Fred Hoiberg built his reputation on a pretty jump shot and prettier play calls.
Entering his fourth season at Nebraska, Hoiberg is counting on his Huskers to excel at the ugly.
Defense. Rebounds. Loose balls. According to Hoiberg’s players, that’s where Nebraska’s success begins in 2022.
“I’d say start on defense,” sophomore Wilhelm Breidenbach said after NU’s first official practice Tuesday. “We’ve been really getting after it on defense, which I think people will see. We’ll make it hard on the offense. We’re always going full speed, talking, being physical, being aggressive.”
Those are qualities NU has lacked for much of Hoiberg’s tenure. Since the former Bulls and Iowa State coach was hired, the Huskers have ranked no better than 11th in defensive efficiency during Big Ten play. They’ve only won nine of 62 conference games as a result.
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Hoiberg recognized those faults this offseason and rebuilt his roster around size, length and mettle. Four of NU’s seven scholarship guards – including grad transfers Sam Griesel and Emmanuel Bandoumel – stand 6-foot-4 or taller. Three scholarship big men stand at least 6-foot-10, and that doesn’t include Alabama transfer Juwan Gary, whose insatiable appetite for rebounds compensates for his 6-foot-6 frame.
NU’s players compliment their size with dogged defensive instincts. Bandoumel takes joy in badgering opposing ball-handlers for 90 feet. Redshirt freshman Denim Dawson leads the Huskers in deflections this offseason. And sophomore Blaise Keita, the sophomore center Nebraska plucked from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, leads the Huskers in charges by “a wide margin,” according to Hoiberg.
As of Sept. 16, when Nebraska tweeted a photo of Hoiberg wearing a black t-shirt that featured the charge leaderboard, Keita had a 6-4 lead on walk-on guard Sam Hoiberg. NU’s coaches hope someone closes the gap.
“It is something that we’re really challenging our guys to do,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We’re calling everything. If they’re in position, if they get down there, we’re calling a ton of charges right now.”
Positioning will prove important for a roster like Nebraska’s without a proven rim protector. So will the perimeter defense provided by lanky guards Bandoumel, Griesel, and Ramel Lloyd Jr.
Hoiberg’s flowery offense? “That will take care of itself,” Bandoumel said. Particularly if the Huskers commit to ugly basketball.
After one day of practice, they sound like they have.
“We understand that was a weakness for us for the past few years,” Bandoumel said of NU’s defense. “… We know that to win in the Big Ten – to win in any conference – it starts with defense and rebounding. We’re buying into that. We’re putting the work in to get better.”
* Hoiberg said guard Quaran McPherson had successful surgery on his injured knee last week. McPherson was slated to be a part of NU’s rotation this year but will miss the season. Hoiberg is hopeful that the redshirt freshman will make a full recovery.
Meanwhile, Griesel has returned to practice and been cleared for full contact. He’s still on a workload restriction, but the North Dakota State transfer participated in every portion of Tuesday’s practice without exceeding his limit. Hoiberg expects Griesel’s workload to increase going forward.
Finally, NU has eliminated all restrictions on Breidenbach after the sophomore suffered a season-ending knee injury last season. Asked how confident he felt in the knee, Breidenbach said, “I’m back.”
*How might Nebraska’s offense look this season?
“A lot of ball movement,” Bandoumel said. “Not as much dribbling and taking bad shots.”
These Huskers have the same agenda, in Bandoumel’s words. They’re more concerned with finding shots for teammates than counting their own points. In fact, they might be a little too worried about creating for others.
“We’ve got to remind each other we’re good shooters,” Bandoumel said. “… We’re actually pushing each other to take shots because sometimes we over-pass it. It’s good to be unselfish, but at the same time, you need to get some points on the board.”
Hoiberg agrees with Bandoumel on all fronts. NU’s coach sees a more “balanced” scoring attack this season, which has historically been a good sign for teams he’s coached. All four of Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams that made the NCAA Tournament featured at least three double-figure scorers, while his Nebraska teams have only produced such balance once – during his first season.
Unselfish players don’t have to be shy about shooting, though. Hoiberg encourages shooters like C.J. Wilcher and Keisei Tominaga to fire away if they see any daylight. He wants freshmen Lloyd and Jamarques Lawrence to shoot with confidence, too.
“But if the next (pass) is there to be made,” Hoiberg said, “we want to make that extra pass. It has been a really unselfish group, and I’ve been really pleased with that early on.”
* With McPherson out and Griesel still on a load restriction, Hoiberg has been impressed with Bandoumel, Lloyd and walk-on Cale Jacobsen as primary ball handlers. He plans to let forwards Walker and Breidenbach initiate offense, too.
* Hoiberg on if he feels pressure after three straight losing seasons: “I feel pressure every day of my life. That’s just what comes with this job.”