LINCOLN, Neb. — New Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg might want to consider writing his players’ names on masking tape and sticking it across their foreheads so he can keep everybody straight.
“I’ve called them the wrong name a lot. There’s no doubt about it,” Hoiberg said Tuesday after a practice for next month’s trip to Italy. “We’re still getting to know these guys, they’re still getting to know us, what our style is like.”
The Cornhuskers leave Aug. 3 and will play four games against club and professional teams over nine days. The trip will be the epitome of a team-building exercise. Gone are 11 players accounting for 98 percent of the scoring and 96 percent of the rebounding.
Hoiberg is following the plan he used to turn around Iowa State earlier this decade. He has brought in five transfers from four-year schools and two from junior colleges in addition to four scholarship freshmen.
In 2011, Hoiberg had nine newcomers on the ISU team he took to Italy for 11 days, and that team made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It was a great opportunity to have those guys go spend quality time together,” Hoiberg said. “We need that. We need that in a big way.”
Right now, bonding is as important as anything that happens on the practice court. Dachon Burke Jr., who sat out 2018-19 as a transfer and joins Thorir Thorbjarnarson as the only players who were at Nebraska last season, said he and his new teammates have made it a point to spend time together.
They play video games much of the time. When they go out, Burke usually drives because most of them don’t know their way around Lincoln. Hoiberg said a team bowling outing is planned.
The NCAA allows an extra 10 practices to a team going on a foreign trip. The practices this time of year are extremely valuable for a team in Nebraska’s situation.
“There are times you see progress and times we take steps back,” Hoiberg said. “Our biggest thing is fighting through adversity. Our guys are really good when things are going well out there. When tough times hit, that’s when they have a tendency to shut it down. You see that at all levels.
“We’re trying to figure out which of our players are mentally tough enough to go out and battle 100 percent of the time.”
Hoiberg said he likes what he has seen from graduate transfers Haanif Cheatham (Florida Gulf Coast) and Matej Kavas (Seattle), among others. Cheatham, who averaged 13.8 points per game last season, arrived last week but already has asserted himself as a vocal leader. Kavas is a perfect fit for a spread-the-floor, up-tempo offense. He is a 44.7 percent career 3-point shooter, ranking sixth nationally among active players.
“Every time it comes off his hand I think it’s going in,” Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg, who signed a seven-year contract paying a total of $25 million, brings an NBA pedigree to the Huskers. He played 10 seasons in the league and was the Chicago Bulls’ coach for three-plus years before getting fired last December.
His charge is to elevate a Nebraska program that remains the only Power Five conference program to have never won an NCAA Tournament game and whose most recent regular-season conference championship came in 1950.
“This trip we’ve got coming up is going to help us,” said Cheatham, who was at Marquette when it went on a summer trip to Italy and Switzerland in 2015. “We get to play against other competition to see where we’re at in August. Once we see where we’re at in August, we can go from there and improve.”