Fred Hoiberg opened the practice facility doors to the media for the first time on Tuesday and the Hail Varsity contingent — Derek Peterson, Chris Walsh, John Peterson and myself — spent the first 10 minutes of the practice identifying who all the new faces were.
Nebraska has just two players back from last year’s team. There are newcomers from all over the country and even the world, 14 of them to be precise. Just like the local media and fans are trying to get a feel for the new Nebrasketball, the players and coaches themselves are still getting to know each other as well.
“I’ve called them the wrong names a lot, there’s no doubt about that,” Hoiberg said. “We’re still getting to know these guys, they’re still getting to know us, what our style is like. They’re still trying to figure out what Doc [Sadler] is saying with his accent; the only guy that understands is Kevin Cross.”
Cross is a freshman forward from Arkansas, so he’s no stranger to Sadler’s southern twang.
These pre-Italy trip practices are incredibly valuable for the coaches as they get a head start on installing their offense and defense, but there’s just as much value in the players simply spending time on the court together.
“[Getting to know each other] is a big part of it,” Hoiberg said. “Sometimes you forget a little bit that these guys are all just coming together for the first time. The group that was here in June, when we had our first summer session, they’re further ahead and they should be at this time. But then you get Haanif [Cheatham] here who is a great leader. He’s got as good a voice as anybody out there on the floor, helping the young guys through the process. You get a guy like Matej [Kavas] here who has a very high basketball IQ. You get Shamiel [Stevenson] in here who’s been through this, this is his third team now, he’s seen and done a lot of the basics. Just to get the older guys that are coming in here for the first time, and you mix them with the younger players that we have and you just try to build the team. That’s our job right now.”
That team building is happening both on the court and in the film room. After most of the team spent some time warming up prior to practice, Hoiberg took the team back to the video room for about 10 minutes of film study before they returned to the practice court.
“We have individual film sessions, we have team film sessions, and you sit in there and you ask questions,” Hoiberg said. “I am a guy that tries to make it interactive to where everybody is involved and you ask a kid, ‘Jervay, what are you doing on this? Talk me through this. Why did you do this play, why aren’t you talking to Shamiel?’ Those types of things. We try to get those guys talking amongst each other and then they can go out on the floor and be real with each other and hold each other accountable to where they don’t take it personal. That’s when you have a group, that’s when you know you’re making progress when your guys are out there on the floor and they can talk to each other.”
That communication is still a work in progress, however. Hoiberg said it’s one of the areas in which the Huskers need to make the most progress at this point.
“I think we’re going to take them bowling tomorrow just to force them to talk to each other a little bit,” Hoiberg said on Tuesday afternoon. “The great thing about Italy — I look back at my time, my second year I guess it was, at Iowa State when we had all those transfers become eligible, it was a great opportunity for our guys to go really spend quality time together and we need that, we need it in a big way … That’s a huge part of this opportunity in front of us is the chance to build the chemistry with each other.
“We don’t have the timeframe right now — you get the four hours a week generally in the offseason, right now we can got for eight hours a day if we want to. I wouldn’t do that but we get two practices with them. We went an hour-and-a-half this morning, we’ll probably go two-and-a-half tonight and get them up and down and scrimmage a lot. So it’s a lot of opportunities for our guys to get to know each other, build chemistry, see who can play together, especially when times are tough and who can play with each other down the stretch.”
The Huskers are still waiting for one last player to arrive in Lincoln — freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo is still in France preparing for the U18 European Championships but will join the Huskers in Italy — but those that have arrived have spent plenty of time together off the court to fast-forward the team-building. Their bonding activity of choice?
“After practice we’re always playing video games — 2K, Madden,” Cheatham said. “I think that’s big-time for a good team when everybody’s new. Spending time off the court, I think it helps us open up like [Dachon Burke] said, I think it helps us build team camaraderie.”
Burke has gone through a lot of roster turnover during his three years in college, from spending his first two seasons at Robert Morris to transferring to Nebraska and sitting out under Tim Miles and now preparing to play for Hoiberg in Lincoln. The redshirt junior knows a thing or two about jelling with new teammates.
“You just have to be open,” Burke said. “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. For me, I was at Robert Morris and then I transferred to Nebraska, so for my three years in college, I haven’t been on a team with more than like four players every year. I’m kind of getting used to it, just opening up and being family to guys. You leave your family and friends back at home, so when you get off the plane, you’re nervous and anxious. I’ve just learned you’ve got to be open and be family-oriented to your new teammates. You can’t be in your own bubble.”
The tour through Italy will provide the Huskers with a big opportunity to step outside their comfort zone, and it all begins on Aug. 3.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.