There is nothing in Nebraska’s past to give any hints as to how this all will go.
The Fred Hoiberg era — a still somewhat unbelievable phrase to some — is upon the Husker men’s basketball team. The season is here. The future is now.
Never has a men’s basketball coach in this little corner of the world walked the sidelines with Hoiberg’s credentials. Never has a Nebraska team played the way Hoiberg’s teams are going to play.
Danny Nee wanted his teams to run, and they did, but those Huskers didn’t shoot threes like Hoiberg’s teams will. And all the coaches that followed Nee — Barry Collier, Doc Sadler and Tim Miles — preferred a defense-first style that produced little in the way of success.
It’s an interesting study in opposites. The big personality of Miles runs counter to the quieter nature of Hoiberg. Hoiberg’s freewheeling, offense-first style of play seems like the type of system a coach with Miles’ personality would run.
But it’s not. It’s Hoiberg’s. He lived a version of it as a player at Iowa State, and later became one of the top three-point shooters in the NBA. He came to understand deeply just how important spacing and finding favorable matchups were in getting teams and individuals into successful positions.
Now, he'll try to make it work at Nebraska with a roster that bears next to no resemblance to the one that took the floor last season.
"It's a major change. Fourteen new guys, obviously you want to build chemistry right away, but I think we've learned that it's going to be a process," Hoiberg said recently. "From the day we left for Italy to right now... I think everybody's coming along, learning our system.
"I don't think our guys are going to back down from anybody. We're going to give up size at every position this year, there's no doubt about it. But our guys are going to go out there thinking they're the best players on the floor. You have to have that mentality."
There will be stretches Nebraska will look like a top-10 team in the country, and stretches NU looks like a bottom-10 team in the country, and oftentimes those stretches will come in the same game.
But there is a method to Hoiberg’s plan. Everything is geared toward instilling confidence in his players, and just as importantly, confidence in high-level recruits and potential transfer targets, that his way will work.
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Hoiberg already has five years of proof at Iowa State, where he finished as the school’s all-time leader in winning percentage despite having not coached a game prior to his return to Ames.
“It seemed like for him that it just kind of came as second nature,” said former Cyclone Melvin Ejim, who was the 2014 Big 12 Player of the Year under Hoiberg’s watch. “He was able to make that shift so cohesive that people in the stands and people that were watching knew that it was going in the right direction and it was going to be fun.”
Iowa State scratched its way to a .500 record in Hoiberg’s first season, but took its lumps with a 3-13 Big 12 record.
In Hoiberg’s second season, the Cyclones were in the NCAA Tournament. Then, it was off to the races.
And on this year’s team, the seeds of confidence are already being sewn.
“I feel like we have a chance to be at least top four in this conference,” point guard Cam Mack said.
Brash? Perhaps. But Hoiberg would prefer his players think that way.
“He’s really intelligent and he really understands the offensive game, obviously, but a lot of folks do,” said NU special assistant to the head coach Bobby Lutz, himself a long-time coach and proponent of uptempo basketball. “What he’s really good at, is he instills tremendous confidence in his offensive players. I always gave freedom on offense, provided you play hard and rebound. You’ve got to guard a little bit and rebound, and then I’m going to give you some freedom.
“That’s his approach, but then he really has become even better at spacing and spreading people out, taking advantage of mismatches. … He sees advantages and disadvantages very, very quickly and he’s able to take advantage of them.”
In a way, that makes it even more difficult to place expectations on this program. It's not known if this roster can compete in the Big Ten, because this group has never been together. On the other hand, Hoiberg expects a certain level of play that will, eventually, lead to results.
"I compare it a little bit to our five years in Ames. We took over a program that had a couple tough years … and we had a couple seasons where I felt we had a roster to compete for a national championship," Hoiberg said. ""I feel good about the way we built that program. And I feel good about the blueprint as far as getting a recruiting class to compete (quickly), and that's what I expect to do here."