Fred Hoiberg brings improving Cornhuskers to Iowa: 'Our guys have continued to battle'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Thursday night's visit to Iowa will mark the 13th game in 27 days for Fred Hoiberg’s Nebraska basketball team. Yet, somehow, the Cornhuskers seem to be getting stronger as their unprecedented Big Ten Conference grind reaches the final week of the regular season.

In the past few weeks, they’ve broken a 25-game conference losing streak. They’re shooting 51% from the floor over their last four games. And after a 1-14 Big Ten start (and 3-32 in Hoiberg’s two-year tenure), Nebraska will arrive in Iowa City riding a two-game winning streak. The Cornhuskers (7-17. 3-14) beat Minnesota on Saturday, then shellacked NCAA Tournament-bound Rutgers, 72-51, on Monday.

It’s no wonder that Hoiberg, the Iowa State playing legend and former title-winning coach there, sounds energized despite the enormous challenges that his team faced during (and since) a 20-day pause in January due to 14 positive cases of COVID-19 — nine players, three coaches, a manager and graduate assistant. That list of positive cases included Hoiberg, and he was highly concerned after experiencing chest pains and a loss of taste.

“I had pretty much every symptom you could have with the virus,” Hoiberg said.

Fred Hoiberg's Nebraska team has played its best basketball of the season lately, notching wins against Minnesota and Rutgers. The Cornhuskers face Iowa for the first (and only) time this season Thursday in Iowa City.

Those in Iowa are familiar with Hoiberg’s heart problems and surgeries. He’s fully dependent on a pacemaker, but thankfully his oxygen levels never got too low. He is feeling good now, though joked in his always-dry sense of humor, "The first glass of wine tasted like vinegar, when I was able to do that again."

Yes, the 48-year-old still known as “The Mayor” in Ames has experienced subsequent fatigue (a faux pas with a coffee maker at home was hilariously posted by his wife, Carol, on social media). But he's fought through it and gotten his team to play excellent basketball of late.

“When your players play like our guys do, when they go out and compete every night, you can sleep. When they stop competing, that’s when you have those sleepless long nights,” Hoiberg said. “Our guys have continued to battle through all this adversity.”

How crazy has it been for the Huskers? Thursday’s game at Iowa (8 p.m., Big Ten Network) marks their ninth (and final) rescheduled contest of the season. Despite a 27-day gap in games, they’ll end up playing 19 of their originally scheduled 20 in the Big Ten.

The veteran Hawkeyes (18-7, 12-6) know they can't let down after their best performance of the season — a 73-57 win at top-five Ohio State. And Hoiberg knows what his team is up against.

“We could play great tomorrow and get beat by 20,” he said. “Iowa’s that’s good. They’re playing that well right now. That game against Ohio State was as good a performance as I’ve seen all year, in any league.”

Hoiberg called Iowa center Luka Garza “the best post presence in the game, and it’s not even close." But don't forget, one of Hoiberg's five Big Ten wins came vs. Iowa last season in Lincoln, when Nebraska's defense swarmed Garza and the Hawkeyes weren't able to make them pay, shooting 4-for-33 from 3-point range. Jordan Bohannon and CJ Fredrick didn't play in that one, but they'll be available Thursday.

“You play the numbers,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got a couple different coverages that we went over (Wednesday) in practice. … We have to get back in transition, that’s where it starts.”

On the Hawkeyes, Hoiberg was extremely complimentary.

“Fredrick, in my mind, is one of the more underrated players in the country. (Joe) Wieskamp’s having an incredible, incredible year. (Connor) McCaffery’s knocking down shots and is rock-solid there,” Hoiberg said. “… I’ve been so impressed with (Keegan) Murray, the freshman, that comes off the bench. He makes so many mature plays. He’s a lot better than his dad (Kenyon) was, who I played against." (There's that dry humor again.)

"They hurt you in so many ways," Hoiberg continued, "because of how many weapons are on the floor at any time.

“It’s a scary, scary team."