After stumbling out of the gates and falling into a 0-2 hole, the Huskers figured some things out and strung a couple of wins together before heading down to the Cayman Islands Classic, where they took down Washington State in the opening round.
That progress halted against George Mason in the second round as the Patriots pulled away in the second half for an 85-66 victory. The loss — and especially how it happened — did not sit well with Nebraska. Senior guard Haanif Cheatham said they had a team-wide meeting afterward to air some things out.
“I think it’s something that needed to be done,” Cheatham said. “Things were probably getting a little out of hand a little bit, but I think once we had that meeting, we understood how good we could be, once we become a good team and come together. It showed against USF and now we’ve got a good test here coming on Wednesday and we’ve got to show the same thing for 40 minutes.”
This time, instead of letting one loss become two, the Huskers bounced back to claim third place with a 74-67 win over South Florida to close out the tournament and return to Lincoln at 4-3.
“I thought we really responded well,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought for the most part, the 40 minutes that we played, we had a little stretch in there where we didn’t play well, but we stayed together, we found a way, switching defenses, made adjustments, guys followed the game plan very well and found a way to win against a very good team to finish off that tournament after a very disappointing second game against George Mason. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about growing and learning from your tough performances, your disappointing performances, and I give our guys credit for bouncing back.
“That next morning, we didn’t talk a lot about South Florida, we talked a lot about ourselves and what we needed to do to go out there and play better and play more consistently and stay together during the tough stretches. I thought we did a really good job of that, maybe the best we’ve done all year, against South Florida.”
Hoiberg’s theme all throughout the offseason and heading into the year was dealing with adversity. Early returns have been a mixed bag in that area for the Huskers.
“It’s the single most important thing you do as a group is how you find a way to stick together when you’re not playing well, when a team goes on a run against you … When you have a meeting like we did when you’re sitting there and you’re able to look your teammates in the eyes and have an honest conversation and not take it personal, that’s when you grow,” Hoiberg said. “I’ve been on enough teams where if the players can have those conversations with each other and not take it the wrong way, that’s when you get better. I saw a lot of that going into the South Florida game.
“Now, we had the most fans down at that tournament. I thought we had a great turnout with Nebraska fans in the gym. Now we’re playing true road contests, so here’s the next step. You get to go into a hostile environment and probably face some of the same things, and how are we going to handle that? Hopefully we do it well because if you don’t when you’re on the road, things can go the wrong way in a hurry.”
After four games at home and three at a neutral site, the Huskers will hit the road for their next three games starting with Wednesday’s trip to Georgia Tech.
“It’s a big difference,” Cheatham said about road versus neutral games. “You’ve got a whole gym going for you. They’re coming at you 40 minutes straight. In the Cayman Islands tournament you’ve got your fans and the other fans. I think going out there in a real, true road game, people yelling at you, you not being able to hear much, it’s going to be a test but I think we’re ready for it.”
Cheatham said the Huskers will have a good feel for what kind of team they have after this next stretch. In addition to having to play on the road, the Huskers will also see a step up in competition in those games with three high-major opponents, one of which is a league foe in Indiana on Dec. 13. Stay tuned to Hail Varsity for look at the Yellow Jackets and the challenge they’ll pose for the Huskers in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
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.