Photo Credit: John Peterson

Padding the Stats: Shifting Strategy Marks Year Four for Fred Hoiberg

June 08, 2022

Fred Hoiberg’s system has been built around pace and spacing, putting a premium on pushing the ball at every opportunity and firing up plenty of 3-pointers. That formula led to four NCAA Tournament appearances at Iowa State, but Nebraska is still looking for its first winning season since Hoiberg arrived in Lincoln.

Hoiberg hasn’t been able to land the right kind of roster make-up to make his system work at Nebraska. The Huskers shot 31.9% from 3 in year one (250th nationally), then followed it up with a slight improvement to 33.2% in year two (196th). Heading into year three, Hoiberg seemed determined to add more shooting to play around his incoming 5-star recruit, Bryce McGowens.

It didn’t work. The Huskers actually shot worse from deep (32%, 263rd) while also cratering defensively (from 40th to 179th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom). Nebraska was just too small and slow throughout the rotation to hold up defensively, especially with Trey McGowens and Wilhelm Breidenbach getting injured, and they didn’t shoot nearly well enough to offset their weaknesses in other areas. Thus, the 10-21 record.

Hoiberg is back for year four, but it looks like he’s making some major changes to the way the Huskers will play. Whereas 3-point shooting was a theme of last year’s recruiting class, length and versatility seems to be a major focus this year. 

Hoiberg signed arguably the top center in the junior college ranks in Blaise Keita (6-foot-11 and 240 pounds) to pair with Derrick Walker, who opted to return for an extra season of eligibility. Add 7-foot redshirt freshman Oleg Kojenets and the 6-foot-10 Breidenbach coming off his injury, and the Huskers might finally have the frontcourt size to survive in the Big Ten.

Nebraska also added a pair of 6-foot-6 guards capable of running the point on offense and defending multiple positions on defense in Sam Griesel and Ramel Lloyd Jr. Redshirt freshman Denim Dawson and Alabama transfer Juwan Gary, both 6-foot-6 wings, join the mix as well, and Hoiberg landed SMU transfer Emmanuel Bandoumel (a 6-foot-4 guard) to replace Trey McGowens as the veteran defensive stopper on the perimeter.

“Blaise has great length,” Hoiberg said on Tuesday’s edition of Sports Nightly. “The other that we haven’t talked a lot about is Oleg Kojenets, another guy that really developed over the course of the season … So the length that we have across the board with Wilhelm, getting him back in the fold. Juwan, he’s got almost a 7-foot wingspan. Emmanuel has got good length. Sam obviously is 6-6 at the point guard position. So that length I think will help us all across the board and again will fit with the way that we’re going to guard this season.”

Hoiberg is hoping the added length and athleticism at multiple positions will pair well with new assistant Adam Howard’s defensive acumen and give the Huskers a chance to hold their own on that end of the floor. The added size and athleticism will also impact the offensive end of the floor.

“We’re going to completely change the way that we approach our offensive rebounding,” Hoiberg said. “I think we’ve got guys who can just flat out go get the ball. We’re going to have better physicality, better length across the board, and it should create some excitement.”

The Huskers were 348th in the country in offensive rebounding rate, so any emphasis at all in that area could produce significant improvement. Gary was one of Alabama’s best offensive rebounders while Keita averaged 2.6 offensive rebounds per game during his two seasons of JUCO ball (Walker led the Huskers with 2.0 last season and no one else came close).

For what feels like the fourth time in four seasons, the Huskers will look very different when they take the court for the first time in 2022-23. Hoiberg has a couple of key rotation players returning who are expected to play larger roles in Walker and C.J. Wilcher, but newcomers and young players will likely fill out the rest of the rotation. However, instead of simply swapping out the parts and trying the same thing all over again, Hoiberg appears to be trying something a little different.

“Hopefully this year with the guys coming back, I think with the additions that we’ve made all coming from winning programs, with a little bit of momentum that we had going into this offseason, hopefully can help us get off to a great start and sustain it over the course of the season,” Hoiberg said.

Is the talent level high enough for the Huskers to climb out of the Big Ten cellar? That remains to be seen. Hoiberg certainly didn’t add an offensive player as talented as Bryce McGowens, or even a playmaker as dynamic as Alonzo Verge Jr. A lot is riding on how well Sam Griesel can make the leap from the Summit League to the Big Ten (we’ll have more on that as the summer goes on). The Huskers will likely have to win with grit and defense, and at least on paper, it appears as if they’re better equipped to do so than last year.

Get ready for the different kind of Nebrasketball. I’m still not totally sure how it’s all going to come together, but I’m intrigued by the shift in strategy as Hoiberg searches for a way to make it work in Lincoln.

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