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Nebraska basketball's most-talented team fell apart. How do these Huskers avoid that fate?

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Danny Nee-Fred Hoiberg

Some believe Fred Hoiberg has Nebraska's most-talented team since Danny Nee's squad in 1995-96. But that team fell apart. How does Hoiberg avoid a similar fate?

LINCOLN — The texts flew back and forth like 3-pointers at Pinnacle Bank Arena. During Nebraska’s Opening Night scrimmage, Nebraska radio announcer Kent Pavelka and former Husker Andy Markowski couldn’t believe the talent on the court.

Five former four-star recruits, five-star freshman Bryce McGowens, high-flying finishers and shooters everywhere.

Pavelka and Markowski wondered: When was the last time the Huskers fielded a team like this? Not before Danny Nee led the Huskers to new heights during the 1990s, they concluded. Not after, either. Even during Nee’s tenure, they weren’t sure.

The 1991 Huskers won a school-record 26 games. The ‘94 team won Nebraska's only conference championship since 1950. But did those teams — or any Nee team — boast a roster as skilled as this year’s?

“We kind of settled on the '95-96 team,” Pavelka said. “Maybe the best talent since that team.”

Ominous choice.

The '95-96 Huskers boasted six future pros — three in the NBA (Erick Strickland, Tyronn Lue, Mikki Moore) and three internationally (Jaron Boone, Venson Hamilton, Terrance Badgett) — but they also lost 10 of 11 games after starting 15-4. They staged a boycott with plans to influence a coaching change. And though they won the NIT that season, Pavelka — who traveled and dined with those Huskers — thought they were one of the top 20 or 30 teams in the country.

“It was all about a bunch of egos,” he said.

That was before hoop mixtapes and Twitter noise. Before one-and-done and NIL. Pavelka doesn’t see egotism in this Nebraska team, but he wonders about the distractions, expectations and math.

“There aren’t enough minutes” to satisfy every player on Nebraska’s roster, he said. Talented players will ride the bench while teammates rise to prominence. And social media will juxtapose those shortcomings with their AAU pals’ successes.

How the Huskers manage those pressures will determine their place in Nebraska history.

“In today’s day and age, all the ingredients are considerations,” Pavelka said. “There’s just so many. All those things can turn on you, potentially.”

Husker coach Fred Hoiberg gives an update on the Nebraska men's basketball team ahead of scrimmages.

* * *

They met at a teammate’s house. Nine players, no coaches. Amid a nine-game losing streak, the ‘95-96 Huskers needed to talk.

They believed Nee had broken too many promises concerning playing time. They were tired of his mistreatment. And they wanted change.

They skipped practice, met with Athletic Director Bill Byrne and tried — but failed — to influence Nee’s firing.

Erick Strickland

Erick Strickland

But as buzz renews around Nebraska hoops, they hope their story can help a future generation avoid the sequel. Strickland, now a radio host at 93.7 FM, keeps his phone nearby in case the Huskers ever need a guest speaker.

“I try to impart a few things when they come on the show individually,” Strickland said. “But I haven't had a chance to speak to them collectively. If anybody ever called, it's not anything that I wouldn't do.”

Strickland would warn them about the signs. And the first one he remembers was “cliquish behavior.”

During their Big Eight title run in 1994, Strickland said the Huskers thrived on chemistry. But by his senior season, the locker room split into factions. Players counted minutes and field-goal attempts. And when they weren’t satisfied with the totals, they ignored play calls to hunt their own shots, ignoring open players for worse looks.

“Just because you don't want to give it to the person that maybe is getting the shine for the week,” Strickland said. “You don't want that, everybody doing (their) own thing. If you're playing outside the system, it's going to cause it to crumble.”

Especially if the players and coaches lack strong rapport.

Husker Hall of Famer Bruce Chubick, who graduated in ‘94 but knew the ‘95-96 team well, maintains that Nebraska could’ve avoided its mess with improved communication.

But before the ‘95 season, Nee lost two assistants — Gary Bargen and Jeff Smith — whom Chubick considered vital to Nebraska’s locker room balance. Along with Lynn Mitchem, who left Nebraska in ‘92, Bargen and Smith were considered big brothers and father figures who would “give players the shirt off their backs.”

Boone said Smith was “his guy.” Bill Johnson and Scott Howard, who replaced Smith and Bargen in ‘95, were good coaches, but “they did stuff differently,” Boone said. “(They weren’t as good at) knowing a player or how to approach him, which angle to take to where they really understood where we were coming from.”

Jaron Boone

Without the help of some key assistants, Jaron Boone said head coach Danny Nee lost respect from his players.

Without those buffers, the Huskers’ displeasure spread through the locker room. “If there's any dissension,” Strickland said, “you won’t be able to hold it in.” They got tired of telling each other, and they didn't think the coaches would listen. So they told the A.D.

And when that didn’t work, they called another meeting they deem instructive 25 years later.

Nebraska took a vote. “If you’re in, you’re in,” Boone said. “If you ain’t, you ain’t. Majority rules.”

The Huskers voted “in” and won the NIT to prove it. But they know they could’ve won more.

Strickland said that team didn’t reach its “true potential.” Chubick said the Huskers underachieved. And Boone knows they could’ve gone “a lot further.”

If only they’d solved their issues sooner.

“The leaders of the team got to have self-check moments,” Strickland said. “Those things help you to keep you in check, keep you humble, keep your focus on the goals that were set. You have those discussions so that they don't fester and then they blow up in your face.”

* * *

Bryce McGowens

Five-star freshman Bryce McGowens is the highest-ranked recruit in Nebraska history, but he's not the only talented player Fred Hoiberg has added to his roster.

They met at a teammate’s apartment. Between 10 and 12 players, no coaches. Before they returned home for three weeks this summer, the 2021-22 Huskers needed to talk.

Senior guard Kobe Webster said he, along with juniors Trey McGowens and Lat Mayen, called the meeting. They felt they’d closed last season strong. And infused with new talent, they felt like this year’s team could be “special.”

But reaching that threshold required common ground. So at the upperclassmen’s behest, Nebraska spent 90 minutes sharing origin stories, team goals and individual expectations.

“We wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page then," Webster said, "so that when we got back there wasn't any confusion or anything new that nobody was aware of. We felt like if we were able to understand where a person comes from and what they're working towards, it’s a lot easier to trust that person on the floor and sacrifice for that person on the court.”

Nebraska has called several similar meetings this offseason — some with coaches, some without. Hoiberg likes those settings because they foster honesty and accountability among players, which is particularly important on a roster with 14 of 18 players on scholarship.

Hoiberg said he’d feel comfortable playing “12 or 13” during a game, "but obviously I can’t play that many.” He can’t promise he’ll play the same rotation every night either. And he knows he can’t satisfy every player under those conditions.

But the Huskers understand Hoiberg has sapped minutes from players better than them. As Webster said, “Coach’s been at the highest level, so you know he's dealt with the most talented players, dealt with egos and different personalities.”

Hoiberg’s professional background bleeds into his practices, where every drill is timed and players run NBA sets. He doesn’t berate mistakes, he corrects them. And he grants players autonomy, both on the court and in the locker room, where he encourages players to criticize their teammates during meetings.

Watching Hoiberg’s practices, Pavelka cannot see today’s Huskers lobbing the same complaints against their coach that the ‘95-96 team did against Nee.

“They all know that this is how they practice in the NBA,” Pavelka said. “This is how they play in the NBA. He’s not being unreasonable.”

The Huskers respond to Hoiberg’s coaching like professionals. When Webster saw his minutes dip last season, he asked Hoiberg how he could regain them. Hoiberg reminded Webster that Nebraska recruited him to “score the ball and be aggressive.”

“And once I figured that out,” Webster said, “it was pretty easy to get to.”

If one of Webster’s teammates suffers a similar setback this season, he can share that story. If they need more reps, he can point them to assistant coaches Nate Loenser or Armon Gates, who specialize in skill work. Or Matt Abdelmassih, who counsels players on personal issues. And if they’re still not satisfied, he can remind them of Nebraska’s preseason meeting.

During that conversation, Webster told the Huskers he “kept to himself” at Western Illinois. He spent a lot of his time in the gym alone, and he didn’t feel comfortable around teammates.

He wanted this team to be different. He craved a “better relationship through basketball.” And to him, that means “being a cheerleader” for your teammates, no matter your situation.

“We want to see everybody succeed,” Webster said. “If that means guys not playing a lot of minutes one night, that's what it has to be. We have to understand that winning is going to really cure that feeling, because if you win, it helps everybody.”

2021-22 Nebraska basketball

Fred Hoiberg calls it a good problem to have, but he will have to find a way to spread minutes around to many deserving players.

* * *

To this day, Boone is baffled by how his team’s chemistry fractured so dramatically during his senior season. He didn’t understand Nebraska’s issues until the Huskers met to discuss the boycott. Pavelka didn’t see the dissent until he read about it in the paper.

Therein lies Hoiberg’s greatest challenge.

“Everybody can say the right things now when you're just in practice,” he said. “But will that same mentality continue to stick once you start playing games and maybe things aren't going exactly how you want them to go?”

He doesn’t know. And as much as Hoiberg says talent glut is a “good problem,” Pavelka reminds him it’s still a problem.

Boone recalls his Huskers calling a preseason meeting just like the one Webster, McGowens and Mayen called this summer. The Huskers told their teammates to “do the math” and embrace their roles. Those words didn’t matter when they hit a skid.

“That’s going to be the true test,” Hoiberg said last week. “How are we going to be able to fight through adversity?”

Chubick, who knows Hoiberg from their playing days, likes what he’s hearing out of practice. He doesn’t think Hoiberg will run into the same challenges Nee did. In his mind, the current Huskers boast a stronger infrastructure, and the players are motivated by the proper incentives.

Chubick is tired of his alma mater being the only major-conference school without an NCAA tournament win. And he’s sick of answering questions about why his teams didn’t.

“I think they’ll be in the mix for the tournament,” Chubick said. “And God willing, they’ll get a win so I can quit hearing about that (stuff).”


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