This season was one to forget for Nebrasketball. Year 1 for Fred Hoiberg in Lincoln produced 25 losses, just seven wins and a last-place finish in the Big Ten.
Back in early November, Doc Sadler tried to warn us that a rough season was coming.
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
However, I doubt even the coaching staff expected it to go this poorly. I know I didn’t. Based on what I thought I knew of the roster heading into the year, I thought the huskers had a chance to be at least competitive enough to stay out of the cellar of the conference.
As we turn the page to 2020-21, it’s worth examining year one to see how it went so wrong.
Let’s start with the parts I got right.
I expected there to be a lot of growing pains with the young big men. Both Yvan Ouedraogo (who spent his entire freshman season as a 17-year-old) and Kevin Cross Jr. could have benefited from a redshirt season, but neither was afforded that luxury. Together, they gave Nebraska about 13 points and 10 rebounds in 40 minutes while shooting under 38% from the field and providing little in the way of rim protection.
Haanif Cheatham, the first new commit for Hoiberg as a grad transfer and the appointed leader of the team, was about what I expected. He’s a solid role player who can thrive in transition, finish at the rim and give good effort on defense. However, what he’s not is a guy who can elevate his team or be a go-to guy. The fact that he led Nebraska in scoring probably had a lot to do with the Huskers losing 25 games.
Hoiberg may not have gotten the results one would expect from a top-tier coach, but I was actually impressed with what I saw from him. Outside of when things got off the rails, Hoiberg did a great job of establishing his style of play with an entirely new team. He drew up some wicked plays on the white board at different points, some that worked and some that didn’t. He tried nearly every motivational tactic to get the most out of his team and he remained level-headed and mostly calm throughout all the losing.
That’s about it, however; I missed on a lot more.
Nebraska’s lack of size and rim protection meant the Huskers were going to have to get creative on defense. They gambled and tried to turn up the pressure, leading the Big Ten in steals and forced turnovers. However, they were so bad at everything else that they were still the worst defensive team in the Big Ten and one of the worst nationwide.
With the frontcourt being so young and the overall lack of size, Nebraska needed its backcourt to be really, really good. That didn’t happen.
My feature story in our basketball preview issue of the magazine was about junior college transfers. The overall takeaway from my research for that story was that true instant-impact JUCO transfers were few and far between. Even after all that homework, however, I felt like Cam Mack and Jervay Green could buck that trend. They did not.
To be fair, that isn’t totally true for Mack. The dynamic point guard had his moments — the first triple-double in program history, for one — and proved himself to be one of the best playmakers in the conference. With more talent around him, he could have played more to his strengths and put up some crazy assist totals in Hoiberg’s offense. However, his struggles to finish at the basket and at the free-throw line and his inconsistent jump shot held him back, and once teams got a good feel for how to defend him he went into a brutal scoring slump to finish the year. He was also probably the worst defender on the team.
As for Green, he never found his footing in Lincoln and is already in the transfer portal. He put up some big numbers at the junior college level as a play-making, sharp-shooting combo-guard, but none of that translated to Division I as he shot under 40% from the field with a one-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. On top of that, he got himself suspended for a couple games then benched for a few more.
Mack was Nebraska’s best talent this season, but he couldn’t channel that taken well enough to lead Nebraska to wins, and Green never really showed that talent that had him highly-touted and sought-after coming out of Western Nebraska Community College.
Another thing I underestimated is the leap from a mid-major conference to the Big Ten. In order for Nebraska to win, I thought three players had to lead the way. Two of them were Mack and Green, and the third was Dachon Burke Jr.
The 6-foot-4 guard transferred to Nebraska after a standout sophomore year at Robert Morris. He had to redshirt in 2018-19 and I thought he’d use that time to polish up his weaknesses — improving his perimeter jumper, adding strength to his frame and decision-making, to name a few.
The Burke we saw this year still couldn’t shoot well enough, he still couldn’t finish at the rim through contact and he still had more turnovers than assists with plenty of bad shots thrown in for good measure. Defensively, he also proved to be more of a gambler than a guy capable of locking up opponents for long stretches, which disappointed me.
Burke’s 18 points per game on average efficiency in the Northeast Conference turned into 12 points per game on sub-par efficiency from everywhere on the floor in the Big Ten. Not every player who looks to jump up to a high-major conference is capable of being a positive difference-maker at that level, and we saw that firsthand with Burke and Matej Kavas (a career 44.7% 3-point shooter in the WAC who shot 33.8% in the Big Ten).
Burke has entered the transfer portal as well.
Nebraska just didn’t have the firepower to compete this season, for all of the reasons laid out above. I probably should have seen a lot of these issues coming — and I thought some of them might be there — but I end to skew toward the optimistic side of things when looking ahead and I didn’t expect all of these parts of the team to bust so spectacularly.
Nebraska is going to be relying on mid-major and JUCO transfers again next season. It’s worth remembering how that worked out for Hoiberg in year one. However, he and Matt Abdelmassih had very little time to put together an entirely new roster.
Perhaps with more time to scan the transfer market, properly evaluate players at multiple levels and work with the guys already on the team (like the sit-out transfers who redshirted this year, the young bigs and Thorir Thorbjarnarson, one of the few bright spots form this year), the 2020-21 roster will be much more formidable and better suited to play Hoiberg’s style of basketball. Hoiberg went from 3-13 in Big 12 play in year one at Iowa State to making the NCAA Tournament in Year 2. Could he pull that same feat off in Lincoln? It’s certainly possible.
Well, there I go again with the optimism. Maybe I didn’t learn all that much from this season after all.
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.