Matt Abdelmassih has experience doing this.
The cupboard isn’t empty at Nebraska, but the assistant coach primarily tasked with filling it over the years to come is staring at a bunch of question marks. He doesn’t know what’s happening with Isaiah Roby—a rather large piece of the equation—has a previously-suspended guard in Nana Akenten, another guard in Karrington Davis who is rehabbing a ruptured Achilles, and three other scholarship players who averaged a combined six points last season.
When Fred Hoiberg took over at Iowa State in 2010, his first team featured two players that were there before his arrival. They averaged a combined 12 points the year prior.
When Abdelmassih arrived as an assistant on new head coach Chris Mullin’s St. John’s staff in 2015, that first year featured three players that were a part of the previous year’s team. They averaged a combined four points the year prior.
“In terms of dog years, I’m very old in this business just because of the beatings I’ve taken in this business trying to build things like this,” Abdelmassih said Monday during a sit-down session with Nebraska media.
The task at hand will be to assemble a team that fits Hoiberg’s style of play but can also win enough to give Nebraska something to sell moving forward.
“Our first year at Iowa State was such a significant year for us because we laid our foundation on how we wanted to play and what our philosophy was going to be recruiting-wise, and being .500 that year at least gave us the opportunity… we knew we could make that jump,” Abdelmassih said. “Not to say that our goal is to finish .500 by any means, but the goal is to make sure we make our mark, where people know what the path is going to look like for us to get this place to the top of the conference.”
It’s still too early to really put a number to that, but simply setting yourself up to “win enough” won’t be an easy job when you’re already somewhat behind in recruiting. This new coaching staff has been able to hang on to class of 2019 commits Jervay Green and Akol Arop, but they could potentially have an entire starting unit’s worth of scholarships to hand out.
They believe you can teach shooting. Hoiberg was a 3-point specialist in the NBA and he knows how to teach mechanics. If there’s a Nebraska fan who reflexively gags at that notion, just remember Melvin Ejim was a 23 percent shooter his first year at Iowa State and a 35 percent shooter when he left, DeAndre Kane was a 25 percent shooter his two years before Iowa State and then suddenly a 40 percent shooter in Ames. There are plenty of those stories.
Instead, the first thing they look at when trying to narrow down their board is athleticism.
“One thing I’ve always prided myself on is they better be athletic,” Abdelmassih said. “We want to have length, we want to have athleticism. All the teams that I’ve been a part of, we’ve typically had, at bare minimum, four guys on the court that were some of the best athletes on the floor out of the 10 that were playing. That’s first and foremost.”
After that, it’s about narrowing in on guys you know you can get.
Abdelmassih sees other coaches dedicating time and resources to kids they have no shot at and he shakes his head. “One thing I’ve prided myself on is I stay in my lane, I know what I can get and that’s usually good enough,” he said. Whether that’s a high school recruit, a transfer or a grad transfer (though grad transfers are going to be few and far between; Doc Sadler called them locker room trouble), Nebraska won’t leave a stone unturned this cycle.
That also means Nebraska won’t turn away transfers that have to sit a year in favor of immediate help. Abdelmassih says he always likes to take, at the bare minimum, two sit-out transfers.
“It balances out the roster really well,” he said. “You’re not going to make more than nine to 10 players happy, so 10 eligible players is always something you really want to try and lock in on.
“It’s also important when you take a sit-out transfer that they’re not going on that journey by themselves during that sit-out year, because it is a very lonely one, and to have multiple guys sitting out that can be there with each other definitely has shown a lot of promise and upside.”
Transfers are, of course, different now than when Abdelmassih and Hoiberg popularized them as a tool for roster construction at Iowa State. ESPN has a list of the top 100 available transfers this season. The portal is up to almost 700 players. Kids are starting and playing significant minutes and still leaving. Sam and Joey Hauser each started 30 games for Marquette, each played 30 minutes a night and both are leaving.
“When we started, I feel like we had our pick of the group,” Abdelmassih said.
What stays the same is that when kids get on campus, “there needs to be a wow factor.” Abdelmassih already sees a barrier at Nebraska, just after a few weeks on the road. He sees kids needing a little more trust built up before they come on campus. Regional stereotyping plays into that. But Nebraska has that wow factor in its facilities and a playing field leveler that has Abdelmassih feeling optimistic about their chances with top guys moving forward.
“I never thought that I would move back to New York and actually miss Iowa, and I wholeheartedly did,” Abdelmassih said. “It’s a special place to live in the country. The people are what make it. It doesn’t matter how big the buildings are, what the weather’s like, the people make everything. That’s always been my biggest pitch.
“Whether it’s not having the best facilities at some of the prior schools I’ve worked at, the people are what make the experience a positive one for the players that you try and recruit, so the people here are absolutely phenomenal. Just the passion and energy, someone that’s a huge sports fan like myself, you appreciate the fact that they have the same energy about themselves. I love that about them.”
The plan is to bring in “ballers,” wherever they come from. When Abdelmassih’s phone buzzes and he hears back from prospects, there aren’t a ton of no’s right now. There’s interest. There’s a lot of work to be done before Nebraska takes its Italy trip in August, but everyone is optimistic.
“To bring a kid on campus here, you don’t really have to speak that much,” Abdelmassih said. “You just let everything speak for itself.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.