Fred Hoiberg admitted back at Big Ten Media Days that this was a big season for him and his program.
Heading into the 2022-23 campaign, Hoiberg sported a .280 winning percentage, the second-lowest in program history (ahead of only Adolph Lewandowski’s .276 record from 1941 to 1945). After 27 wins in three seasons, Hoiberg desperately needed to show improvement this season.
The start to the year was less than encouraging. Nebraska avoided an early bye game loss, which is a step forward in itself, but even in the wins the team showed deficiencies that might be difficult to overcome once Big Ten play began. Then Nebraska failed its first real test at St. John’s as the Red Storm ran the Huskers off the court in the second half. Nebraska took a double-digit loss to Oklahoma in the first of its MTE in Orlando as well.
Nebraska sat at 3-2 without facing a ranked opponent, but that came without Derrick Walker in the lineup. His return carried with it a small modicum of hope — we hadn’t yet seen what this team looked like at full strength. Then the Huskers lost again in Walker’s return as Memphis beat them by 12, sending them to the seventh-place game of the ESPN Events Invitational.
After a rough first outing that saw Walker working off rust and his teammates reacclimatizing themselves to him (he had nine of the team’s 20 turnovers), Nebraska bounced back to smack Florida State in its final game in Orlando. Walker was far and away the best player on the floor in his best collegiate performance to date.
Then Nebraska returned home and handled Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Walker got in foul trouble, but Keisei Tominaga and others picked up the slack in a total team performance. However, Florida State and Boston College are two of the worst high-major teams in the country. How much did those wins really mean outside of serving as proof that Nebraska had at least climbed out of the national cellar, if not the Big Ten one just yet?
Then Sunday happened. Scott Frost often talked about needing to get that one win to get things back on track, to serve as that proof of concept, to give the players the confidence that they COULD do this. They just needed a few things to break their way. Well, things never did, the football team never got that win and now Frost is out of a job.
Like Frost, Hoiberg agreed to restructure his contract last year when Trev Alberts decided to give him another season despite the lack of results in his first three years. Naturally, it felt like Hoiberg entered the season on thin ice, and with the way the season started, a lot of fans began speculating on who the next coach might be.
The conversation has been very different since Sunday, when Hoiberg’s Huskers secured that big win that Frost’s team never could by taking it to then-No. 7 Creighton in its own building. After announcing that Hoiberg would return for a fourth season, Alberts laid out the vision for what he wants to see from the basketball program, and all the things he said seem to be present in this year’s team. These Huskers play hard, they fly around on defense, they share the ball on offense and they’re fun to root for with a hometown kid leading the way in Sam Griesel.
All of those traits were present in the 63-53 win at Creighton, the first win in Omaha for the Huskers in the in-state rivalry since the 2004 NIT.
“It’s a huge booster for us,” Emmanuel Bandoumel said. “It means what we’ve been working on is working. That’s one thing, that our defense has been more consistent, that we’re working hard and we’re consistently working for 40 minutes and that the little mistakes that we used to do earlier … now we’re seeing a progression.”
While the Huskers certainly received some good shooting variance luck with the Bluejays hitting just 10 of their 40(!) 3-point attempts, there’s no explaining away or disregarding this win. The Huskers dictated the terms of engagement for 40 minutes and Creighton simply played along.
Would it be too simple to say that Hoiberg might have saved his job with this one victory? Probably, considering the last time Nebraska beat Creighton the coach ended up getting fired at the end of the season anyway. Despite entering the season with high expectations, Nebraska went 6-14 in Big Ten play. The Huskers dropped 11 of their last 14 regular season games, and although Isaac Copeland’s torn ACL was a big blow, the downward spiral began before that.
It was clear post-game how much that win over Creighton meant to the players and coaches, but in the grand scheme of things it still only counts as one win and it will mean very little if the team can’t replicate that result in the Big Ten, and they know that.
“We don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves with that win and be fat and happy,” Bandoumel said. “You never want to be fat and happy. You want to keep working every day, keep bringing that energy every time. It’s great for us, we want to use that momentum to go to the next game, but we understand that it has to be a standard. We cannot just go with one win and then lose the next 10 games. We actually have to set the standard of we got this win, it’s a good win, but let’s move on and get that next one. It’s all about the next one.”
The next one is particularly important because it’s another road game. The Huskers take on a very talented Indiana squad in Bloomington Wednesday night, and in order to capitalize on the Creighton win to create a fantastic atmosphere when the Huskers return to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday, they need to avoid a letdown against the 14th-ranked Hoosiers. If they find a way to extend this winning streak to five, the building is going to be electric when No. 4 Purdue comes to town. Even if Nebraska keeps it competitive in a loss, I think fans will keep that good feeling and look forward to welcoming the Huskers home.
The sample size is still too small to make any grand conclusions, and I still have concerns about this roster as the Huskers head into conference play. However, it really does look like Walker’s return to the lineup has transformed this team completely. The two-man game between Walker and Griesel with a gritty defensive effort behind them was enough to beat a top-10 Creighton team on the road. Is it enough to get the Huskers out of the Big Ten cellar? I feel a lot more confident that’s the case after these past three games than I did heading into the season.
Calling the Creighton win a program-changing event would be a bit much at this point, but it at least has changed the feeling about the trajectory of this season. Now it’s on the team to capitalize on that and keep moving forward.