Photo via Huskers.com
I’ve always known Nebraska was a basketball school at heart. I’ve been waiting for this ever since Barry Collier saved his genius for Butler and birthed the success of some guy who now coaches in Boston, since Cookie Miller put defenders in a bind where their hands were caught in a jar that’s his namesake, since the thunder-from-down-under, Aleks Maric, once played a game hanging from the rim by his feet so he could feel more at home in the paint. It’s been a long time coming, and the only show in the state finally has top billing after years of being in a supporting role. But hey, that’s showbiz baby.
By all accounts, the 2018-19 Nebraska team should be really good. The biggest thing they have going for them is experience. They return four starters (Glynn Watson, James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland, Isaiah Roby), including an All Big-Ten first teamer (Palmer), and two reserves who played solid minutes off the bench (Thomas Allen, Tanner Borchardt), forming a core that combined for 74% of last year’s scoring. They have a schedule set up as a good resume builder that includes non-conference games against Seton Hall, either Texas Tech or USC in the Hall of Fame Classic, Clemson—a 2018 Sweet 16 team— on the road as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and a neutral-site game in Sioux Falls against Oklahoma State. Along with games at home against top Big Ten competition Michigan State and Purdue, and the opportunity to get some big wins away from Lincoln against Indiana and Michigan, the schedule is built in their favor to avoid the “quality win” conundrum that took place last year.
Everything is in place to succeed, but what really matters is the product on the court. I was lucky enough to attend the exhibition game last Thursday against Wayne State, and the first thing I noticed was that everyone in the rotation looked leaner and more toned, in particular, Glynn Watson and Isaiah Roby. Speaking of Roby, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, but he may not realize how good he is. One play that caught my attention was a post-up he had early in the second half. He received the ball slightly above the block, faced up, and nailed a jumper right in the defender’s grill. It was as beautiful as the first time I heard a Weezy lighter flick. There are so many options here for Roby: if he hits that jumper consistently it will force defenders to take away his airspace which allows him to use his athleticism to drive by for an easy score or kick it out to a shooter on the arc. Roby will be giving opposing coaches nightmares with moves like this, and that’s not to mention his improvement from 3-point range where he shot 40.5% (17 for 42) last year compared to 20% (4 for 20) as a freshman.
Another difference I noticed was a greater effort to push the ball that ensued in 17 fastbreak points. I’m all in on this because Nebraska’s half-court sets tend to come down to one guy, namely Palmer, putting his head down and trying to make a play as the shot clock creeps towards expiration that usually results in a low percentage shot. Nebraska is equipped with the right athletes to run the floor and prevent defenses from finding their bearings.
The biggest weakness I saw was 3-point shooting. The Huskers shot 15.4% (4-26!) from beyond the arc, with the starters (Watson, Allen, Palmer, Copeland, Roby) going a combined 2-17. Oof. To be fair, shooting in games takes time to ease into; there was also a draft in the building along with a dog barking in the distance so just take it easy. The guy I expect to step up in this capacity is Thomas Allen, who shot 35.4% (17 for 48) as a freshman. Everyone I’m expecting to get valuable minutes should be a 3-point threat save Tanner Borchardt, but they need that one guy who can hit shots in big moments. Allen demonstrated this ability by going 3 for 4 from downtown against Kansas last year.
One of my main curiosities heading into this game was to see who would be the first guys off the bench. I knew Borchardt would backup Roby at center with the departure of Jordy Tshimanga, otherwise, I must’ve forgotten to press B because I was drawing blanks. Freshman guard Amir Harris played the most off the bench with 18 minutes and looks to be the number two at point behind Glynn Watson. Thorir Thorbjarnarson—who hereby will be referred to as “Thor” because I peaked in high school and give up after four letters—looks to be the relief at forward. Sophomore Nana Akenten seems to be set for a similar role that Thomas Allen had last year where he played roughly 10 minutes per game. The reserve I was most curious about was freshman Brady Heimann. Heimann, a Platteview grad, played 17 minutes, scoring nine points and grabbing eight rebounds. I would be surprised if Heimann gets those type of minutes during the season seeing as he only weighs 215 lbs. while standing at 6’11”. I’m guessing this year will be used for him to bulk up. Miles was most likely toying with lineups to see what he likes and what he doesn’t. From what I saw, Harris, Borchardt, and Thor will be the main contributors off the bench with Akenten sprinkled in.
In my offseason article, I mentioned that this season mirrors the 2014-15 season, the year following Nebraska’s last NCAA Tournament appearance. I’m not quite sure how to feel because that gives Nebraska something they have a history with: expectations. The Huskers received 35 votes for the AP poll, are #25 in the Coaches Poll, and Big Ten Network’s Andy Katz has them finishing second in the conference and as a 4-seed in his preseason NCAA Tournament bracket. Luckily, I haven’t had much experience with the Huskers not living up to expectations, it’s just a hunch.
If I had it my way, Nebraska would have no expectations whatsoever. It’s the way I live my life, and it leaves no room for disappointment. The only disappointment I’ve ever dealt with is being one to my parents and they still say they love me. I’m confident this team can make a postseason run, and if there’s any Nebraska team to get the monkey of an NCAA Tournament win off their back, it’s this one. It’s just that history has not been kind. So take your expectations and send them in a text to Urban Meyer because you can forget about them.
The season begins tonight against Mississippi Valley State at 7pm. Let’s ride.