Miles Ahead: Nebraska Has Another Eventful Offseason, but Pieces Are There for Successful 2018-19

Photo by Aaron Babcock, Hail Varsity

The college basketball offseason is relatively tame. There are coaching changes and player departures that come with it, but it’s mainly a time for players to work on their individual skills and hit the weight room, for new players to get their first taste of college, and for coaches to recruit, watch film, and work on new strategies.

The same goes for Nebraska. The only difference is a monkey known as Murphy’s Law jumps on their back as they trek into the offseason, because anything can and will happen for them.

Here is a list of things that have happened for Nebraska his offseason :

    • Junior-forward Jack McVeigh left the program to turn pro in his home country of Australia
    • Head coach Tim Miles presented a five-year plan to Athletic Director Bill Moos and was given a one-year extension through the 2020-21 season
    • Assistant coach Kenya Hunter left to join the UConn staff under first-year head coach Dan Hurley
    • Point guard and top recruit Xavier Johnson decommitted
    • Dachon Burke transferred in from Robert Morris
    • Three-star shooting guard Karrington Davis and Amir Harris signed as late additions to the 2018 recruiting class
    • Former Northwestern and Florida assistant Armon Gates was hired as new assistant coach
    • James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland, and Isaiah Roby went through NBA draft process without signing agents. After being evaluated, all three chose to return
    • Offered Creighton Prep forward Akol Arop and Lincoln North Star guard Donovan Williams

Compared to last offseason where six players left the program, including two starters and two more in the rotation, damage control has been kept at bay. The only player to leave prematurely was junior-forward Jack McVeigh, who chose to forgo his senior season in favor of turning pro with the Adelaide 36ers of the Australian National Basketball League. McVeigh played decent minutes as a freshman and sophomore, but was ultimately outshined by transfers Isaac Copeland and James Palmer Jr. at the forward position.

I’ve been hard on McVeigh in the past, but he deserves credit for embracing his role on the now famous Bench Mob while watching his minutes dwindle. It’s a shame that he never turned into the three-point specialist he was advertised to be. Lord knows there were countless moments where a knock-down shooter could’ve helped Nebraska alleviate the cyclical scoring droughts that brew every second half. He was just never able to find his rhythm when his number was called. There is nothing really left for him to gain by staying another year at Nebraska, and if he’s going to continue to play he might as well get paid for it. I wish him the best.

The biggest blow this offseason is the loss of assistant coach Kenya Hunter, who was Nebraska’s top recruiter and responsible for landing James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland, Jordy Tshimanga, and Thomas Allen. With Hunter’s departure, top-recruit Xavier Johnson opted for a release from his scholarship and subsequently signed with Pittsburgh under new head coach Jeff Capel.

Replacing Hunter on Miles’ staff is former Northwestern and Florida assistant Armon Gates. Gates, who was hired by Mike White of Florida on April 8th, left for Nebraska after three weeks on the job and took a pay cut of $94,000 in the process. Gates also brings with him five years of experience on the staff of conference-rival Northwestern.

The good things about the hire: 1) Gates has recruiting ties to the heart of Big Ten country in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, and also to unfamiliar recruiting grounds in Washington. 2) He’s been on staff at another Big Ten school that is a few steps ahead of Nebraska in building a respectable program. Northwestern won their first NCAA tournament game in school history in 2017, leaving Nebraska in the dust as the only power-five team without an NCAA Tournament win. This past season, Northwestern battled injuries and played at Allstate Arena roughly 40 minutes away from their campus in Evanston while their usual venue, Welsh-Ryan Arena, was under renovation. Taking these factors into account, they didn’t have as strong a showing this past season, however, they are on the right track with a nice 2018 recruiting class and their newly renovated arena will be open for business come opening tip in November. Northwestern is gradually building what Nebraska has been working towards for as long as I can remember: a winning attitude, an identity, and solid recruiting. Hopefully Gates can bring some of that with him to Lincoln.

It’s hard to replace a guy like Kenya Hunter, but Gates has some good experience that should serve well. My only concern is his exceedingly short time at Florida. Gates spent less than a month at Florida, a premier program with a talented, young head coach in Mike White. By all means, the Florida job would have been better for his career as well as his bank account. He’s taking nearly a $100,000 pay cut from $350,000 to $256,000 by coming to Nebraska. Why leave Florida so abruptly? Apparently it was because of fit. Would’ve been nice to have someone like O.J. Simpson on hand who’s an expert on the matter.

Nonetheless, Gates has been at Nebraska for barely two months and hasn’t been on the bench for a game yet. He’ll get the chance to prove himself in Lincoln.

Staying on the subject of the coaching staff, Tim Miles received a one-year contract extension through the 2020-21 season in April that gives Miles, barring termination, three seasons to work with. Usually contracts for college coaches are four to five years for recruiting purposes. Anything shorter doesn’t guarantee that a coach will be there during a player’s four years, which can be used as leverage by competition. To me, this is telling that Athletic Director Bill Moos isn’t 100% confident in Miles yet.

This extension was awarded following the announcement of Kenya Hunter’s departure, making it a hail mary to salvage recruits, namely Xavier Johnson. Johnson ended up leaving anyway, but Nebraska did end up adding some nice late recruits with Karrington Davis, Amir Harris, and transfer Dachon Burke. Johnson was the clear gem of the class though, having won player of the year in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference where past winners include 2017 NBA #1 pick Markelle Fultz and former-Maryland star Melo Trimble. The short extension makes me believe that this is Tim Miles’ make or break year. He has a 97-97 record in six years at Nebraska, and even though the Huskers had 22 wins last season, the year concluded on a sluggish note with a loss to Mississippi State in the NIT.

The circumstances going into this season are eerily similar to 2014-15, the season that followed Tim Miles’ only other postseason appearance at Nebraska:

2014-15 2018-19
Two star players, including one with First Team All-Big Ten honors, return to Nebraska Terran Petteway (All Big-Ten), Walter Pitchford James Palmer Jr. (All Big-Ten), Isaac Copeland
Four starters return from a team that made the postseason the previous season Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford, Shavon Shields, Tai Webster James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland, Glynn Watson, Isaiah Roby
Finished 4th in the Big Ten and lost first game of conference tournament previous season Lost to Ohio State Lost to Michigan
Lost opening round of postseason tournament previous season Lost to Baylor in NCAA Tournament Lost to Mississippi State in NIT

The pieces were there in 2014-15 for the Huskers to have a strong follow-up season to the NCAA Tournament run, but they underperformed and finished 13-18 (5-14 in Big Ten). The key for Miles to keep his job is to show he can sustain success and that these one-off seasons every four to five years aren’t flukes. Moos has stated that he wants to compete for championships in the Big Ten and nationally in every sport. If the Huskers have another underwhelming season under Miles given the talent and experience returning, I don’t think he’ll hesitate to move in a new direction like he did with men’s golf and tennis.

The biggest news of the offseason is the return of James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland, and Isaiah Roby. All three chose to test the waters of the NBA before fully committing to next season in an effort to see where they stand from a professional perspective. I support the idea because now these guys know what part of their games they have to work on in order to make the league. I couldn’t be happier with them coming back.

This is especially important in the scoring department. Palmer (17.2 ppg), Copeland (12.9 ppg), and Roby (8.7 ppg) were three of the top-four scorers and combined for 53.7% of Nebraska’s scoring last season per Huskers.com. These three were also the top rebounders for the Huskers. Roby averaged 6.3, Copeland 6.1, and Palmer 4.4. Not only do these guys score and rebound, they also bring athleticism, length, leadership, and experience.

Losing one of these guys would’ve hurt. Losing all three would have been a travesty. With all returning, Nebraska should be a top Big Ten team—in theory. We’ve been down this path before, and that has taught me to temper my expectations. In 2014-15, I thought we would be back in the NCAA Tournament at the least. And then we lost to Incarnate Word on a weekday in December and I had to wonder if God was punishing us for letting the infrastructure of Lincoln pass as navigable roads. This year, I’m praying to God (literally) that we don’t hit a speed bump like that again this season.

The ingredients are there again for Nebraska to improve upon a remarkable season in 2018-19. How Chef Tim Miles and Sous Chef Armon Gates decide to mix the ingredients will be up to them. Let’s hope they can improve upon the dish that was overcooked four years ago.

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