After Tuesday’s 66-47 season-opening loss to UC Riverside, I took to the message boards to see how Husker fans were feeling about the game. I found one comment that stuck out to me.
“Oof. That is all.”
“Oof” is a great way to describe what happened on Tuesday night. I was the first season-opening loss for Nebraska in nearly 40 years, and it came against a Riverside team that went 10-23 last season and was without its best player. That is not good.
Assistant coach Doc Sadler offered something of a warning on Twitter prior to the game.
I am excited to be working for coach Hoiberg in my 38 years of coaching. Fans be patient coach is going to do some great things here but after going on a trip this summer I was reminded Rome wasn’t built in a day. #GBR #Huskers
— Doc Sadler (@coachdocsadler) November 5, 2019
Turns out, he was right about the fans needing patience. Hoiberg turned over almost the entire roster in a few short months, and it turns out that the Huskers are definitely not ahead of schedule. During a press conference before the season, Hoiberg talked about his expectations for this team.
“I just want our guys to go out there and compete,” Hoiberg said. “After the game’s over, we want to be the hardest-playing, most-together team out there whether we win or whether we lose. We want to take steps obviously in the right direction and continue to get better as the season goes on. As far as the number, wins, losses, tournament, that type of thing, it all takes care of itself if you go out and play the right way and play for each other. That’s something that we’re striving for is to go out there and play hard.”
If that’s the standard for the team this year, it fell well short in game one. Nebraska wasn’t the hardest-playing team on the court on Tuesday and it certainly wasn’t the most-together. When things got tough, the team splintered and a lot of guys tried to get things done on their own.
One thing that stood out to me after the game is that Haanif Cheatham — who scored one point in 26 minutes — was the sole player representative during the post-game press conference. He was anointed as the team leader pretty much as soon as he set foot on campus. The fact that he was the only one who spoke after that debacle speaks to the state of leadership on the team beyond him. It’s a work in progress, and that played out on the court as well.
That being said — and there’s no over-stating how bad that loss was — it was just game one. The season isn’t over and I’ll be surprised if we see them play that poorly again this year.
We still have a lot to learn about this team and the Huskers still have a lot to learn from each other. Saturday’s game against Southern Utah suddenly becomes a lot more interesting than it was when Nebraska released its schedule. It’s time to live up to the second part of Hoiberg’s expectations — game-to-game improvement.
The important question now is how much of what we saw on Tuesday is a lack of talent, and how much of it is correctable? I think the latter is the case more than the former. We’ll find that out for sure as the rest of the nonconference last plays out.
“We’re going to get great tests early in the season against some high-quality opponents and that will show a lot as far as if we’re going to be able to be competitive in the league,” Hoiberg said during that same preseason press conference. “Obviously we’re not picked very high — we’re picked second to last in our league — and I understand it. We have two points and one rebound back from last year’s team. But I like our guys. I like the way they go out there and compete, I like their mentality, I like the way they’ve stuck together. If you go out there and gain some confidence, hopefully that gives you momentum heading into league play.”
A closed scrimmage is different than a real game and we didn’t get to see the game itself or a box score, but based on what we do know Cam Mack and Jervay Green played a lot better against a Wichita State team that will likely be competing for an NCAA Tournament bid than they did against a a UC Riverside team picked to finish seventh in the Big West. I doubt they’re going to continue shooting 30% at the rim between them, and I doubt Green will continue to shoot 20% from 3. They were both pursued by some quality programs before choosing Nebraska. There’s talent there.
Dachon Burke Jr. seemingly has some rust to work off after a year stuck on the practice court, but he put up nearly 18 points per game as a sophomore a Robert Morris and was pursued by other high-major teams before choosing to transfer to Nebraska. He has talent.
I don’t see Cheatham as a potential star, but he’s been an effective player throughout his career, first at Marquette and then in his brief time at Florida Gulf Coast. He’s not going to score one point every game.
Those four will determine how good this team will be this year, and they need to play a lot better than they did against Riverside. I expect that to happen. Shamiel Stevenson will join the lineup at some point and I think that will make a big difference. Hoiberg has a few freshmen in the rotation as well and if they can improve throughout the season, this team will have a chance to be pretty competitive this year.
The first step is getting all 16 guys in this program — most of whom were complete strangers a few months ago — on the same page and trusting in each other when things start to go wrong.
The good news is it can only go up from here.
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.