Already struggling at 6-6, the Nebraska men’s basketball team was dealt a crushing blow as it prepares to begin Big Ten play. Coach Tim Miles announced on Tuesday that junior guard Anton Gill will miss the rest of the 2016-17 season with a ruptured patella tendon suffered during a team workout on Sunday.
On its surface, Gill isn’t a big loss. The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 3.8 points while shooting 27.1 percent from the field and 27.6 percent from deep with six assists to 11 turnovers.
However, Nebraska has just four eligible scholarship guards on the roster; well, had. The injury to Gill knocks that number down to three, and it drops Nebraska’s total from 11 scholarship players to 10. Another injury to the backcourt would be catastrophic at this point.
But the bigger blow here is the loss of hope. Following in the footsteps of Terran Petteway and Andrew White III and with recruiting stars attached to his name from when he came out of high school, Gill was looked at as a significant piece of the puzzle for this year’s Huskers. Leading up to the season, those in the program praised his ability as a scorer, something the team desperately needed after White’s late defection.
To this point, that didn’t pan out. Gill’s best games as a Husker were 10-point performances against Dayton and Southern. In his other 10 games combined, Gill scored just 25 points.
That being said, Gill had the cards somewhat stacked against him. He had to sit out an entire year per NCAA transfer rules, and that came after spending two years as a reserve at Louisville where he played less than eight minutes per game. One would have to go all the way back to high school to find the last time Gill saw significant, meaningful playing time. Now tack on a knee injury that kept him out of a couple months of preseason practice and it’s not hard to see why he might get off to a slow start.
The truth is that the biggest hope for the Huskers turning the season around and getting back on the right track was for Gill to overcome his early-season struggles and grow into the player he was expected to be.
Nebraska’s biggest problem right now is a lack of perimeter shooting, and in part because of that, a lack of overall scoring. In theory, Gill was expected to be one of the team’s strongest shooters as well as a guy who could get to the basket and finish. Those skills haven’t revealed themselves, but at the same time he is a fourth-year junior.
If it’s not Gill, Nebraska is relying on a bunch of sophomores and freshmen to rapidly improve because Tai Webster has already made that leap. Could that happen? Sure. But based on what I’ve seen and the trajectories certain players are currently on, Gill seemed like the best bet.
Without Gill, Miles is going to have to go all in on those first and second-year players. Webster and Glynn Watson Jr. will likely see their responsibilities increase, but they were already playing 33.2 and 30.5 minutes per game, respectively.
Evan Taylor has been a utility guard off the bench and has also started a couple games, playing every position in the backcourt. He was playing 15.5 minutes per game, less than two minutes fewer than Gill. That number will go up. Taylor has provided more value on defense than offense to this point, but at the same time, he has scored eight points (his most as a Husker) in two out of his last three games, and he has shot 9-of-16 (56.3 percent) from the field over the last four games after starting out 6-of-19 (31.6 percent).
This also creates an opportunity for Nebraska’s pair of freshman forwards, Isaiah Roby and Jeriah Horne. Horne, the 6-foot-7, 222-pound native of Overland Park, Kansas, is coming off of a huge game that saw him lead the Huskers against Southern with 18 points, and his 4-of-6 shooting performance from 3-point range boosted him to the top of the team by percentage. Miles said before the season that Horne would be a small forward for Nebraska, but his success against Southern came primarily at the four. Roby, the 6-foot-8, 214-pound swingman from Dixon, Illinois, has played almost entirely at power forward, but his skill-set and athleticism could allow him to slide over to the three if Miles decides to let him try.
With Jack McVeigh’s struggles and Gill’s absence, there are a lot of minutes available at the small forward spot, and for Nebraska to improve offensively, McVeigh needs to rediscover his touch from deep or one of the freshmen have to claim that spot and play more than the seven to 13 minutes they’ve been playing to this point.
With White’s defection, this season became a rebuilding season for the Huskers. With Gill’s loss, that becomes even more true. Above anything else, the best possible outcome of the Big Ten season for the Huskers would be for its underclassmen to take a big leap and grow into consistent difference-makers.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.