Haanif Cheatham didn’t quite know what he had signed up for.
Coming off a season in which he averaged 13 points per game at Florida Gulf Coast, he wanted to return to the highest level of college basketball for his final season.
Instead of choosing an already established program, he opted for the unknown in Fred Hoiberg and Nebraska.
There’s a reason that three of the four schools (Cincinnati, Arkansas, Virginia Tech, Arizona) that were high on Cheatham’s list also had first-year head coaches. Cheatham was a rare graduate transfer that had multiple years of starting experience in a conference that had won two of the past four national championships. For a new coach, a player like that could be a team leader from their first day on campus.
For Hoiberg and Nebraska, Cheatham was exactly that for the 2019-20 season.
Prior to the start of the season, Hoiberg made it clear that Cheatham was the leader of the team. That sentiment never changed, as he is the only player on the roster to have started every game of the season.
“He’s been the rock for this team as far as leadership [goes],” Hoiberg said about Cheatham. “He’s taken pride in that role, showing the younger guys how to work.”
Cheatham was the first player to commit to Hoiberg. He took an official visit to Lincoln on the weekend of April 20 and committed during the visit.
“Honestly, I made the best decision ever,” Cheatham said about it. “Playing for this team, playing for the coaching staff and the fans, it’s been an amazing time and an amazing experience … I loved it here.”
Cheatham came to Nebraska in part because of the thrill of the unknown. After having success at Marquette as a starter for two seasons, he decided to transfer to Florida Gulf Coast. He knew what it was like to play in the NCAA Tournament and earn personal accolades, being named Marquette’s defensive player of the year both seasons he was there.
At Nebraska, there were a few things that stood out above the rest of the potential suitors: 11 open roster spots and a head coach with experience as both a professional player and coach.
Regardless of who else joined him, both Hoiberg and Cheatham knew that he would have a chance to be a leader. While that can have its glamour, in a season that went as tough as Nebraska’s, it meant taking a lot more responsibility for everything that didn’t go well.
The excitement over Hoiberg’s first season at Nebraska waned quickly. It took about 90 minutes into the season for people to realize that this was a complete rebuild that would take a significant amount of time. After starting the Hoiberg era off with a 66-47 loss to UC-Riverside, Cheatham was the lone player that had to face the media despite finishing with one point on 0-3 shooting.
Throughout a season that has had 21 more losses to date, it was usually Cheatham that took questions representing the players afterward. Even after his own senior night, which ended with a heartbreaking 81-76 loss to Northwestern in overtime, Cheatham was the player who had to put the team’s feelings into words.
As the Hoiberg era continues on without Cheatham after this month, his impact will still linger. For next year’s team and the ones to follow, he has one simple message to them that he hopes they remember.
“When things get tough, don’t quit,” he said. “Continue to fight, continue to work hard and things will work out.”
As for Cheatham’s personal future, his past month of play could improve it significantly. After inconsistent play through the month of January, he finally found stability in the midst of the worst losing streak in the history of Nebraska basketball.
Starting with a close loss at Rutgers on Jan. 25, Cheatham scored 10 points or more in eight of his past 10 games, averaging 13.5 per game. With teammates struggling with the grind of a 20-game conference schedule, Cheatham now leads the Huskers in scoring at 12.6 points per game.
After his time comes to an end in Lincoln, the future will once again be uncertain. But that’s something Cheatham has come to expect and embrace.
“It’s a journey,” he said. “Nothing will come easy … you may have one plan and God has another. You’re going to take different routes, and you just have to overcome it, keep your head high and put one foot in front of the other.”