The Nebraska Men’s basketball team is on hiatus until Sunday, when they are done with finals this week, so I wanted to take stock of the opening ten games. In previous iterations of Fred Hoiberg’s teams, it hasn’t really gone all that smoothly. This year is happily different. In his first year, which was 2019-2020, Nebraska went 4-6. The record was the same in 2020-2021 through 10 games. In 2021-2022, Nebraska was 5-5, which included that 4OT heartbreaking loss to NC State. In 2022-2023, Nebraska was 6-4, beating Creighton but losing a close OT battle with Purdue. This year, Nebraska is 8-2, coming off a good home win against Michigan State, but losing a bit of a head scratcher in Minnesota a few days before.
The point is this, Nebraska has steadily improved to start the year as Hoiberg has gone along. He’s clearly taking small, but progressive steps to ensuring his team is more competitive year in year out. This year is no different, but also entirely different to previous teams. The first couple of years, Fred was trying to figure out how to coach in the Big Ten. He quickly, and rather rudely, found that trying to play Big 12 style of basketball really doesn’t fly in the Big Ten. Having a bunch of guys (particularly big men who can shoot 3’s), but not bang the boards, won’t get you very far. The other key piece Coach Hoiberg has gotten better at is finding scoring depth. There are far fewer scoring droughts of 3+ minutes than there have been in recent years.
Case in point, there are currently 4 players averaging double figures in points per game so far. In fact, Juwan Gary, Rienk Mast, Keisei Tominaga and Brice Williams are all averaging 14+ points. The scoring depth means that teams have to focus on the group, as opposed to one guy, namely Tominaga. Juwan Gary is a guy who has discovered a 3-point shot but does most of his damage inside. Mast is another guy who is a physical presence in the post, which helps open the floor for guys like Keisei and Brice.
The other key stat is rebounding. In the past, Nebraska has been outrebounded by teams smaller than them. So far, not this year. Nebraska is averaging 40 rebounds per game, and an average of 4.9 more than their opponents per game. Rienk Mast leads the way at 9.8 rebounds per contest, which nearly puts him at a double-double per game. To me, the improved rebounding is more than just Mast, but with Josiah Allick, Gary, Williams, Sam Hoiberg, Jarron Coleman and Jamarques Lawrence all averaging multiple rebounds, it clearly shows the message is for all 5 guys to crash the glass.
I know Nebraska hasn’t exactly played a gauntlet of a schedule, but that will improve here shortly. In past seasons, the “easy” non-conference wins have been tough to come by. Not this season. Nebraska has proven its depth and talent this year is better than every previous one under Fred Hoiberg. The toughest test in the non-conference will be Kansas State coming up here on Sunday, but I believe Nebraska has the firepower to knock off the Wildcats. For once, there is a genuine belief that this Nebraska team could make the NCAA tournament, not just the NIT.
So yes, Nebrasketball fans, hug it out. Ten games into this season and a team that was picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten preseason poll looks like a team that could finish in the top half. I do realize the one conference loss was against the team that was picked to finish last in the shape of Minnesota, but Nebraska couldn’t play a much worse 2nd half all season if it tried (I hope). This group creates more open looks by sharing the ball, more guys can score and most importantly, they aren’t getting beat on the glass. Fred Hoiberg has gotten something figured out, and it is starting to show up at a school in desperate need of a good men’s basketball program. Go Big Red!