ROSEMONT, Ill. — As usual, Nebraska's coach drew plenty of attention at Big Ten men's basketball media day.
But instead of the Tim Miles standup comedy routine that entertained writers for seven years, the focus this time was on the new guy as Fred Hoiberg made his first appearance at the event in the Chicago suburbs.
Not all that far from where he was coaching the Chicago Bulls less than a year ago, Hoiberg deadpanned that he didn't much miss the annual media gatherings from his days with Iowa State in the Big 12.
Then he got down to the business of trying to explain just how all this — 14 new players and an almost entirely new coaching staff — will work this season.
"One thing I hope is, our three guys — Cam (Mack), Jervay (Green) and Haanif (Cheatham) — they go back and let their teammates know how big these guys are. And how important it is to be able to compete from a physical standpoint," Hoiberg said. "It's a big, physical. conference, maybe the most physical in all of college basketball. So we're going to have to find a way to compete physically, and it's going to be a grind."
Mack, Green and Cheatham were Nebraska's three representatives at media day. None have played in the Big Ten, but then again, there's only one player on Nebraska's roster (Thorir Thorbjarnarson) who can say he has.
The chasm between where these players have come together from to what they're now facing together is a large one. But if there had been a basketball court inside the Rosemont Hilton, Nebraska might have been the first team to put on the sneakers.
"I think just because we’re such a competitive team, we could go play tomorrow if we had to. We’ll play right now if there was a ball and a hoop. But I think we have a lot more to work on, but if you wanted to hoop right now we would hoop," Green said. "But to be professional, we definitely got some things to work on, we’ve got a long way to go. But we’re good. We don’t play our first game until November 5, so we got plenty of time to get things right."
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Green is one of Nebraska's biggest personalities on a team full of players unafraid to be themselves. It makes for a bunch of good candidates to put on front of the BTN cameras, and it won't hurt once the Huskers get on the court either, Hoiberg said.
"I don’t think our guys are going to back down from everybody. 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," Hoiberg said. "But I’ve talked about this since Day 1, we have to get better at playing through tough times and through adversity. We’re great when things are going well. But the thing about this league, if you’re down five and put your head down, the next thing you know you’re down 20."
There are indeed some big boys — both in physical stature and reputation — in the Big Ten. Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston, who might just be the preseason player of the year nationally, sat one table over from three Huskers few hoops fans outside of Nebraska have even heard of. Jon Teske, Michigan's 7-foot-1, 265-pound center, had Green half-jokingly asking, "Yo, why you this big, bro?"
But if Nebraska's players were shook by what they saw, they didn't show it.
"We’ve still got a lot of things to work on. I think we’re not completely there yet, but it’s September right now," Cheatham said. "And as time goes on and we grow month-to-month, you’re only going to see this team get better and better. You’re going to see Coach Hoiberg enjoy this team."
Hoiberg thinks his team can run with anyone. He remains high on Mack, the speedy point guard who appears set for a big role. There will be times Nebraska looks like a top-half team in the league this year. There will also be times the Huskers don't. While the Big Ten doesn't release a formal preseason poll, a survey of the league's beat writers pegged the Huskers 13, with only one of 28 voters picking them to finish higher than 12th.
"It takes time. It’s a situation where we have a completely new roster, and with that comes challenges. There’s no doubt about it. But again, we’re a group that’s going to go out there and hopefully compete at a high level every time we step on the floor and hopefully put ourselves in a position to win," Hoiberg said. "So even though the (outside) expectations are low for our team, we’re not looking at it that way. We’re going to hopefully go out and use these preseason predictions as motivation and hopefully play with a chip on our shoulder. And we’ll see how our guys respond to it.
"When I look at the players from all these teams, there’s some huge bodies, athletic players in this league, and we’re going to have to play together every night if we want to have a chance to win."