There’s been a lot of buzz about how big this weekend is for the football program, and rightfully so. ESPN’s College GameDay is in town for the first time in 12 years, the Huskers are taking on a top-five team and there’s a whole host of recruits en route.
However, this is a massive weekend for the men’s basketball program as well. This state may be football crazy, but the Hoiberg hysteria is quite real as well.
Back in July, Nebraska announced that it would hold Opening Night with Husker Hoops on Sept. 27, giving fans a chance to see the new-look Huskers in person for the first time.
The Huskers have held an open practice the last few years under Tim Miles, and those were fairly well attended but far from sellouts. With that in mind, Nebraska initially planned to use the lower bowl alone. It took Nebraska just two weeks to realize that wouldn’t be enough.
In early August, Nebraska announced that it had opened up the 200 level seating to accommodate the demand of the user faithful. On Sept. 13, two weeks before the event, Nebraska declared a sellout.
One of the least accomplished high-major basketball programs in the country is going to have 15,000 founds show up for a practice, which shows the level of excitement for the Fred Hoiberg era.
“It couldn’t have turned out any better as far as what we want to accomplish this weekend,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got Opening Night, we’ve got GameDay coming to town. I was very fortunate, I was part of GameDay at Iowa State when I was coaching there, when we played Kansas back in I think 2015, if I’m not mistaken. There are just so many things it does for your program, for your fans.”
The women’s team will be part of the event as well, but for the men’s team it will include player introductions, Fred Hoiberg addressing the crowd and a 20-minute scrimmage. The night cap will be a concert by Rick Ross.
Practice officially began on Wednesday for Nebraska, but most of the guys on the team got a chance to play with each other in an organized setting during the team’s trip to Italy back in August. The diehards likely watched the live stream of the team’s first game, but for everyone else Friday will be the first chance to see the 11 new players Hoiberg and his staff brought in play for the first time.
“I’ve been part of a lot of these where you go out there and you have these open scrimmages,” Hoiberg said. “I’ll say this, for our guys to be able to go out and compete for our fans for the first time, it’s good for them. You’re in a closed environment for most of the time in Italy; we played in front of 12 people and most of them were Luca’s* family. But we’ll be able to get out in front of our fans for the first time and hopefully go out there and have some fun.”
*Luca Virgilio is the team’s director of basketball operations and is an Italian native.
Hoiberg said he’s not necessarily looking for perfect execution during the scrimmage — that’s what their Friday morning practice is for. The goal for Friday night is to simply have fun.
“The fans are going to see a good team, a good team that’s new but a team that’s together and a team that’s going to play hard,” graduate transfer Haanif Cheatham said. “Midnight Madness, I guess they have certain rules that sometimes it’s not as serious, but I think we’re going to take it seriously, I think we’re going to play hard and show the fans a good time.”
The headliner for Friday night will likely be Cam Mack, the sophomore point guard from Salt Lake Community College. Mack caught a nasty case of food poisoning right before the team left for Italy and spent a few days int he hospital. Yet despite missing that trip as well as most of the pre-trip practices while finishing up some academic work, Hoiberg chose Mack as one of the three players who will accompany him to Chicago on Wednesday for Big Ten Media Day. He’s an electric floor general with the quickness to make plays off the bounce and the vision to set up his teammates for easy buckets. Junior guard Jervay Green, Nebraska’s other junior college transfer, sees him as a guy who could lead the Big Ten in assists.
Green himself will be another player fans’ eyes likely gravitate to. The combo guard from Western Nebraska put up some big numbers last season and is talented enough to score inside and out. All Green wants from Friday is a chance to throw down a dunk during the scrimmage.
Dachon Burke, the transfer from Robert Morris, stole the show during last year’s open practice, leading his team to a 36-17 victory with a game-high 10 points. Friday will give Burke a chance to show the fans how much he improved during his redshirt season.
While there will be plenty of talent on the court, fans should also expect to see plenty of it in the stands as, just like the football program, Hoiberg is using this weekend as a big recruiting pitch.
“We have a big recruiting weekend ahead and they’ll be able to see the facilities, they’ll be able to see the support, they’ll be able to see our team,” Hoiberg said. “It really turned into a big event on all fronts for a very important weekend for us. We’re excited about it and hopefully we can show them a good time.”
Nebraska is expecting four official visitors — 2020 wing Tibet Görener, 2021 forward Wilhelm Breidenbach, 2021 wing Jordan Nesbitt and 2021 center Frank Anselem.
Görenor is an interesting case. First of all, he’s from Turkey but is currently at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California. He holds a few offers, but Nebraska is the only high-major team among them. Beyond the player himself, however, the fact that Nebraska is using an official visit on a 2020 prospect despite not currently having any scholarships available for that class is noteworthy. Perhaps it’s simply due diligence, but if not, it could point to the coaches expecting some attrition whether from the current roster or from the players Nebraska already has committed for 2020.
Anselem is the most highly-rated of the official visitors at No. 59 in the 247Sports Composite, but I know Nebraska is high on Breidenbach as well and he’s also a top-100 prospect in the composite at No. 89.
Nebraska is also hosting several unofficial visitors. Donovan Williams, the 2020 commit from Lincoln North Star, will be there for both the Opening Night and for the football game on Saturday. The pair of targets from Millard North, 2021 wing Hunter Sallis and 2022 forward Jasen Green, will both be there as well.
Chucky Hepburn, the point guard target from Bellevue West, is taking a visit to Wisconsin this weekend.
Kendall Brown, a 2021 5-star wing from Minnesota who has transferred to Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, is on the list. The previous staff offered Brown back in November and the current staff is continuing to recruit him. Gradey Dick, a 2021 wing from Wichita who runs with KC Run GMC, will be there. Nebraska was the second team to offer him after the hometown Wichita State Shockers and he’s since blown up and is a top-40 prospect. Tamin Lipsey, the 2022 point guard from Ames, will be there as well. Nebraska was his sec and offer after Iowa State, but Lipsey tore his ACL in June.
There are also a couple of unofficial visitors who Nebraska hasn’t yet offered. Tamar Bates is a 2021 4-star guard from Kansas City with offers from Creighton and Kansas State among others. Tarris Reed Jr. is a 2022 forward from St. Louis who played for MoKan EYBL this summer along with Green.
Those recruits are going to get a glimpse of what Pinnacle Bank Arena is like on a game day with 15,000 fans filling the arena. It’s going to be a heck of a selling point for recruiting coordinator Matt Abdelmassih and the other coaches to sell.
“That’s why I came to Nebraska, the fan environment, PBA,” Cheatham said. “I know it gets crazy and I know Friday night is going to be a little taste of that. That’s what you want as a college basketball player: playing in a good environment, playing in a great atmosphere, and once we see that on Friday I think it’s going to get us more excited for opening night of the real season.”
I’m sure fans will feel the same way Cheatham does once they see the show on Friday night. We’re just 32 days from the team’s exhibition game and 37 from the season-opener.
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.