LINCOLN — Matt Abdelmassih isn’t sure how all the pieces came together to bring him to Nebraska.
The second-highest paid assistant basketball coach in the Big Ten isn’t complaining. He’s just not sure where to start.
Because his typical explanation for how he got involved in coaching — how he became the “transfer whisperer,” how he became the go-to recruiter for Fred Hoiberg — isn’t all that interesting, he says.
“I mean, listen, my first recruit ever was Royce White,” Abdelmassih said. “From there, I don’t know if it’s gone downhill or uphill. I’m not sure.”
White set a pretty high bar. He was first-team All-Big 12 in 2012 and led Iowa State to an NCAA tournament in the second year of the Hoiberg era. The blueprint for wrangling transfers and bombing 3s was then set for Iowa State. That led to two Big 12 tournament titles and 115 wins in five years.
Now, seven years later, Abdelmassih is tasked with doing it again.
Nebraska has five open scholarships, six if you believe Isaiah Roby is headed to the NBA for good. And more than any person on Nebraska’s staff, Abdelmassih is most responsible for filling those spots with playmakers and shooters.
Nothing works in Hoiberg’s system without talent, coaches said this week. Which slops a ladle-full of pressure on Abdelmassih’s plate. But he’s used to that type of pressure, he said.
“When you’re not a former player, your last name doesn’t point toward basketball royalty. I have this paranoia about me that I can’t be outworked because they’ll just find somebody else,” Abdelmassih said. “Me and my wife, we go on vacation and, you know, I can’t go to sleep at night because I’m thinking about some kid I’m recruiting or I’m on the phone for a couple hours a day, and regardless of where we’re at in the world. So that’s never gonna leave me.”
Though he became the transfer guru by happenstance, Abdelmassih has made a career of bringing in lost souls and giving them the support they need to become NBA players. Leaning heavily on transfers will not be new to Nebraska basketball fans. Tim Miles’ best teams prominently featured transplants. The college basketball transfer portal currently has enough players to field 51 Division I basketball teams.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
But what’s different about Abdelmassih’s and Hoiberg’s philosophy is the extreme extent to which they rely on transfers. Most programs bring in a few guys to jump-start the first year, then build with four-year high school players from then on.
That isn’t the game plan here. Transfers fix all sorts of problems, Abdelmassih said. Iowa State was often one of the oldest teams in the conference. More mature teams generally do better, Abdelmassih said. Transfers are usually more focused, generally just want a chance to prove themselves one more time, which benefits everyone.
And in an age of college recruiting being under the microscope of the FBI, the transfer route is cleaner, easier and more lucrative, according to Abdelmassih.
Interactions with transfers generally only last one to two weeks, Abdelmassih said. And in those two weeks, you’re generally just dealing with the player, not his handlers. You’re pitching opportunity, and trust, and nothing else.
“You can cut through all of it because it’s such a short time,” Abdelmassih said. “They don’t care about anything but, ‘What’s the opportunity, how are you gonna get me better and am I gonna reach my goals?’ And when you prove that you can do all three, like we have, then you put yourself in a position and you kinda circumvent all the other stuff.”
The more you recruit transfers, the less you have to deal with high school drama, too, Abdelmassih said.
“It’s not like a high school kid where it could string you along for three years and you get left at the altar.”
The hardest part about recruiting to Nebraska will just be getting kids to campus since the name doesn’t carry much weight in areas of the country that produce the most players. Most high-level recruits will know little about Nebraska. But the trick is Abdelmassih won’t be selling Nebraska. He’ll be selling Hoiberg and opportunity — two things that do shine in the college basketball world.
And if he can get kids on campus and get them to see Nebraska and realize all of its benefits, it’ll be game over, Abdelmassih said.
“I think our percentages will be really high getting commitments from kids that officially visit,” Abdelmassih said.
Nebraska’s already hosted three transfers on official visits, with at least two more planned in the next two weeks. Potential graduate transfer Haanif Cheatham from Florida Gulf Coast will be in town this weekend. Cam Mack, the No. 2 junior college player in the country, will take his official visit next week. Mack was committed to Abdelmassih at St. John’s.
The key in the transfer world is building trust quickly, which Abdelmassih says he’s been able to do since he was a kid. That’s how he landed White back in 2011. White became famous during his short stint in the NBA because of his fear of flying. When they did fly together years ago, Abdelmassih held White’s hand in the seat next to him.
“I could be doing this for another 40 years — which I hope I’m not — and there would never be anybody I’m closer with because I had to work so hard at building his trust because that was the only way it was gonna work,” Abdelmassih said.
The plan right now is to have 10 players available to play for the 2019-20 season. That means there could be as many as six transfers coming to NU in the next few months, three of whom would be eligible immediately, and three of whom would sit for a year.
That’s a lot of phone calls and plane rides the next few weeks.
And pressure to deliver.
“The pressure isn’t gonna matter because I’ve done it, so that’s the good thing,” Abdelmassih said. “The experience is there, building stuff from the bottom up and being successful at it. So I’m just excited, because this place really, really allows me to have an easy job.”
Seven coaches who went back to college after making the jump to the NBA
Fred Hoiberg started his coaching career at Iowa State in 2010 and compiled a 115-56 record with four NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons. He then made the leap to the NBA, leading the Chicago Bulls to a 115-155 record in four seasons. Seven other coaches have either left the NBA for college or returned to college after the NBA.