LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska built some of the best basketball facilities in the nation. The Cornhuskers have ranked among the top 10 in attendance for nearly a decade. They made one of the biggest splash hires in 2019 when they landed Fred Hoiberg.
Three years into what was supposed to be a new era of Husker hoops, Nebraska is still the same old Nebraska.
Hoiberg's charge was to bring sustained success to a program that hasn't won a conference championship since 1950 and remains the only one in the Power Five to have never won an NCAA Tournament game.
By the numbers, Nebraska has never been worse.
“I still think we’re going to get it done here. I really do,” Hoiberg said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Hoiberg is 20-54 overall, 5-38 in the Big Ten and 1-27 in road games. His .270 winning percentage is the lowest through any Nebraska coach's first 74 games. The Huskers have lost 19 straight against ranked opponents under Hoiberg and a program-record 20 overall.
Nebraska (6-9, 0-4) will go into its game at Rutgers on Saturday off losses in seven of its last eight. A breakthrough looked imminent last Sunday when the Huskers led No. 13 Ohio State by five points with 36 seconds left in regulation before losing 87-79 in overtime. They lost 79-67 at No. 10 Michigan State on Wednesday.
Hoiberg was one of the hottest names in the 2019 hiring cycle based on his work at Iowa State from 2010-15. He took over an ISU program that had four straight losing seasons and went 115-56 in his five years and was the first Cyclones coach to make four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
He left to coach the Chicago Bulls in 2015, got fired in December 2018 and was looking to get back in the game when Nebraska hired him and gave him a seven-year, $25 million contract paying him $3.5 million this year.
Basketball traditionally had been an afterthought at Nebraska, but former athletic director Bill Moos declared Hoiberg's arrival signaled the Huskers were “all in” on the sport.
Nebraska’s 20 wins since 2019-20 are the fewest among Power Five schools, according to Sports Reference.
“I guess in year three you probably would have thought, with a lot of his players in place, that we would be a little bit farther along than we are now,” said Dave Hoppen, the Huskers' all-time leading scorer. “Just very frustrating and tough to watch sometimes just because you see a lot of the same mistakes over and over again.”
Hoppen, who played from 1983-86 and had his No. 42 jersey retired, attends every home game and is a donor to the program. He said the degree of difficulty for Hoiberg at Nebraska is greater than it was at Iowa State because of the depth and strength of the Big Ten.
Hoiberg listed a confluence of other factors that have worked against him as well.
His late-March hiring, coupled with a exodus that left him with one player who suited up for a game in Tim Miles' final season, required him to scramble to put together his initial roster.
Year two was blown up by a midseason COVID-19 outbreak that caused the team to go 26 days between games before closing the regular season with 14 games over 30 days.
Optimism ran high entering this season. Hoiberg signed the program's first five-star recruit in Bryce McGowens and ESPN ranked the class 13th nationally.
But early on the Huskers lost their fifth “buy” game in three years, to Western Illinois of the Summit League. Then their team leader and best perimeter defender, Trey McGowens, broke his right foot Nov. 16. In December, they had a week of limited practices because of an illness that ran through the team, and losses of 35 points to Michigan at home and 31 points to Auburn on a neutral court followed.
“Year three is a big year,” Hoiberg said, “but when you look at the circumstances of what we’ve gone through the first two ... Some people take over programs where you have an All-American or you have some continuity. We didn’t have that here. We started from scratch, so it’s going to take some time.”
Even considering the setbacks, the Huskers have underperformed. Hoiberg has long preferred the five-out spread offense he employed at Iowa State. It's a free-flowing system reliant on perimeter shooting. The problem is that his players have often lacked discipline, jacking up quick and ill-advised 3-pointers rather than moving the ball. The result: 28% shooting from behind the arc.
Hoiberg has recently transitioned to a four-out, one-in offense that runs through Derrick Walker in the post. Walker is shooting 77.5% from the field and had 15 points against Ohio State and 16 against Michigan State.
“Good things happen when the ball touches his hands,” Hoiberg said.
Hoppen said he likes Hoiberg's offensive adjustment and wishes it happened sooner.
Hoiberg said he expected to have a strong 3-point shooting team based on preseason practices and two exhibition games. That hasn't been the case, and he said it became obvious the offense needed to slow down. The Huskers also have missed key free throws, causing them to squander late leads against Western Illinois, North Carolina State and Ohio State.
“Winning a game like we had against Ohio State, that game alone could completely flip the perception of your group, but it didn’t happen,” Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg said he senses his team is on the cusp of winning.
College basketball's most respected analytics website does not. KenPom projects the Huskers to finish 3-17 in the Big Ten.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25