The last two times the Nebraska men’s basketball team took the floor, it appeared as if the program had a chance to turn that seemingly-elusive corner in Big Ten play.
Late December was dreary for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s squad. Nebraska suffered second-half meltdowns in losses to Wisconsin and Michigan, and was trounced by nearly 40 points at Ohio State to close 2020.
Then came the turn of the calendar. Nebraska nearly erased a second-half home deficit against a then-ranked Michigan State team, and did the same just over a week later against Indiana — albeit with both resulting in three-possession losses.
“I was very pleased with how we were playing, especially in our last two games,” Hoiberg said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Against Michigan State we had a chance to win, missed a key blockout at the end when it was a two-possession game with under a minute to go and then Indiana… I thought we executed down the stretch maybe as well as we had all year.”
Junior guard Teddy Allen racked up 44 total points in both contests and junior forward Lat Mayen had appeared to snap a lengthy shooting slump with five made 3-pointers against Indiana. Nebraska even welcomed junior forward Derrick Walker into the fold, as the Indiana game was his first of the season following a suspension for an NCAA violation while he was at Tennessee.
Things were looking up, then they weren’t. Nebraska had a game against Purdue on Jan. 5 postponed out of “an abundance of caution” for health and safety. The game against Indiana fell on Jan. 10. One day later, the program went on pause due to positive COVID-19 tests among its Tier 1 personnel. Five postponed games and nearly one month later, the team is set to return to action against one of the teams it last played, Michigan State.
Hoiberg confirmed that 15 of Nebraska’s 30 total Tier 1 personnel have had the coronavirus and that the team was able to practice for the first time on Saturday — 20 days after the team originally went on pause. In Hoiberg’s fast-paced offense, conditioning and proper offensive timing is imperative, something he says will take time to get back to pre-pause levels.
“...Conditioning, we are a long ways away from being where we need to be, and rightfully so with basically 20 days of inactivity it’s going to take a while to get that back,” Hoiberg said. “It reminds me of the All-Star break in the NBA, those first couple practices back were sloppy… It took a couple of days to get the conditioning back and those first couple of games weren’t very good as well.”
One of the bigger storylines of Nebraska’s pause was Hoiberg’s health, as he announced on Jan. 17 that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He said that he was “scared” following his diagnosis, due to his two open heart surgeries and the fact that he is “fully dependent on a pacemaker.”
Hoiberg called the virus “the real deal,” and said that both he and the assistant coaches that had the coronavirus all had severe symptoms. According to Hoiberg, a majority of the team was asymptomatic, and a few exhibited mild symptoms. For Hoiberg, the worst part of contracting COVID-19 was the fatigue, something he says he’s still trying to work back from.
“[COVID-19] hit me hard early, and it was kind of like a roller coaster. I felt pretty good on day four and then on day six it was almost back to square one again,” Hoiberg said. “I’m really fortunate to be where I am, my oxygen levels stayed normal the whole time and I never really got a high fever.”
While in isolation, Nebraska men’s basketball strength coach Tim Wilson gave players bodyweight workouts to do, according to Hoiberg, but that was about the extent of the team’s physical activity before the Huskers returned to practice over the weekend. Hoiberg said that he eventually worked up the stamina to watch film on every game his team has played this year, but not without going through the same struggles that hit close to home for the millions of people worldwide that have contracted COVID-19.
“I think the mental part of it really comes from the shutdown and the isolation, that’s the hardest part,” Hoiberg said. “When you have to go sit in a room and you can’t leave for 10 days that is not easy, especially when you can’t feel anything.”
Fortunately, Nebraska overcame its team-wide infection and returned to the floor, where the Huskers now face a unique challenge to close their season. The nature of Nebraska’s pause, combined with the fact that it happened so late in the season, led some people to the assumption that the Huskers might be better off postponing the remainder of their schedule.
According to Hoiberg, Nebraska communicated with the Big Ten for the duration of its pause, and that shutting down the season “never came up.” However, Nebraska is still trying to complete all 20 of its conference games before the Big Ten Tournament begins on March 10.
Nebraska currently has 15 conference games left to play. Hoiberg said that Huskers are trying to get all of the games scheduled, and nearly anything and everything is on the table in order to make that happen.
The possibility of back-to-backs were brought up, in which Nebraska would play on consecutive days against the same opponent at the same venue, whether it be home or away. According to CBS Sports, half of the 32 Division I conferences are utilizing back-to-backs in conference play, so it wouldn’t be a foreign concept.
“To be able to play that amount of game in a short amount of time, it’s going to be very much like an NBA schedule,” Hoiberg said. “The Big Ten has done a really good job of staying in contact with us, talking to us about our schedule and trying to get the remaining 15 games in.”
So, while the rest of Nebraska’s schedule isn’t finalized, Nebraska’s most immediate challenge is Saturday’s contest with Michigan State. Hoiberg said that Nebraska’s sports scientist, Chris Bach, has been working closely with the coaching staff to devise a “return to play” schedule for the team — with the goal to have the Huskers as competitive and as fresh as possible against the Spartans.
As for Michigan State, the Spartans are an entirely different foe from the last time these two teams met. Following the Spartans’ Jan. 8 loss to Purdue, Michigan State had three games postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the program.
Head coach Tom Izzo’s squad returned to action on Jan. 28 and has been far from competitive, losing by 30 points to Rutgers and dropping a 79-62 decision to then-No. 13 Ohio State on Jan. 31. Before Michigan State’s loss to Purdue, the Spartans were the No. 23 team in the country. Now, Michigan State is in second-to-last place in the conference at 2-6 and are out of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projection of the NCAA Tournament.
If Michigan State loses to No. 8 Iowa tonight, it will be on a four-game losing streak entering Saturday’s matchup. To make matters worse for Nebraska, Hoiberg said that Husker sophomore guard Dalano Banton sprained his ankle in Saturday’s practice and is “day-to-day” moving forward.
And while Hoiberg said that his team is slowly rounding back into shape, a road game against a hungry opponent following a lengthy layoff is far from how he pictured the state of his team with just over a month remaining in the regular season.
“It’s obviously not ideal but it hasn’t been ideal for a lot of people this year,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve just got to do the best job we can, we’re going to have to rotate [players] very quickly. Hopefully, if everybody’s clear we will be at full strength on Saturday.”