Huskers move the ball during preseason game against Doane

Nebraska's Cam Mack (3) looks to pass the ball to Yvan Ouedraogo (24) during the Huskers' exhibition match against Doane University at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska came second-to-last in an unofficial Big Ten media poll ahead of the 2019-2020 basketball season. Consisting of media personalities from The Athletic, Omaha World-Herald and other large publications, this survey shows one fact about Nebraska basketball at this moment in time—it’s probably not going to be cutting down the nets in April.

Despite bringing in Fred Hoiberg, the highest-profile coach in program history and the only coach with an NBA-tenure under his belt, expectations are low for a season which many expect to be one of transition.

The most important thing for Nebraska basketball at this juncture is to develop a sense of direction and purpose for the program going forward, and to establish a basketball culture centered around operating an intricate, pro-level offense.

“I think once we establish the way we want to play, and again you get the recruits on campus and they see these beautiful facilities, we’re going to have a chance,” Hoiberg said in his introductory press conference. “We’re going to have a chance at any kid that walks in here.” 

Hoiberg understands that one of the biggest draws for Nebraska recruits is the opportunity to play a pro-style, enjoyable offense under a coach with NBA experience. This first season will be a proof-of-concept for Hoiberg’s hire, the beginning of a validation that it was time to move on from the high expectations and equally high disappointments of the Tim Miles era.

Whether or not Fred Hoiberg’s run-and-gun, team-first system works in a Big Ten based on physicality and individual exceptionalism will be the defining characteristic of his tenure at Nebraska. 

But should it succeed, Nebraska basketball will have finally established something which it was never quite able to before, something which could extend far beyond the end of Hoiberg’s tenure—an offensive identity and a culture.

These things are by no means easily created. It took Hoiberg’s Iowa State a year before reaching the NCAA Tournament. But just as they are hard to implement, once an identity is founded in a program it’s hard to erase or separate. Under Steve Prohm, four years after Hoiberg’s tenure ended, Iowa State continues to emphasize an efficient, fast-paced offense, as the Cyclones finished 18th in the country in offensive rating in the 2018-2019 season.

Projected Starting Lineup

A starting lineup is hard to predict, as Hoiberg doesn’t necessarily follow traditional position archetypes. There’s no center on the roster, for example. His system has four guards, three of which are not primary ball-handlers, and one rebounding forward. In a press conference before the UC Riverside game, Hoiberg confirmed this was his starting lineup, but that doesn’t mean he won’t tinker throughout the season to find the best fit.

Ball-handling guard: Cam Mack: The sophomore junior college transfer is an explosive ball-handler who can open up space on the perimeter and create his own shot. During a scrimmage with Wichita State, Mack ended with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. 

Off-ball guard: Jervay Green: Junior Jervay Green is a shoot-first guard with some ball-handling abilities and could be deputized as the ball-handling guard if necessary. His off-ball movement makes up for lack of size as a two-guard and his naturally clean jump shot will make him an invaluable piece for the Huskers in the coming season. Freshman Charlie Easley impressed during the pre-season tour in Italy and may play some rotation minutes in this role in the upcoming season.

Off-ball guard: Dachon Burke Jr.: Junior Dachon Burke Jr. had a less-than-incredible opening night against Doane. Despite being a starter and playing 14 minutes, he ended with a plus-minus of one. This means the team was only one point better than Doane when he was on the court. Against Doane, this was the lowest plus-minus of any player who played more than 10 minutes. The big concern with Burke Jr. is his defense. He’s the third-lightest player on the roster at 180 pounds and this frame doesn’t generally lead to stout perimeter defense. In the lineup, his weaknesses defensively will need to be hidden in order for him to excel in what he does best, shooting the ball. 

Off-ball guard: Haanif Cheatham: The senior transfer from Florida Gulf Coast is an efficient 3-point shooter who will benefit from more static sets based off of a simple pick-and-roll, as well as being able to score 3-pointers in transition. He has some ball-handling abilities but should not be considered a play-initiator. Cheatham also takes great pride in his defense, and may be able to play as a point-of-attack on-ball defender, which is crucial for a solid defense. Since he is the largest guard in the lineup, he will also be asked to shoulder the role of interior defender and one of the tertiary rebounders. 

Rebounding forward: Yvan Ouedraogo: The freshman hailing from France possesses a strong frame, and has a wealth of rebounding acumen at his disposal. Expect him to not only be a starter in Hoiberg’s upcoming team but also to be a fixture in the squad for years to come. Expect Cross to be the backup to Ouedraogo in this role, and the two might split the minutes equally. However, should they split the minutes, Ouedraogo will be the player during the final stretch of the second half.