Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Set to Put Hoiberg’s Changes to the Test against Kansas State

December 18, 2021

Throughout his career, Fred Hoiberg has been known for running a free-wheeling, up-tempo, 3-happy offensive system that gives players a lot of freedom to make decisions.

So far this year, that style is producing just 0.985 points per possession, an average figure ranked in the 46th percentile nationally. The Huskers are attempting 25.3 3-pointers per game (top-100 nationally) and are shooting just 25.9% bottom 10). Nebraska is 5-6 and coming off back-to-back 30-plus-point losses.

After the first of those losses, a 102-67 home loss to Michigan, Hoiberg said he planned to re-evaluate everything and make some changes. However, illness hit the team hard and they barely got to practice before heading down to Atlanta to face No. 18 Auburn. That one went poorly as well (99-68).

The illness carried over to this week as five guys missed practice on Monday, one of whom was still out on Tuesday. Hoiberg said they were back at full strength on Wednesday, though, and he started making the changes he foreshadowed after the Michigan loss.

“We’re over this illness now and we’ve had very intense practices, and we just need that to carry over,” Hoiberg said. “I know that means nothing when you say you go out and you practice well if it doesn’t carry over the floor. So we changed things up, as I talked about, offensively within our system. We’ve had about five days of work to get it in. There are probably going to be some growing pains through it as we change it, but I just felt like I needed more control over what was going on out there on the floor. So I’m changing things.”

Hoiberg said the changes were designed to give him more control over what happens on a play-to-play basis with the hope of putting guys in better positions to play to their strengths. One of the recurring themes from Hoiberg’s press conference was the need for urgency on both offense and defense.

“We did look at everything,” Hoiberg said. “We had a lot of long meetings about what we wanted to do. Do we overreact? That’s one thing that we talked about based on the circumstances of last week. But I felt we had to do something and we had to do something drastic. So that’s why the changes that we implemented were made, and now it’s about carrying that over, being consistent with it, and we’ve got two games before the break. Then we’re going to have a lot of practice time again before we open up back up with Big Ten play on Jan. 2 against Ohio State. Right now, it’s just about getting our team right physically, mentally — mentally probably more than anything right now; but we do have our health back.

“We had to do something; I had to do something to change the vibe and hopefully get us out there going out there and competing. You can get beat, but you don’t want to walk to that locker room the way that we have the last few games, how this group has felt when you just get it handed to you like we have. It’s a horrible feeling for everybody involved, and it’s unacceptable.”

Nebraska’s most consistent and effective performer has probably been Derrick Walker, and Hoiberg was hoping to feature him more with these offensive tweaks. Once again, however, Hoiberg hit a speed bump.

“A lot of it was designed for Derrick,” Hoiberg said. “Derrick had a little bit of a knee injury, has not been on the floor the last few days. I don’t think it’s anything serious; hope to get him back on the floor tomorrow to get one last day of prep before this game on Sunday.”

Hoiberg said trainer R.J. Pietig is optimistic that Waker will be available, but he may not be at full strength. Back-up center Eduardo Andre was the player who missed the first two days of practice this week, though Hoiberg said he’s been looking good and regaining his strength since returning to the practice court. Freshman Wilhelm Breidenbach is out of the equation with a likely season-ending injury suffered against Michigan.

The Huskers will get a chance to show what they’ve been working on Sunday evening as an old conference foe, Kansas State, visits Lincoln for the first leg of a three-game series.

“Bramlage [Coliseum] was always a great arena to play in back in those days,” said Hoiberg, who played in the Big 8 and coached in the Big 12 at Iowa State. “The arenas were phenomenal, there were some great rivalries all over the place. I always like competing against Bruce [Weber] and his teams. They really get after you, they compete, they defend, and he’s got a good team this year, a really good team with good guard play. So I’m looking forward to this three-year series that we have, going back to their place and then playing that third game at the Sprint Center.”

The Wildcats are 6-3 this season, but 0-3 against other high-major teams. They have single-digit losses to Arkansas, Illinois and Marquette. The backcourt leads the way for Kansas State as their top three scorers and five of their top seven are all guards.

Sophomore Nijel Pack (6-foot, 180 pounds) leads the way at 14.4 points per game on 50.7% from the field, 47.5% from 3 and 90.9% from the free-throw line. Senior point guard Markquis Nowell (5-foot-7, 155 pounds) is averaging 13.2 points, 4.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals while shooting 42.6% from the field, 34.1% from deep and 88.9% from the foul line. Missouri transfer Mark Smith (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) is leading the team in rebounding at 7.8 per game while chipping in 10.0 points.

Hoiberg also briefly addressed the rumors that have been surrounding his program and assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih, who is currently on leave from the program to deal with a health issue, throughout the past week.

“I’ve never really concerned myself with rumors,” Hoiberg said. “I’ll let what Trev [Alberts] said with this statement speak on behalf of our department. As far as Matt, he came into the office yesterday, and as I’ve said all along since Matt took his leave, number one focus for me and for him is his health and to get away from this, to focus on that. He’s had a lot of things that you guys can’t even imagine that have happened to him that he needed to focus on to get himself right … This is a crazy, stressful business. When you have somebody more than a coworker, a friend, a lifelong friend, getting healthy is the number one priority, your health and your family are number one right now, and that’s our focus with Matt.”

Attention will shift back to the court on Sunday. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. CT at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Big Ten Network. Larry Punteney and Nick Bahe will be on the call.

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