Fred Hoiberg
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Padding the Stats: Howard’s Hire Signifies Shift in How Hoiberg’s Staff Will Operate

April 06, 2022

When Trev Alberts and Fred Hoiberg announced that the head coach would be returning for a fourth season in Lincoln, they alluded to changes that Hoiberg had planned to try to propel the program forward after a total of 24 wins in three years.

The most notable of those changes ended up relating to his staff. He parted ways with assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih and special assistant to the head coach Doc Sadler, and on Tuesday he introduced Abdelmassih’s replacement, Adam Howard.

When asked why he felt those staff changes were necessary, Hoiberg opted to focus solely on Howard and why he holds him in such high regard instead of dwelling on what had not worked previously. In particular, he highlighted how well-rounded Howard is (the second time he did so during his press conference).

“With Adam, I’m very excited about what he brings to this program as far as being a well-rounded guy that can help us all over, not just going to do one area,” Hoiberg said. “He’s going to be a guy that helps us all across the board.”

Hoiberg’s answer demonstrates the significant shift that he’s triggered on his staff heading into year four. It’s a pretty clear acceptance that the model he brought with him to Lincoln when he decided to hop back into the college coaching ranks isn’t going to work.

Abdelmassih was Hoiberg’s first hire when he accepted the Nebraska job. In fact, he was there at Hoiberg’s introductory press conference. Hoiberg brought him to Lincoln to recruit, and that’s what he did — and little else. Abdelmassih wasn’t an on-court presence at practice, he wasn’t drawing up actions during the week and he wasn’t calling out coverages on the bench on game days. He was the singular point of contact for most of Nebraska’s recruits and was the one shaping the roster (with Hoiberg making the final calls, of course).

While many assistants across the country are known primarily for their recruiting prowess, I’m not sure I’ve heard of many others who do little else. The hire and explanation behind it points to Hoiberg going back to more of a traditional model: everybody recruits and everybody coaches.

Howard’s defensive prowess is how he first landed on Hoiberg’s roster, and he’ll play a big part in shaping Nebraska’s defensive efforts moving forward. According to KenPom, the Huskers actually made a significant leap on defense in year two, improving from 152nd in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2019-20 to 40th in 2020-21, an improvement of 7.2 points per 100 possessions. This season, after defensive guru Doc Sadler moved from an active coaching role into the special assistant to the head coach one that prevented him from on-court instruction, Nebraska gave back all that ground it had made up, dropping to 178th this season.

Landing someone with defensive acumen was important for Hoiberg this season, and some of the things Howard’s teams have been known for — aggressive match-up zones and full- or three-quarter-court pressure — are things Nebraska experimented with late in the season or things Hoiberg would like to see his team do moving forward.

However, Hoiberg wasn’t just looking for a defensive coordinator. He wanted a well-rounded coach who could contribute in everything the staff does, and he thinks Howard can be that guy. Hoiberg praised his connections in the recruiting world and also said he was impressed by what he saw from Howard working on-court with the players prior to Tuesday’s press conference.

The shift started even before the season reached its conclusion as Nate Loenser began shouldering more recruiting responsibilities, particularly in-state. He attended high school games later in the season to check out some of the top prospects in the state, even though they may not currently project as surefire high-major prospects. He was at the state tournament as well.

Moving forward, I believe we’ll hear more about the entire staff being out on the road recruiting and building relationships rather than one person doing the bulk of it. There’s a reason almost every program in the country does it that way — it works.

What might make this transition easier is the relationships that already exist between Hoiberg’s assistants, new and old. Howard already knows both Loenser and Armon Gates. He’s been friends with Loenser for a while and has stayed in contact with him, and Gates was a graduate assistant at Western Kentucky during Howard’s playing days as a Hilltopper. The more eyes evaluating recruits on the trail and the more voices guiding development on the practice court the better, because Hoiberg and his staff are facing an uphill climb out of the Big Ten cellar.

How quickly might this change produce results? That’s where things get tricky. Hoiberg did manage to keep his 2022 recruiting class together following Abdelmassih’s departure, and that includes a couple of key pieces in JUCO center Blaise Keita and 4-star guard Ramel Lloyd Jr. The Huskers have already added one transfer in Sam Griesel and are active in the portal looking for more, but the majority of the 2022-23 roster will still be one constructed under the previous staff model. Hoiberg can’t afford another season of 10 or fewer wins.

Just like with the changes Scott Frost made, I like the direction in which Hoiberg is going after hearing about these changes. Even so, how well will the staff and players be able to execute the new vision and how quickly will these changes produce results?

We’re going to have to wait eight or nine months to find out, but this at least seems like a step in the right direction.

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