Basketball is back and a new era is beginning in Lincoln with Fred Hoiberg at the reins of the Nebrasketball program. The Huskers open the season on Tuesday against UC-Riverside, so this week we’re breaking down the roster and previewing the season.
Back in September, Fred Hoiberg had to make a decision. Who would he take with him to Chicago for his first Big Ten Media Day?
With an almost entirely new roster, he could have taken anybody. An easy choice might have been to just roll with the team’s only two returners. He went in another direction, however, selecting sophomore guard Cam Mack, junior guard Jervay Green and senior guard Haanif Cheatham.
The first two were junior college transfers and the third is a graduate transfer, and together these three form the new face of Nebraska basketball.
Green, a Colorado native who spent two seasons at Western Nebraska Community College, committed to Nebraska under the previous staff. Almost immediately after Nebraska introduced Hoiberg as its new basketball coach, he and his early staff (assistants Matt Abdelmassih and Armon Gates) made a trip out to Western Nebraska to meet with Green in the hopes of reaffirming his commitment.
Hoiberg clearly made him a priority, and when he decided to stick with the Huskers soon after it was one of Hoiberg’s first big recruiting wins in Lincoln.
Green put up some ridiculously numbers at Western Nebraska and was named a second-team NJCAA All-American. As a sophomore, he led the Cougars with 23.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 34.4 minutes per game while shooting 53.6% from the field, 39% from 3 and 53.6% from the free-throw line. He had six games of 30-plus points including games of 40, 44 and 51. He was good as a freshman too (14.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game).
Green said he models his game after guys like Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Derek Rose, “fast, explosive guards.” He started at the two in Nebraska’s exhibition against Doane and slid over to the point when Mack was on the bench. Green played in an up-tempo, run-and-gun system at Western Nebraska which should make for a smooth transition to Hoiberg’s system. Green can contribute in a lot of ways, but he’s first and foremost a bucket-getter who should have plenty of highlight-tell plays and big scoring outputs this season.
Mack was a Matt Abdelmassih special. The 6-foot-1 floor general from Salt Lake Community College was committed to St. John’s before Chris Mullin resigned. When Abdelmassih, Mack’s lead recruiter at St. John’s, joined Hoiberg’s staff, Mack became a priority for the Huskers too and they sealed the deal during his visit.
Mack averaged 19.1 points, 7.6 assists (to just 2.7 turnovers), 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 31.6 minutes per game while shooting 45.6% from the field, 33.7% from 3 and 64.6% from the foul line as a freshman at Salt Lake. He led the Huskers with 17 points, six assists and six rebounds in Nebraska closed scrimmage against Wichita State and followed that up with five points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the team’s exhibition against Doane.
“He just brings a whole different element to our team,” Hoiberg said. “He’s extremely fast with the ball. If there’s a seam to attack, he hits that seam with great pace. He’s a very good decision-maker once he gets in there. Guys benefit playing with him. Matej [Kavas] had a very good game [against Wichita State] as far as hitting shots and a lot of those came off of Cam’s penetration.”
Perhaps the biggest question about Mack is his perimeter jump shot, but he’s explosive with the ball in his hand and will be the driving force behind Hoiberg’s up-tempo offense.
If Mack and Green can adjust quickly to the Division level, hey have the potential to form one of the more explosive backcourts in the Big Ten.
“We connected quick when he first got here,” Green said. “Cam is a quick, very quick guard so as soon as he beats his man the next man has to help over and that’s just going to give you an opportunity to cut and get you two points right there and him an assist. It’s just a great vibe when you play with a guy like that.”
Cheatham, who spent his first four years at Marquette and Florida Gulf Coast, was the first new player to jump onboard the Hoiberg train, and from the beginning Hoiberg has identified him as the team’s leader.
“We’ve only got two guys who have played in the NCAA Tournament, Haanif and Derrick [Walker], and only one will be eligible this year,” Hoiberg said. “To have guys that are a little bit weathered as far as having some opportunities to play for great coaches, to be able to lean on those guys to help our younger players get through those tough times is very important.”
At 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, Cheatham’s versatility will be his best asset for this team. He started at the four in Nebraska’s exhibition against Doane as the Huskers opted to start four guards. He’s good in the open floor and finish strong at the basket, he can knock down an open shot and he’s a capable defender willing tot are on tough assignments.
“I feel like it’s going to come in handy,” Cheatham said. “I’ve been a versatile guy my whole basketball career, I and I think what I do on the offensive and defensive end can really set an impact for the team.”
Cheatham did a little of everything in the exhibition, finishing with 10 points, three assists, two boards, two steals and a block in 23 minutes. He only played 10 games last year at Florida Gulf Coast before shoulder surgery ended his season, averaging 13.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists.
He played two full seasons at Marquette before transferring five games into his junior year. The former 4-star recruit had his best season as a freshman, averaging 11.8 points on a career-high 489% from the field and 3.4 rebounds. He’s a career 36.7% 3-point shooter.
Nebraska is going to play a lot of small-ball this season from everything we’ve seen, and Green and Cheatham playing bigger than their height is what will allow the Huskers to have success doing so.
These three were major priorities as Hoiberg went about building his roster, and they’re going to shape how this season plays out.
These three are the faces of Hoiberg’s first team in Lincoln.
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.