Seems we’ve been talking so long about how new the Nebraska men’s basketball team is, that it’s really not so new anymore.
Imagine actually being a part of the process.
“It’s a whole new team,” senior graduate transfer Haanif Cheatham said, “but we feel like we’ve been playing together for a couple of years.”
Now, if the court product mirrors that when Nebraska christens the 2019-20 season Tuesday night against UC Riverside, first-year coach Fred Hoiberg will consider his debut a rousing success.
If you need a crash course, or a quick reminder, Nebraska, coming off a 19-win season in which it qualified for the National Invitation Tournament, begins the Hoiberg era with 14 new players on its roster. That ties TCU for the most first-year players in the nation. East Carolina has 13, and Utah has 12.
Nebraska, though, is the only one of those programs ushering in a new coach.
Hoiberg, the former Iowa State and Chicago Bulls head coach, comes to Lincoln intent on taking Nebraska men’s basketball to places it’s never been – specifically, to the victory column in the NCAA Tournament. To get there, he’s following the same formula he did in turning Iowa State’s fortunes – by bringing in a mix of immediately-eligible transfers, some transfers who must sit and some wide-eyed freshmen.
Cheatham, who’s played at Marquette and Florida Gulf Coast, falls into the first category. One of the team’s two oldest players, Cheatham is considered a team leader, somebody who’s been to the NCAA Tournament, who knows what’s needed to get there and can help mold and guide the younger newcomers.
“I’m ready; It’s finally here,” said Cheatham, who’s fully recovered from a shoulder injury that sidelined him after only 10 games last season at Florida Gulf Coast. “Time went by pretty quick. I’m glad that it’s here. It’s time to show all the work that was put in with the recovery process and the training.”
The transfers include one player, guard Dachon Burke Jr., who sat out last season with Nebraska. In all, Hoiberg has six transfers who’ve combined for more than 3,100 points and 1,300 rebounds at the Division I level. Burke, Cheatham and Matej Kavas all have at least 800 career points.
Tennessee transfer Derrick Walker and Western Kentucky transfer Dalano Banton must sit this season, while the NCAA has yet to determine the eligibility status of Shamiel Stevenson, a transfer from Pittsburgh, via Nevada.
“He’s handling it great,” Hoiberg said, “coming to work every day, practicing, getting in extra work preparing as if he’s going to be eligible.”
Nebraska spent 10 August days in Italy where most of the players were able to bond and connect, not only on the court – the Huskers won all four summer tour games they played – but more importantly, off the court. Because of that foreign trip, which the NCAA allows every four years, the Huskers were also able to benefit from extra practice time.
“Practice was cool, but you get tired of practice,” Cheatham said. “You just want play in front of people a lot.”
Nebraska faced Wichita State in a closed scrimmage and played NAIA Doane University in an exhibition last week, but the real thing begins Tuesday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“I’m really excited to get out there to see what we have in this type of setting, this type of environment,” Hoiberg said. “You have nerves. If you don’t have nerves, you’re in the wrong business.
“That’s what this thing is all about, is all the preparation, all the work we put into it to go out there and hopefully play at a high level.”
What this season produces is anyone’s guess.
Not surprisingly, Nebraska is picked to finish toward the bottom of the Big Ten Conference standings. But an initial look at this team indicates it could produce an upset or two, and regardless of the final win total, will most certainly play a fast-paced, offensive-oriented style that will appease fans who have already sold out Pinnacle Bank Arena of season tickets.
Nebraska has the necessary talent and athleticism to run the court and score in transition, a staple of Hoiberg’s system. However, that success is somewhat connected to one of the Huskers’ biggest question marks – rebounding. This team lacks overall size, so Hoiberg knows all five players must crash the boards to not only limit opponents’ second-chance opportunities, but also to initiate the transition game.
“We’re a tough team to guard in transition,” Cheatham said. “I don’t really think most people could run with us. Once Cam (Mack) gets it, once any of the guards gets it and we run, it’s going to be very tough to stop us.”
We’ve heard a lot about Hoiberg’s spacing on offense, and read-and-react system that’s interchangeable; meaning, players must know all five positions as Hoiberg inverts the floor, expecting guards to post up and big men to come out high on the perimeter. The result is a lot of ball sharing; Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams led the Big 12 in assists in each of his final three seasons.
“You get to play all different positions, get to see what your game is like at the 4, at the 3, even battling down there with the big guys,” Cheatham said. “Do whatever you got to do for the team to win.”
Look for shots at the rim and a healthy dose of three-point attempts. During Hoiberg’s tenure at Iowa State, his teams made at least 250 three-pointers in each of his five seasons. By comparison, Nebraska has only two seasons in program history with such a total – in 2002, and the season just completed.
“If we can create good shots, hopefully we can shoot a good percentage,” Hoiberg said. “What that percentage is, I don’t know yet.”
Hoiberg said he’s seen “tremendous growth” throughout the process of building a new team. While he understands his team’s deficiencies, he knows – and expects – his players to control the one thing it can, game-in and game out.
That’s playing with solid effort.
Nebraska fans remember that was a constant under Doc Sadler, the former Husker head coach who returns to Lincoln to join Hoiberg as an assistant coach. He’s in charge of the defense, which will come as no surprise to those who remember Sadler leading his team to the best scoring defense in the Big 12 Conference in three of his six seasons.
Sadler spent the 2013-14 season as an assistant to Hoiberg at Iowa State, and Hoiberg immediately sought out Sadler to join his staff in Lincoln. He did the same with Matt Abdelmassih, his ace recruiter while at Iowa State, while retaining Nebraska assistant Armon Gates.
So the pieces are in place. Now, as Cheatham said, it’s time to “lock in” and get serious.
“Every game will be an opportunity for us,” Hoiberg said. “We have 30 chances, starting (Tuesday), to go out there and hopefully leave everything on the floor. Go out and play together and through tough times, most importantly, stick together.”