the floor this season, but he’s using his time on the bench as a learning experience so he can make sure the Huskers don’t go through the same struggles next season.
“It’s really just soaking up the environment, knowing that at any point in time the game could change, so seeing us going from our best, running, playing, to in a split second it switches, we haven’t scored in a couple minutes,” Banton said. “Trying to learn how to fight through the adversity and see what we’re not doing to get through it and knowing that next year I have to come in and do this, do this, do this and we have to do this, do this, do this in order to fight through the fire and get through the adversity.”
Stevenson wasn’t supposed to be part of the redshirt crew. Nebraska thought it had a great case for an immediate eligibility waiver for the 6-foot-6, 240-pound guard/forward after he twice had the coach he committed to leave him (Kevin Stallings got fired after his freshman year at Pittsburgh and Eric Musselman left Nevada for Arkansas before Stevenson even got a chance to suit up for him). The NCAA left him in limbo early in the season while reviewing his appeal and eventually denied it three different times.
“It was tough,” Stevenson said. “At first we didn’t know what was going on, if I was going to play or not, so I was just kind of approaching it like I was playing. It was kind of better then, but once I found out it got more clear what was going to happen so now I’m just working on getting better and focusing on next year.”
Banton said Stevenson embraced his role on the scout team fully after he learned the final verdict.
“I think Shamiel’s handling it as well as you can in that situation when you have hopes of getting immediate eligibility,” Hoiberg said. “We were all disappointed with the result but there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t worry about things you can’t control and I think Shamiel’s done a good job with that as far as putting it behind him and going out and focusing on what he needs to do to get better.”
Stevenson said that while it’s difficult seeing the atmosphere at Pinnacle Bank Arena and not being able to get on the floor and help his team, he’s using the disappointment as fuel in practice, in the weight room and in skill development sessions.
“What I’ve learned sitting out is you really can get better,” Stevenson said. “Its really a good time to focus on your craft. A lot of people I don’t think take full advantage of it and that’s where they go wrong. But that’s what I’ve learned to do is take full advantage of it because this is time you obviously can’t get back.”
Stevenson would have made a difference on this year’s team with his frame, athleticism, rebounding ability and perimeter shooting, but now he’s focused on polishing up his skills — his shooting, ball-handling and playmaking in particular. He’s also learning how to play off the ball within Hoiberg’s offense, something that’s new to him.
The final member of the sit-out crew is Derrick Walker, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward who came off the bench for two NCAA Tournament teams at Tennessee. He hasn’t set foot on the court in a Husker jersey yet but is already making his presence felt.
“Derrick will immediately help us as a vocal leader,” Hoiberg said. “He’s as good as we’ve got as far as trying to talk our guys up and keeping it going and keeping it positive. He’s been really good with that.”
Walker said he’s not shy about speaking up in huddles or in practice when guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. Walker and Haanif Cheatham are the only two players in the program who have played in the NCAA Tournament, and Hoiberg has leaned heavily on both of them as on-court leaders.
“Sometimes it can be tough, but someone has to do it and I’ll take that role whenever I need to take that role because that’s just the type of person I am,” Walker said. “Someone has to be that person and if no one’s that person, then practices don’t run smoothly and games don’t run smoothly. You always need that person on a team.”
Walker said he’s learning more about himself and the system every day, and he’s taking pride in building up the rest of the guys while he waits for his time. He’s taken an active role in building up Nebraska’s freshman forwards, Yvan Ouedraogo and Kevin Cross Jr., who are tag-teaming at the five with Walker not eligible.
“They’re freshmen, there’s a lot of things that thy need to learn and they’re going to learn it,” Walker said. “They’ve been learning it. They listen, they’re two good young fellas. They listen, they’re ready to learn, they’re ready to be coached and they just want to be here and play hard.”
Walker played a limited role on offense for the Volunteers. He’s focusing on improving his shooting and refining his post game this year so he can be more of a scoring threat once he returns to the court in 2020-21.
Redshirting is never easy for players who are used to playing nearly year-round all throughout their lives, but Walker said having a couple of guys — in addition to walk-on redshirts Jace Piatkowski and Bret Porter — going through it with him is “a big help.”
“It just lets you know that you’re not alone,” Walker said. “It lets you know that you’re not the only one going through this and it gives you a chance to push Dalano to get better and they get to push me to get better as well.”
Hoiberg has tried to avoid looking ahead to what his team might look like next season, but seeing that group tear it up in team scrimmages has made that difficult at times. Meanwhile, Walker said he thinks about it all the time and Stevenson, who got to watch a team built of transfers win 29 games at Nevada last season, has high expectations for 2020-21.
“I think we’re going to be a really good team in the Big Ten,” Stevenson said. “I think we’re going to be a tournament team. I think we’re going to shock a lot of people and make a big jump next year. The other two guys and myself, we’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of experience so I think it’s going to help a lot.”
Hoiberg’s done it once before. Add Teddy Allen — currently leading junior college in scoring — and stretch-four Lat Mayen to the three guys sitting out and a core group of returners and Nebraska just might have what it makes to take the same kind of leap the Cyclones did in 2011-12.
Only nine more months until we know for sure.
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.