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Watkins: Fred Hoiberg and Nebraska basketball are moving beyond past obstacles

Watkins: Fred Hoiberg and Nebraska basketball are moving beyond past obstacles

Big Ten media day

The journey toward this season has been complicated, but for the first time under Fred Hoiberg, Nebraska has the type of team he envisioned before his world — everyone’s world — turned messy.

Meet the Nebraska men's basketball team for the 2021-22 season.

INDIANAPOLIS — The last time Fred Hoiberg sat on the left sideline at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, he stared at the floor. He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. And eventually, he had to leave early.

Hoiberg’s bout with influenza during the 2020 Big Ten tournament put him in the hospital and punctuated the end of a strange first season at Nebraska. The Huskers returned just two players from Tim Miles’ 2018-19 team. Hoiberg, who called his entry point in Lincoln “the ground level” during Big Ten media day, filled the roster with freshmen, transfers and football players, most of whom would be gone by the following fall.

Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams would call that moment Hoiberg’s “transition period,” the time between one coach leaving a program and another coach gaining control.

The transition requires nuance. When she replaced Connie Yori in 2016, Williams tried to maintain the traditions that helped Yori average 20 wins over 14 seasons while building the program in her own image. Williams found that balance challenging, and “I certainly didn’t walk in like Fred did.”

The further Hoiberg walked, the more obstacles he encountered. The COVID-19 pandemic robbed him of last offseason and forced the Huskers to play a ridiculous Big Ten schedule. Hoiberg said during his opening statement at Big Ten media day that COVID hit Nebraska “as hard as any team in the country.”

An hour later, Hoiberg answered questions at a smaller lectern, coincidentally positioned along the same sideline he sat along two years earlier. Nineteen players have joined Nebraska’s roster since then. Only one current player, Derrick Walker, played on Hoiberg’s first team.

The turnover makes Hoiberg’s job challenging, but it’s not all bad. The further Nebraska strays from Hoiberg’s early days, the closer it creeps to its goals. As Hoiberg enters his third season, the Huskers have more continuity and talent than they did in his first two seasons, and it’s not close.

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When Hoiberg left the Fieldhouse this week, he walked away smiling and healthy. The journey toward this season has been complicated, but for the first time under Hoiberg, Nebraska has the type of team Hoiberg envisioned before his world — everyone’s world — turned messy.

“There's different stages where you start your program, and we started basically from scratch,” Hoiberg said. "We've had two different rosters. ... With what we took over, and what we had to deal with with COVID a year ago, I think we feel very good, and we're definitely on the right trajectory.”

Other observations from Big Ten media day:

» Trey McGowens called the team meeting in June to discuss role acceptance. Hoiberg said McGowens has grown significantly as a leader this offseason. Continuity can be overrated, but between McGowens, Walker and Kobe Webster, Nebraska has three incumbent voices leading the locker room. That matters for a team with nine new faces.

» Alonzo Verge is a delight. His outfit, his energy, his wit. We’ll see if Verge can lead Nebraska’s offense to new heights, but we already know he’s a walking good time.

» Hoiberg stopped short of co-signing McGowens’ “Kill the Big Ten” quote. But he supported the confidence his players projected in Indianapolis.

Coaches are supposed to back their players, but would Hoiberg approach this situation the same if McGowens was talking about the 2019 roster? I’d guess no.

» Hoiberg is an old pro in media settings. If he knows a reporter’s name, he’ll drop it. He dishes “good question” compliments often, but not often enough where they grow stale. And if given the chance, he’ll joke with his questioner.

“Is that a compliment?” Hoiberg asked when a reporter asked about Nebraska’s coach pioneering the transfer movement at Iowa State. We all laughed.

» Interesting to see the way Kansas fans gobbled Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren’s quote about basketball’s role in conference realignment.

Warren said the sport would play an “important” role in realignment but never elaborated on what that might mean. He said basketball was popular and fans were excited to pack arenas. He said he loved all sports but “adored” basketball. Maybe Kansas does eventually transform the Big Ten into a hoops super league, but I don’t think that move was foreshadowed this week.

» Yes, the Big Ten statistic about its women's hoops coverage (52% of all live programming) is skewed. The men’s games would eat into that pie chart if they didn’t play on national television as often.

But the conference is trying. We could all take a note there. Too many women’s players and coaches sat awkwardly waiting for questions from few or no reporters during the smaller interview sessions in Indianapolis.

If you don’t think that matters, here’s Williams describing the importance of the women’s players’ presence in Indianapolis.

“It’s really an important thing to have players who pour so much into our program be celebrated,” Williams said. “I think this is a really special way to do that and make (players) feel like people care (about) what’s happening in women’s basketball.”

» Surprised by how much Iowa coach Fran McCaffery leaned into his nostalgia for the Luka Garza days. We all know Garza was a transformational player, but in openly asking who the Hawkeyes’ go-to scorer would be, McCaffrey sounded like he was prepping fans for a reset season.

» Warren likes to make his guests feel welcome. He offered a hug for every coach and a shoulder slap for every passerby, including me. I didn’t see the gesture coming. I almost fell out of my seat.

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