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Lessons taught in Hoiberg’s first season at Iowa State set tone for future success

April 7, 2019

For all the big dreams Nebraska basketball fans may have with the hiring of Fred Hoiberg, there is still going to be a period of transition that at times will be a little rocky.

But if it works out like it did in Ames, the payoff will be worth the time.

Melvin Ejim can tell you that as well as anyone. Now playing professionally in Russia, Ejim was a freshman at Iowa State in 2010 when Fred Hoiberg took over for Greg McDermott as the Cyclones coach.

ISU was coming off three losing seasons in four years, winning 19 games in McDermott’s final season. Hoiberg had never coached at any level. He walked into a situation where he was a legend in Ames, but relatively unknown to the players he was now coaching. That included Ejim, who stayed at ISU after Hoiberg met with him and his family.

“We both kind of — as a freshman, for me, and I think for him as a coach for the first time — there was a lot of new things coming into it. A lot of moving pieces. But he obviously handled himself with grace, and really quickly figured it out,” Ejim said by phone Friday from Russia.

“That first year we weren’t that successful, but I think everyone noticed there was a definite shift in the way that we were going to play and the way that he wanted us to play, and it became more fun for the people who were there before.”

Iowa State went 16-16 in Hoiberg’s first season, starting 13-2 with wins over Creighton and Iowa. But the grind of conference play caught up with the Cyclones. Iowa State went 3-13 in the Big 12, including a 10-game losing streak that ended with a one-point win over Nebraska in Ames.

By the end of the year, Iowa State had lost a whopping nine games by six points or less, with seven of those defeats in league games.

But Hoiberg also knew what was coming. He had transfers Royce White, Chris Babb and Chris Allen sitting on his bench, waiting to become eligible the following season. Those three became Iowa State’s No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 scorers the next year. White led the Cyclones in points, rebounds and assists as ISU went 23-11 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years.

“The biggest thing would just be the shift in culture. Winning, the way we won, the style of play, there’s so many things I can go on about on my time there,” Ejim said. “But the biggest thing I would say was the shift in culture and obviously the success that we had because of that shift.”

[ Watch: Husker Extra’s Chris Basnett and Steven M. Sipple discuss Fred Hoiberg ]

Ejim start 30 of Iowa State’s 32 games his freshman season, averaging 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while finishing second on the team in field-goal percentage. He said he appreciated the way Hoiberg encouraged his players to have fun playing the game without worrying about results. That style helped Ejim play in 135 games for Iowa State, starting 126 of them.

“He was always a big advocate for just playing free. He’ll never tell you it’s a bad shot. He’s someone that instills confidence in his players and allows guys to just go out there and play free and to have fun,” Ejim said. “He’s such a great X’s and O’s guy, he puts people in the right position to make the right plays and do good things.”

Naz Mitrou-Long came to Iowa State in 2012, Ejim’s senior season, but echoed the same things Ejim experienced. Now in the Utah Jazz organization, Mitrou-Long was a 38% three-point shooter for his career at Iowa State.

[ Watch: Fred Hoiberg talks coaching philosophy ]

“Just to know that he was going to be there for me off the court, and care to get me better as a man, not only a player. That kind of sealed the deal for me,” Mitrou-Long said. “Just talking to him one time and his knowledge, his plan for me, and kind of how he wanted to run is program. There were no wrinkles in his plan.”

Hoiberg’s plan included encouraging his players not to worry about scores or results. It was “trust the process” before that became a national phrase. Those early encouragements set the stage for future success.

“And it seemed like for him that it just kind of came as second nature,” Ejim said. “Things moved really smoothly really quickly, and he was able to, like I said, make that shift so cohesive that people in the stands and people that were watching knew that it was going to be going in the right direction and it was going to be fun.”

Now, in one of the premier leagues in the nation, Hoiberg’s players expect the world to see what they saw up close.

“His genius, I would say, is going to be nationally televised every night,” Mitrou-Long said. “I’m very, very happy for him, and I know he’s really excited about it.”