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Steven M. Sipple: Some gentle suggestions as Frost, Hoiberg navigate treacherous waters | Column

Nebraska men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg (left) answers a question as football coach Scott Frost looks on at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum during the Husker Blitz tour by coaches and athletic director Bill Moos in May 2019.

It’s a dicey proposition for sportswriters to try to run big-time collegiate football and basketball programs.

You know what they say about desperate times. 

As dreadful as the results have been for the Nebraska football and men’s basketball programs, it’s OK to ask some questions and maybe even make a few gentle suggestions. 

After all, Nebraska football coach Scott Frost is 12-20 (9-17 Big Ten) in three seasons. If someone told you in December of 2017 he would win only 12 of his first 32 games at NU, you would’ve told that person to seek professional help. It would’ve seemed preposterous, almost beyond the pale. 

If someone told you in March of 2019 that Fred Hoiberg’s team would lose 22 straight games in Big Ten play, you would’ve considered it virtually impossible. Can’t Nebraska just stumble into a win somewhere? 

It’s an unsettling conversation. On a human level, you feel for both coaches. You also understand they’re professionals and must figure out how to better navigate an exceptionally difficult conference. Along those lines, you hope they’re considering alterations to their systems. 

Hoiberg’s fast-paced, wide-open offense is primarily an outside-in system that leans heavily on three-point shooting. If the threes aren’t falling, Nebraska lacks the sort of big men who can take over for large chunks of a game if needed. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson comes to mind. The 7-foot-1, 255-pound freshman averages 17.5 points while shooting 71% from the field. It’s not just Dickinson; the Wolverines have powerful forwards who can both score and defend. 

Come Wednesday night in Lincoln, look for Minnesota 7-foot center Liam Robbins to cause Nebraska headaches. 

Unlike the Huskers, the Gophers and Wolverines don’t have to rely on three-pointers falling. They get plenty of “touches” inside the paint. That’s basically a staple of Big Ten basketball. And let’s be real: Any team that has strong inside scorers is likely to give the Huskers trouble until Hoiberg fortifies the roster with taller, thicker and better inside players. We’re talking about backboard breakers. 

You won’t find one in Fred’s most recent signing class. But Derrick Walker helps matters. The junior power forward showed ample promise against Indiana last week in his season debut. But he’s 6-foot-8 and generally a below-the-rim player. Sophomore Yvan Ouedraogo (6-9, 245) is a physical presence but still developing as a player, especially on offense (5.1 points per game). Freshman forward Eduardo Andre (6-10, 228) needs time in the weight room. He’s a project.

Finding quality big men — all-conference-level big men — is much easier said than done. But it’s more important in the Big Ten than in most other leagues. Hoiberg had to understand that, right?

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Don’t give me wrong, Hoiberg is a high-grade coach. But he’s in an incredibly challenging situation as he tries to build a program in a conference that this season could send 10 or more teams to the NCAA Tournament. What’s more, he’s trying to navigate a pandemic. Those postponed games (and practices) aren’t helping matters. Dalano Banton — a talented 6-foot-9 sophomore who is learning how to play point guard — needs all the experience he can get.  

Michigan vs. Nebraska, 12.25

Michigan’s Franz Wagner (21) gets in the way of Nebraska shooter Dalano Banton in the second half Dec. 25, 2020, at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Learning how to play point guard in this league? There are bound to be rough patches. 

Nebraska’s most concerning statistic — other than the fact it’s shooting only 32% from three-point territory (227th nationally) — is arguably its assist-to-turnover ratio in Big Ten play. The Huskers (4-8, 0-5) have 49 assists and 59 turnovers. You simply can’t win that way, Hoiberg said.

Fred has mentioned the possibility of Nebraska mixing in deliberate sets with more structure and less pace. That could be an indication he’s adjusting to the league — as opposed to the league having to adjust to his style. 

Which brings us to Frost. Many Nebraska fans always will remember his bravado during his introductory news conference. Turns out, the Big Ten isn’t having to adjust to his offense’s fast-paced, wide-open style after all. The Huskers’ point production has steadily declined: 30.0 per game in 2018 to 28.0 in 2019 to 23.1 in 2020 as the team finished 3-5.  

Nebraska’s point production this season ranked 101st nationally. Egad. The Huskers mostly try to run around defenses as opposed to through them. You see a lot of quick passes to the perimeter, still. Many in the fan base long for a system that leans more heavily on a power running game. Frost’s system possesses that capability from a schematic standpoint — think Royce Freeman at Oregon — but will Frost commit to evolving in that direction here? 

Can he afford not to move in that direction? I mean, it’s difficult to forget Dec. 12. Facing a Minnesota team with an atrocious run defense, Nebraska inexplicably handed the ball to power back Dedrick Mills only 12 times.

Frost, though, may already be adjusting. He’s recruiting mammoth offensive linemen, and the roster is stocked with tight ends. Nebraska last week picked up transfer Markese Stepp, a 6-foot, 235-pound running back from USC. Gabe Ervin, an incoming freshman back from Buford, Georgia, has the frame of a back that could churn out tough yards between the tackles in the Big Ten. Scat backs have their place in this world, but you don’t see many of them in the B1G, for obvious reasons. 

Frost’s system thrived in the AAC. Many of us looked on with a degree of amazement as UCF went undefeated in 2017. 

We’re looking on in amazement again, but for much different reasons.

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