ROSEMONT, Ill. — Nebraska, 6-14 in the Big Ten last season and potentially worse this season, has more of a men’s basketball buzz at its home than Iowa has in Iowa City.
How can this be, with the Hawkeyes coming off a 23-win season that included a win in the NCAA Tournament? It’s not an indictment against Iowa. Rather, it’s because the Huskers hired Fred Hoiberg as coach last March.
Nebraska sold out its student season tickets in June. It sold out its regular season tickets in August, and that was after raising the prices $2 per game. Opening Night with Husker Hoops sold out Pinnacle Bank Arena last Friday night.
This is a team with two players back from last season, and the leading scorer of the two (Thorir Thorbjarnarson of Iceland) averaged 2.0 points per game.
“I think we have the least production coming back not only in the Big Ten,” Hoiberg said here Wednesday at that conference’s men’s basketball media day, “but I think in the country.”
Heaven can wait. Nebraska fans were ecstatic when Hoiberg was hired to replace Tim Miles. They’ve heard of Iowa State in Nebraska. They saw how the Cyclones played from 2010 to 2015 when Hoiberg was the coach, going 115-56 and reaching four straight NCAA tournaments.
Husker fans are willing to wait out the growing pains of the mass influx of freshmen and transfers Hoiberg has assembled on the prairie. Iowa State went 3-13 in the Big 12 in Hoiberg’s first season. It was 12-6 or 11-7 in each of the four years after that.
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Hoiberg saw the same basic things in Lincoln as he did when he took the Iowa State job in 2010. Great basketball arena, enthusiasm for the sport, and immediate affection for him.
“Even though we’re picked 13th or 14th in a 14-team league,” Hoiberg said, “we’ve sold every ticket for next year. That shows the support that we have.
“I got a firsthand look at the facilities when I was coaching the Bulls and we played an exhibition game there. I was absolutely blown away by Pinnacle Bank Arena. There’s not many arenas like that in college basketball.”
Fran McCaffery’s Iowa teams had some fierce battles against Hoiberg’s Cyclones. Perhaps the Hawkeyes and Huskers will become great basketball rivals.
“Obviously Fred’s a tremendous coach and great person,” McCaffery said. “They’ve got a phenomenal facility, great practice facility, and a great fan base. So there’s a lot of things Fred can build from in that situation. I’m sure he’s excited about that.”
What’s wacky from a distance is how loyal Nebraskans have been to Husker hoops considering the woeful results the program has had over time. The team was 10th nationally in attendance at 15,341 fans per game last season — Iowa was 23rd at 12,869 — and that wasn’t newsworthy. Since the Huskers moved into the new arena in 2013, basketball has been a big thing at the football school.
The arena’s sightlines, acoustics and ambience is as good as anywhere in the Big Ten. It’s in Lincoln’s Haymarket District, with restaurants, bars and shops galore. Going to Husker games becomes a full night for many, dinner and a show.
Sooner or later, you need some sizzle after people have enjoyed some Omaha beef. Enter Hoiberg. His four-season Chicago Bulls tenure will be regarded as nondescript, but coaches are pretty much as good as their talent in the NBA. In the college game, he can wrangle eight or nine players and play the game his way.
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That way, as Cyclone fans remember fondly, is up-tempo, entertaining, and ultimately, successful.
“First and foremost,” Hoiberg said, “it’s going take some time. There’s no doubt about that. We have to understand it’s going to take some time to get (his players) on the same page and get them to jell, and get them to fight through adversity with all the new faces.”
But the future?
“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we could win and win consistently. We have everything we need in order to do that with our facilities and with our fan support.”
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