By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – After three seasons as the Nebraska men’s basketball coach, Fred Hoiberg had a 24-67 overall record.
His first two teams both finished last in conference play, while his third team finished next to last in the 2021-22 season.
Hoiberg’s return to college basketball looked bleak.
He was trying to revive his once-promising coaching career after an unsuccessful run as the Chicago Bulls head coach where he compiled a 115-155 overall record before being fired 24 games into his fourth season in 2018-19.
And he was also trying to revive a Nebraska program that has very little tradition in men’s basketball, with just one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
The fact that Hoiberg was born in Lincoln, Nebraska added some charm to his story, but at some point, his teams had to start showing progress or he risked being fired from his second consecutive head coaching job.
Progress has since been made as Nebraska is now showing signs in season No. 5 under Hoiberg of having a breakthrough season with records of 13-3 overall and 3-2 in Big Ten play heading into Friday’s game against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The 8:30 p.m. tipoff, coupled with a crippling winter storm, will almost certainly impact attendance, but home-court advantage is still home-court advantage.
The Nebraska team has arrived in Iowa City, so the game will be played despite the brutal conditions outside.
The Nebraska program took baby steps last season, finishing 16-16 overall.
But now with help from the transfer portal, and with veteran players such as guard Keisei Tominaga showing steady improvement, the Cornhuskers appear to be taking the next step in the rebuilding process.
Nebraska made 13 3-point field goals and shot 60.9 percent from long range in an 88-72 win over No. 1 Purdue this past Tuesday. It was the program’s fourth win all-time against the No. 1 ranked team and first since 1982.
“Nebraska was really impressive, I thought, on both ends of the floor,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “I mean they were really working defensively. Obviously, when you play Purdue, they’ve got so many weapons, it’s not easy.”
“Purdue made a couple sustained runs back at them, and they answered every single one with multiple people scoring the basketball. I think that’s what makes them really hard, too, because they’ve got a lot of guys that are producing at a high level.”
Fran McCaffery certainly doesn’t have to be reminded about Nebraska’s potential as Iowa lost both games in the series last season.
Nebraska actually has the best winning percentage in the Big Ten since last Feb. 1.
Fran McCaffery was asked Wednesday in a zoom call how Hoiberg’s squad has done it.
“I think Fred upgraded the roster substantially,” Fran McCaffery said. “It takes a while to put the pieces together. And that’s what he did.
“I think they have a sound defensive philosophy, and the offense is really clicking. It’s not easy stuff to guard. I think they have a good culture. They’re sharing the ball and moving the ball. And they’ve added some pieces out of the portal who are really, really good players.”
Reink Mast, a 6-foot-10 junior forward played his first four seasons for Bradly before transferring to Nebraska as a graduate student.
He is averaging 13.3 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds per game.
“I think Reink Mast is just special,” Fran McCaffery said. “I’m really impressed with him.”
Nebraska has four players averaging in double figures, led by Tominaga at 14.6 points per game. The Japan native also has a team-high 33 3-point field goals.
Guard Brice Williams is averaging 13.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and he also leads the team with 45 assists.
Hoiberg has shown that he can win at the collegiate level as he compiled a 115-56 record in five seasons for his alma mater, Iowa State, and made the NCAA Tournament four times.
He also grew up in Ames and was a star player for the Cyclones in the 1990s, earning the nickname, “The Mayor.”
Hoiberg would go on to play for a decade in the NBA before working in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office.
He had no coaching experience when Iowa State took a chance on him in 2010.
The move paid huge dividends for Iowa State, and now Nebraska is starting to benefit from Hoiberg’s influence.
As for Iowa, it faces the challenge of trying to cool down the surging Cornhuskers.
The Hawkeyes haven’t played since last Saturday’s 86-77 victory over Rutgers at home and will have had nearly a week to prepare for the Cornhuskers.
“It allows you to get done what you want to get done and not feel rushed,” Fran McCaffery said of not playing for nearly a week. “We were able to put the Rutgers game to bed in terms of teaching points that had to be made. We were able to get some lifts in and we’ve had practice and and we’ve had some guys come in on their own for some skill development.
“But also an opportunity to rest a little bit because it’s a long grind, so you don’t want to over do it when you have some time like this. And then you lock in to the scouting report for the next game.”
Fran McCaffery said Wednesday that he expects his son, 6-9 junior forward Patrick McCaffery, to play on Friday. Patrick McCaffery missed the Rutgers game due to an illness.
Nebraska (13-3, 3-2) vs. Iowa (9-6, 1-3)
When: Friday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: Iowa Radio Network
Series record: Iowa leads. 24-15
Last meeting: Nebraska swept the series last season, winning 66-50 in Lincoln and 81-77 in Iowa City.