On Thursday night, Coach Fred Hoiberg will do something he’s never done before — coach against his son.
Jack Hoiberg is a sophomore walk-on at Michigan State. The Spartans are coming to Lincoln for a Thursday night meeting with the Huskers. Hoiberg said he’s looking forward to seeing his eldest son and having him over for dinner, but when it comes to the emotions of the game itself, he’s not sure what to expect.
Hoiberg spent some time around the Michigan State program last year before accepting the job at Nebraska. He’s built a strong relationship with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“I think the world of Coach Izzo for everything that he’s accomplished, the type of person he is first and foremost, how down to earth he is,” Hoiberg said. “So it was fun to be a part of that journey that they had last year to the Final Four, winning both Big Ten championships — regular season and conference tournament. That game against Duke was one of the best college basketball games I’ve ever seen with Zion [Williamson] and all the first round draft picks they had, and just to see the way that Michigan State kept going through all the adversity that they had with the injuries that they had a year ago.
“It was a fun thing to be able to spend time not only with the coaches but also spend time with Jack and the family. I think I accepted the [Nebraska] job the day before that game in Washington D.C. last year.”
When Hoiberg took over in Lincoln and began assembling his roster, Jack had a decision to make — stay at Michigan State or transfer to play for his dad.
“I told Jack to follow his heart,” Hoiberg said. “He’s put so much work into that Michigan State program. For him, I think going into this he thought he might have an opportunity to get out there so to play on the preseason No. 1 team in the country, to stay a part of that I thought was very important for him and he agreed with that.
“People, I think, sometimes don’t understand how much time you have to put into being a walk-on and on the scout team. You look at our guys with Dalano [Banton] and Derrick [Walker], with Jace [Piatkowski] and Bret [Porter] and Shamiel [Stevenson] right now, those guys put so much time in. They’re here an hour before, putting in the other teams’ plays. Jack takes a lot of pride in that, pushing Cassius [Winston]. He’ll send me his film clips — he was Carsen Edwards last year and he was just going off; it was so much fun to see. He’s a big part of that thing and I know Izzo really appreciates what jack brings to the program and the players do as well.”
Michigan State (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten) has lost four of its last five and has fallen out of the polls after opening the season as almost everyone’s preseason No. 1. Despite their recent struggles, Hoiberg called Michigan State an “unbelievably talented team” and said he believes the Spartans will be right there competing for a title at the end.
Senior point guard Cassius Winston, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, is the engine that drives everything the Spartans do. He’s averaging 18.2 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 38.6% from 3.
“Just keep him in front, prevent him from getting into the paint,” senior guard Haanif Cheatham said about containing Winston. “He’s very good when he gets into the paint, kicking out, floaters and causing fouls. So keeping him in front and probably loading up the defense against him and letting the other guys around him score.”
The only other consistent double-digit scorer on the team is Xavier Tillman, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound junior who is averaging 13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.2 steals. Tillman’s penchant for crashing the offensive glass and Winston’s ability to push the ball up the floor in transition are was worries Hoiberg the most in this match-up, although Nebraska has its own up-tempo point guard in Cam Mack.
“It’s going to be a very high-level match-up,” Hoiberg said. “Cassius is just so relentless with his push and with his pace. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen this year. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, show them all the film, but it’s hard to simulate until you actually get out in front of it and see it. The transition defense obviously has to be on point. We have to be able to get back and load and get a high hand on him wherever he is. He and Tillman are great in the two-man game and offensive rebounds, obviously, is where Coach Izzo’s teams have made a living since he’s been at Michigan State. Those are going to be two huge things, getting back and finding a way to get bodies, physical cut-outs, and rebound the basketball.”
The Huskers (7-18, 2-12) have been dealing with a variety of injuries and illnesses recently, but besides losing Matej kavas for the season Hoiberg said the Huskers are “hanging in there.”
“We’ve still got some guys with some residual effects from the illnesses but everybody practiced today and made it through so hopefully we’re in good shape heading into tomorrow,” Hoiberg said.
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday is set for 7:30 p.m. CT on FS1 with Kevin Kugler and Bill Raftery on the call.
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.