Year four at Nebraska for Fred Hoiberg officially began on Tuesday with the first of 30 preseason practices.
The first three seasons didn’t turn out the way I’m sure either Hoiberg or Nebraska’s athletic leadership had hoped when Hoiberg accepted the job in 2019. Twenty-four wins in three years and a .264 winning percentage is a far cry from what he did during his first stint as a college coach at Iowa State (23 wins per year).
The college basketball landscape certainly changed during Hoiberg’s time with the Chicago Bulls, and it’s changed even more throughout his three-plus years in Lincoln. Even so, Hoiberg hasn’t forgotten how to coach. You listen to any of his press conferences and it’s pretty evident Hoiberg still knows his stuff from a technical standpoint. You watch the film and he runs some impressive sets and incorporates some intriguing concepts. He’s done a fairly good job of teaching what he wants in terms of shot location and tempo.
So why haven’t things clicked?
I think it’s come down to the same problem most of the coaches at Nebraska have had: recruiting. While the fan support and facilities are pluses, the program’s lack of winning tradition and location have proven to be significant obstacles no matter who has coached the team. Even so, no coach in program history has won a lower percentage of his games.
The biggest issue I see is that the most talented players haven’t really fit Hoiberg’s style of play, and the role players haven’t been talented enough to fill their roles. On offense, the team has lacked good floor spacing (they’ve shot 31.8%, 33.2% and 32% from 3), and that’s often led to players like Dachon Burke, Teddy Allen, Alonzo Verge Jr. and Bryce McGowens trying to do too much against defenses loaded up to stop them. On the other end, Nebraska has been undersized and hasn’t really had enough athleticism and defensive intensity on the perimeter to make up for that.
Add in a bit of bad luck here and there and an incredibly difficult conference and you get the worst stretch in program history.
Hoiberg tried to replicate his model at Iowa State by hiring Matt Abdelmassih to essentially handle all of the recruiting, but again, the best players Abdelmassih landed didn’t really fit into Hoiberg’s pace-and-space system predicated on ball movement and IQ. Most of the players brought in to provide spacing (Lat Mayen, Keisei Tominaga, Trevor Lakes, Keon Edwards, Jervay Green, Matej Kavas) failed to shoot a good enough percentage or couldn’t even get on the court at all. The bigs were usually raw, undersized or both. Each of those rosters included exactly one perimeter player that had both the physical tools and the desire to be an above-average defender (Haanif Cheatham, Trey McGowens).
I talked myself into the idea of a lot of these players and how the first three teams might work on paper and wrote from that perspective, because who doesn’t want to have some optimism heading into a long season? I had my doubts about many of the players signed, but there were also some additions I was high on. Hoiberg’s staff managed to find some intriguing talents over the past three years, but they never found a way to build a complete team that could win.
The constant misses have led to plenty of turnover from year to year, which has made it difficult to establish any kind of foundation. There’s only one player on the roster who was on the team prior to last season. The Huskers lost a lot of firepower with Bryce McGowens and Verge moving on and replaced it with the 49th-ranked recruiting class in the country according to the 247Sports Composite (34th-ranked traditional class, 52nd-ranked transfer class). That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in a quick turnaround.
Hoiberg parted ways with Abdelmassih after the 2021-22 season but retained the signing class that he had put together (4-star Ramel Lloyd Jr., 3-star Jamarques Lawrence and highly-regarded JUCO center Blaise Keita). The transfer class, however, featured a different sort of flavor.
The Huskers went after some heavy hitters in the transfer portal who could likely have filled the No. 1 role on offense (Baylor Scheierman and Antonio Reeves most notably), but struck out.
Lincoln native Sam Griesel ended up as the headliner of the class, and I think he might actually be the first point guard that Hoiberg has signed that fits his style of basketball (I think he’s a better, more well-rounded player at this stage of his career than Dalano Banton was when he suited up for the Huskers). Can he be the No. 1 option offensively for the team? He averaged 14.3 points (second on the team) in the Summit League last season.
SMU transfer Emmanuel Bandoumel looks like a 3-and-D type of guard to replace the departed Trey McGowens on the wing while Alabama transfer Juwan Gary’s biggest strengths are his physicality and motor as forward; he hasn’t been a terribly productive offensive player to this point.
While the freshman class features some intriguing prospects, none of them are as talented as Bryce McGowens. Nebraska will rely heavily on the transfers and the returning core of Derrick Walker, C.J. Wilcher and Wilhelm Breidenbach.
Throughout the offseason, Hoiberg has highlighted the length, physicality and rebounding prowess of the newcomers. That theme came up again on Tuesday as Hoiberg, Bandoumel and Breidenbach spoke on the first day of practice.
Breidenbach said their identity will start on defense.
“We’ve been really getting after it on defense, which I think people will see,” Breidenbach said. “We make it hard on the offense, even each other. We’re always going full speed, talking, being physical, being aggressive. So I’d say defense first. And then on offense, we like to share the ball.”
Bandoumel focused on the ball movement, which hasn’t necessarily been a hallmark of the team the past couple of years despite a pair of individually talented distributors in Banton and Verge.
“I’ll tell you a lot of ball movement, not as much dribbling and taking bad shots,” Bandoumel said about the kind of team they’re going to be. “It’s going to be a lot of ball movement, a lot of players in double digits, a lot of smiling faces because we had a possessions with like 20-plus passes. I think it’s going to come down to this and come down to making sure that everybody touches the ball, everybody can play to their strengths.”
Bandoumel highlighted defense, rebounding and physicality as the themes of their offseason, and he thinks the offense will take care of itself.
I buy this team being more capable of defending and more willing to do the little things, which will likely be refreshing for a lot of Nebraska fans. I think we’ll see more ball movement, more scrapping for rebounds, more fight on defense. However, I’m more worried about the offense than Bandoumel appears to be.
The Huskers are hoping to do it by committee, but you still have to have at least a player or two that can consistently create advantages and put pressure on defenses to create scoring opportunities for themselves or others. Does Nebraska have that? I’m cautiously optimistic about Griesel, but the Big Ten is a different beast than what he’s experienced to this point. Derrick Walker is an incredibly effective yet still somewhat limited player. Who else will consistently create offense?
This program needs to focus on the little things. We’ve seen scrappy, defensive-minded Nebraska teams have success before. I think the course correction Hoiberg has made is the right one, although I think it was made somewhat by default and perhaps too late. Is there enough talent on this roster to take a meaningful step forward in the Big Ten? That’s the big question Hoiberg will have to answer.
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.