If you watched the 2019-20 Huskers closely, first of all, my condolences to you; I know firsthand it wasn’t easy. But more importantly, you saw a Fred Hoiberg team. By that, I’m talking about the style of play — up-tempo with lots of shots at the rim and from he 3-point line.
Unfortunately, the results weren’t what we’ve come to expect from Hoiberg based on his time at Iowa State. In case you forgot, the Huskers went 7-25. While the players seemed to buy into Hoiberg’s style of play for the most part, their strengths didn’t necessarily line up with the traits needed to win playing that style. The Huskers were undersized at nearly every position and they struggled to finish plays, both in the paint and from the 3-point line.
What about this year’s Huskers? What will they be good at?
“We’re definitely going to be known for our pace, hopefully how we shoot the ball,” Teddy Allen told reporters during a Zoom call. “But I feel like we can disrupt teams with our length. We’re a really big team for college. I’ve just noticed myself adjusting, playing with these guys and seeing like, ‘wow, it’s kind of hard to move around against this team.’ We’re a big team, we have a lot of length. So I think our pace along with our size and skill can mess teams up.”
If Allen’s assessment is correct, the 2020-21 Huskers are going to have a great shot at actually looking like a Hoiberg team rather than just playing like one.
Let’s start with the length. Nebraska played mostly four-guard lineups around a 6-foot-9, 17-year-old center last year. The Huskers had no rim protection and little in the way of length on the wings to disrupt opposing offenses. Nebraska allowed a league-worst 79.4 points per game in Big Ten play.
The starting lineup I’m expecting is, on average, two inches taller than Nebraska’s most common starting lineup last season. The additions of Dalano Banton (6-foot-8) and Lat Mayen (6-foot-9) are particularly noteworthy, and Shamiel Stevenson at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with plus length and athleticism is another versatile piece. Derrick Walker and Eduardo Andre add more size at the five behind Ouedraogo than Kevin Cross did last year, and with the exception of Kobe Webster the guards have good size as well.
“You just look at the size of our team this year compared to where we were a year ago, the physicality of this group, the athleticism of this group, I think we’re in a better spot,” Hoiberg said. “The league’s going to be a monster again obviously. I think it’s going to be the best league in the country again. But we are certainly on the right path in going out and hopefully competing and giving ourselves a chance to win every time we step out on the floor.”
The size is one part of that. But what about the shooting? Nebraska was second in the Big Ten in total 3-point attempts but only 10th in percentage at 31.4%. Thorir Thorbjarnarson was the only Huskers who shot better than 35%.
“I think we’ll have a better overall shooting team than we did a year ago,” Hoiberg said. “You look at Thor obviously coming back as the best returning shooter that was eligible, but you look at Trey McGowens who is shooting the ball extremely well right now. Kobe Webster can really shoot it. Teddy Allen has a track record of being a really good shooter and has shot the ball well in the preseason. Lat Mayen — I’ve talked about the 100-shot drill that we do as a team where he made 86, which is by far the most I’ve ever heard in that 100 shots … He followed that up with making 82. You look at Shamiel Stevenson, a guy that can knock down shots.”
Thorbjarnarson shot 37.2% last year, and that included a late season slump after he shot well over 40% through the first three months of the season. McGowens was a below-average shooter at Pittsburgh at 31.7% over two seasons, but Hoiberg believes in his ability to develop shooters and McGowens will be a great test subject for that.
Webster shot 37.4% on high volume over three season at Western Illinois, including 41.3% as a sophomore. Allen was a non-shooter his freshman year at West Virginia but last year at Western Nebraska he shot 37.1% on over 200 attempts. Mayen shot 38.4% as a sophomore at Chipola College and Stevenson made 19 of his 41 3-point attempts (39%) at Pittsburgh.
Even if you don’t include McGowens, that’s five of Nebraska’s projected top nine with track records of shooting the ball well from 3-point range. Besides himself, Webster highlighted Mayen, Thorbjarnarson and Allen as guys who were shooting the ball the best during workouts and practices.
“So overall, yes, I do think we are a much better 3-point shooting team than we were a year ago,” Hoiberg said. “And within the system that we run, trying to create shots at the rim and create open 3s where 80% of our shots were last year, obviously to have a roster that can capitalize on that and hopefully convert at a higher percentage should give us an advantage this year.”
Another way Hoiberg is hoping to have an advantage is the offensive versatility of this roster, another hallmark of his Cyclone teams. Hoiberg loves having multiple players on the floor who can makes plays for themselves and others, and that should be the case this year. That starts with Banton, the Western Kentucky transfer and former top-100 recruit who Allen described as a real point guard at 6-foot-8.
“I’m a guy who has a very good feel for the game,” Banton said. “I like to let things come to me and also use my height and versatility to facilitate and make plays for other people as well as score for myself. I feel like my length on defense creates mismatches and stuff like that, so being able to guard many positions as well as play many positions is a big thing too so we could go big, we could go a small lineup with a big guard like myself, or I could be the big at times. It’s just good to be able to play anywhere on the floor and be able to do whatever I have to do for the guys.”
The plan appears to be to let Banton run the show, but he’ll have help. Webster, McGowens, Allen and Mayen have all averaged better than 2.5 assists per game at their last stops as well and they’ll all get a chance to handle the ball and make plays.
On paper, this year’s Nebraska roster features bigger players, better shooters and more playmakers, which means the 2020-21 Huskers should look a lot more like a Fred Hoiberg team. Later this month, we should get a chance to see if all of that translates into wins.