I titled last week’s column “Danger Zone,” referring, of course, to the Nebraska men’s basketball team.
Here’s a short excerpt:
“Hoiberg is in serious danger of losing the fan base, and he has to find some answers. If the Huskers lose at home to Northwestern on Saturday, things could get really bad.”
Well, the Huskers lost. By a lot. And things are getting really bad.
Nebraska is now 0-12 in conference play for the first time ever. Hoiberg is sitting on five Big Ten wins late in his third season at Nebraska. The discontent in the arena and on social media has been apparent for a while, but we’re to the point where fans are directly expressing their frustration to Hoiberg himself.
Hoiberg made his weekly appearance on Sports Nightly for the Nebraska Basketball Show, and the first caller, Eric in Cozad, did not pull his punches one bit. He said after 40 years of never missing a game, either in person, on TV or on the radio, he’s done following.
“You’re 20-62, so at what point do you realize that this isn’t working?,” the caller said. “It’s unbelievable. I’m hurting, I’m sure you’re hurting, the fans are hurting. In saying that, man to man, but coach to a fan, can you tell me how you can justify still being here?”
Hoiberg’s response lasted three full minutes. Here it is, piece by piece (sorry for the long paragraphs).
“First of all, Eric, you’re right, nobody’s more disappointed than I am with how things are going, and everybody in this program right now with the way that this season has gone. As far as where we are right now, obviously, going into the season, we did have high expectations for this team after taking over what we did and basically putting the team together in a very short amount of time in year one. Year two, a team that I thought was really making progress, got hit by COVID probably harder than any team in the country where we had to shut down and had several key players coming back in that stretch that were really the first ones to get the virus. To shut down the way we did, I thought our guys competed extremely hard once we got back and played those grueling 14 games in 29 days. Going into this season, obviously, with a couple things that happened early and just reality— I’m trying to stick up for our guys here — with Trey [McGowens] going down in the third game with a broken foot, with Wilhelm [Breidenbach], who you knew what you were getting out of every time he stepped on the floor, going down with a season-ending knee injury. Two of your toughest guys that are not able to play for us or were out for a long stretch.”
Heading into this season, I largely did give Hoiberg and his staff a pass for the first two seasons. Tim Miles left the cupboard pretty bare when Hoiberg arrived and he decided that most of the players that were still in the program weren’t going to be able to help them move forward (and for the the most part, he was proven correct). He put together a team on the fly and tried to get through the first season while a group of transfers redshirted.
In year two, there’s no denying that the COVID-19 pause and the subsequent insane schedule derailed whatever momentum they might have been able to build up down the stretch.
This season, the injuries have certainly hurt, and I think they probably could have won a few of those games they gave away had Trey McGowens been healthy. But Mcgowens is back now and nothing has changed, and if Hoiberg was relying on a skinny 6-foot-10 freshman averaging 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds while shooting 35.9% from the field to be able to win games, they probably didn’t have much of a shot anyway.
Missing free throws in the clutch has nothing to do with injuries. Failing to box out when you most need a rebound is something that is entirely in your control. Losing your cool when a call doesn’t go your way in a big moment is on you, no matter how bad the call is. Every other team in the Big Ten has found ways to win at least a couple games. Every team but Nebraska, in year three when things were supposed to start coalescing into a competitive squad.
Having seen 23 games now, the biggest problem, in my opinion, is the roster. I believe they misevaluated several of the players on the team and their fit together. But they can’t do anything about that in-season. What the coaches can address is inspiring and demanding consistent effort and attention to detail, and that’s apparently not happening either.
“Again, I thought we had gotten to the point where we were really making progress and we were competing; we just could not get over the hump, and Eric, that happens when you struggle down the stretch of close games and you don’t have the confidence to win those and it wears on you. There’s no doubt about it, last game was completely unacceptable, and we’re going to do everything we can to fix it. We’ve got eight games, eight opportunities left to get on the floor and try to create some type of momentum heading into next year where we’ve got a very good recruiting class, one of the top recruiting classes that has ever been signed at Nebraska. The number one junior college big player in the country, a big 6-10 bruiser, tough, tough kid. We’ve got a kid that came in at semester, Denim Dawson: incredibly tough, old school, throwback type player. We’ve got a shooting guard from New Jersey, a great school, a great program, who has an opportunity to come in and step in and play right away. And then Ramel Lloyd, really a jack of all trades, plays for Sierra Canyon in Los Angeles with LeBron James’ son on that team and several other very high profile players. He’s been MVP of three of their tournaments that they’ve played in.”
Hoiberg’s probably right that it’s one of the better classes Nebraska has had, but that says more about the program than the strength of the class. According to the 247Sports Composite, Nebraska’s four-player class is currently 33rd nationally and seventh in the Big Ten. Last’s year’s class, headlined by the program’s first 5-star in Bryce McGowens, was 18th nationally and third in the Big Ten, and we see where that has gotten them to this point.
Blaise Keita is the top-ranked JUCO player, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to him being a 5-star prospect or anything like that. He doesn’t look like a transformational type of big like some of the guys we’ve seen in the conference (Kofi Cockburn, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Trevion Williams, etc.). I’d compare him to Adam Sanogo (who the Huskers recruited heavily coming out of high school) style-wise.
Rankings aren’t everything, but Dawson and Jamarques Lawrence (the shooting guard) are ranked outside the top-200 as 3-star prospects (lower than Quaran McPherson, who is redshirting this season). From a profile standpoint, however, Dawson brings some much-needed athleticism to the wing and Lawrence seems a bit more well-rounded as a sharp-shooter than Keisei Tominaga and C.J. Wilcher. Ramel Lloyd Jr. is the highest-rated member of the class as a 6-foot-6 playmaking wing/combo-guard, but he’s not as highly regarded as Bryce McGowens.
To sum all that up, I don’t believe Nebraska’s 2022 recruiting class as presently constructed raises Nebraska’s overall talent level much if at all, but if the pieces can fit together better than this year’s team it could produce better results. Either way, the class doesn’t look good enough to point to it as a reason why everything will be better next year.
“So, again, we’re going to do everything we can to get it right,” Hoiberg continued. “I understand the frustration of everybody, and again, I can promise you nobody’s more frustrated than I am as far as going out there and trying to get our guys to play the right way and find a way to compete, get over the hump and win games. And that’s our job for these next eight games, to do everything we can to give ourselves an opportunity to win and give us something to feel good about heading into the offseason. So I appreciate your call, I appreciate the passion, but I can promise that there’s there’s nobody in this world more frustrated right now with where things are than I am. I’m going to do everything I can to get it turned around.”
I hope for Hoiberg’s and the program’s sake that he can get it turned around, and quickly. I mentioned in last week’s column the atmosphere at Pinnacle Bank Arena hasn’t been particularly good this season, and the Associated Press’ Eric Olson came through with the numbers to illustrate that. According to the amount of tickets scanned, Nebraska’s average attendance was 7,160 through its first 16 home games, less than half of the arena’s capacity. Three consecutive games in January saw fewer than 5,800 fans in the stands. Read Olson’s story for comments from Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts on the matter.
The longer these struggles continue, the harder it will be for Hoiberg to get the ship righted. Recruiting to a full, rocking Pinnacle Bank Arena is a lot easier than a lifeless building that’s less than half full, and the fewer people there are in the building the less advantage the Huskers have over visiting foes.
Whether fans make their feelings known by confronting Hoiberg directly or by simply not showing up on games days, the frustration of the fan base certainly is starting to boil over. Wednesday’s game against Minnesota is probably the biggest game of the Hoiberg era to this point, which is not something I saw coming when he took the job considering the Golden Gophers are currently 13th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Nebraska.
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.