CHICAGO — Fred Hoiberg picked up a warm white dinner plate and looked down the line of lunch options. Beef hot dogs soaked in a metal bin with sweet green pickle relish, chopped onion and short peppers waiting in white metal bowls.
“Hey,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said with a slab of Italian beef steaming from his plate. “I’m Matt.”
Hoiberg shook the hand of last year’s National Association of Basketball Coaches coach of the year. Nebraska guard Cam Mack scarfed down a piece of cheesecake in three bites and looked on.
“You know, my first year, we were so bad,” Painter said.
“Is that right?”
Painter gave the newbie a little bit of advice about Big Ten refs.
“You’ll be all right,” Painter finished. “Welcome to the league.”
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Hoiberg joined his Big Ten brethren Wednesday afternoon in Chicago for his first media day. He was back in the town where he coached the past three seasons with the Bulls, and the storylines attached to Hoiberg followed him from room to room. As did eyes and cameras.
He was asked about his Iowa State years. His up-tempo offense. His Bulls days, his relationship with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. He was even asked about once playing David Letterman’s mom during a skit on the late night talk show.
For weeks, pomp and circumstance followed Hoiberg everywhere. And Wednesday, it climaxed in a ballroom with maroon carpet and eight luxurious chandeliers illuminating one of the best basketball conferences in the country.
Hoiberg, never a fan of too much attention, endured the handshakes and glances.
“The best part of media day is my daughter. I got to see my daughter last night, she’s working for the Big Ten office,” Hoiberg said. “It was great to spend the day with her. That was the best thing about (media day).”
Meanwhile, coaches talked up Nebraska and Hoiberg. Hoiberg’s system works, they said. What he did at Iowa State, it can happen again.
“I thought he did an incredible job (at Iowa State), taking that program to what was starting to become an elite level,” Izzo said. “It’ll be fun to see Fred (at Nebraska).”
But Hoiberg tried to temper expectations.
Nebraska was picked by the media to finish 13th in the 14-team league for a reason. Actually, a few.
“Of our 16 players, 14 are new and have never seen the Big Ten,” Hoiberg said. “So you have to understand it.”
There are issues all over. They’re small. Real small.
Yvan Ouedrogo is the biggest player, listed at 6-foot-9. But he’s 17 and not used to American basketball.
“That’s one thing that concerns me about this group is the rebounding part,” Hoiberg said. “When I look at the players from all these teams, there’s some huge bodies, athletic players in this league, and we’re gonna have to play together every night if we want to have a chance to win.”
And the meshing of 14 new players from five countries will take some time, too.
The Italy trip was great, Hoiberg said, but at halftime of the final game, he erupted in the locker room.
“I broke a board and cut my thumb open,” Hoiberg said. “I was pissed, man, they were not playing the right way. There was agendas going on, you don’t get that straightened out you don’t have a chance of having success.”
Hoiberg wrapped a towel over his thumb to stop the bleeding in the second half. Nebraska won and his team got the first lesson about the usually even-keel Hoiberg.
“It’s rare when he yells,” Nebraska guard Jervay Green said. “But when he yells, that means he’s really mad. He means it.”
There are plenty of boards to be broken in the coming months.
There’s tinges of improvement, though. The first two practices were great, Hoiberg said. A great practice means playing with pace, not just going up and down quickly but cutting the right way, running out of drills the right way. The offense got out in transition in a practice, which Hoiberg liked. Assistant Doc Sadler, the defensive guru, wasn’t too thrilled.
“We weren’t getting back in the urgency we needed,” Hoiberg said. “If we don’t do that, we’re not going to have a chance to win very many games. So its urgency on both ends.”
And the Iowa State comparisons are inevitable, but maybe even more so because Year 1 in Ames and Year 1 in Lincoln are actually pretty similar. Hoiberg sees two high-impact transfers in Dalano Banton and Derrick Walker on the bench, similar to Royce White and Chris Babb at Iowa State in 2010-11. ISU was undersized the first year with only seven scholarship players. The Cyclones threw together a .500 season. Hoiberg could see something similar.
“I look at this team I’m excited about them, we can go out and compete,” Hoiberg said. “As we grow and get a year under the belt with Yvan and get a year under the belt with Cam (Mack) to see what this league is all about, I think we not only have a chance this year but hopefully have sustained success.”
Hoiberg, in general, remains somewhat pessimistic. He’s ready for all the hubbub over his team to stop, but also knows his team isn’t ready for games yet.
But these Big Ten coaches know, through that pessimism, that something is building. And it could be something they’re not thrilled to compete against in the coming years.
“In Nebraska’s history, they’ve never won an NCAA tournament game, right?” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s not gonna surprise me when Fred does it.”