Clear Skies Ahead for Husker Hoops
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Clear Skies Ahead for Husker Hoops, But Also Expectations

May 27, 2018

I’m thinking about a recent press conference an NBA general manager had following a season that ended in disappointment. Sam Presti, the guy that runs Oklahoma City’s basketball organization, used the word “continuity” 11 times during his exit interview. He talked about his best players being able to benefit from coming back and having another offseason to work together and grow; he talked about his coach coming back and growing with them. Can’t help but see the parallels to Nebraska basketball in there.

James Palmer Jr., the team’s leading scorer in 2017, and Isaac Copeland, the team’s second-most efficient offensive player, both announced their returns to Nebraska this weekend. After testing the NBA Draft waters, Palmer announced Friday and Copeland Sunday. Nebraska hasn’t had each of its top four scorers from the previous season all return for the following year since 2003. 

It will have just that next season in Palmer and Copeland, guard Glynn Watson Jr. and forward Isaiah Roby.

There are a lot of reasons to feel good about Nebraska basketball but continuity feels like the best place to start.

Palmer joined the Huskers in 2016 as a Miami transfer. He sat out that season. Copeland came aboard last year as an immediately eligible transfer from Georgetown. Along with Watson and Roby, they formed the nucleus of a 22-win team. Now they have another offseason together to work and continue building chemistry. Copeland was limited during summer workouts last season, he won’t have that problem this time around.

If Watson and Copeland run a pick-and-pop, where does Copeland release to after the screen? Where does he want the ball for a catch-and-shoot or drive? You can get a feel for those things with repetition but the guys that have played together longer don’t just know generally, they know exactly.

It works defensively too. When guys have played together, they know where each other will be and they know where their help is. You get five guys on a string, and you get confidence. 

Nebraska only has one spot to fill in that starting group this upcoming season and if it’s Jordy Tshimanga, great. He started the first 18 games with that foursome last season. Even if it's not, it's much easier to massage one guy into a lineup than it is stitch two or three together.

Heading out of the 2017-18 season Nebraska had missed the NCAA tournament, lost on the road in its first NIT game and come home to a grumbling fanbase and a cloud of uncertainty over the head coaching office. Then assistant Kenya Hunter left, then Xavier Johnson, the crown jewel of Nebraska’s 2018 recruiting class, backed out and there was a lot of “here we go again” sentiment in Lincoln.

But athletic director Bill Moos extended head coach Tim Miles (we’ll get to that in a second), Miles quickly filled the assistant coaching vacancy and kept everything from falling apart. Eight of the top 10 Huskers by measure of PER return next year. Instead of having to worry about learning how to play together, the Huskers get to focus on fixing what went wrong last season and sharpening what went right. That hasn’t been the case inside Hendricks Training Complex for a while. 

Now to the other side of that, because while consistency is a great thing to have it also bumps up the expectations. Almost everyone sharing news of the Palmer and Copeland returns included comments about the Huskers being a team that should finish inside the top four in the Big Ten (at least), or a team that could find itself inside the top 35 nationally. Miles’ one-year extension was, in effect, a “prove it” deal and now it becomes even more imperative that he does.

The team’s 22 wins weren’t enough to earn an NCAA tournament bid last season, they had the quantity but not the quality. The Huskers are trying to resolve that this season with their non-conference scheduling, looking mostly at teams inside the top two quadrants, but ultimately they’re going to have to win those games. The “quality loss” joke is fun but Nebraska doesn’t want another grueling Selection Sunday of uncertainty.

When an all-conference first team scorer and an all-conference honorable mention do-it-all guy return to a team that already features one of the conference’s brightest up-and-comers (yeah, talking about Roby here; look at his defensive metrics, they were insane last year) you run out of excuses. 

Nebraska also has youngsters like Thomas Allen, Nana Akenten and incoming rangy freshman guard Amir Harris to add to the rotation. 

As good of vibes as there are inside the program right now, there’s also undoubtedly a pressure to produce next season. If Nebraska were to make the tournament and pick up the program’s first win, Miles will have proved it. He’ll be safe. But if the team for some reason can’t take a step forward things get dicey.

Fortunately, getting back Palmer and Copeland makes the former feel much more likely. There are a combined 67 points per 40 minutes coming back (39 just between Palmer and Copeland). Palmer and Copeland and Roby all have room to grow. Palmer has motivation to improve his outside shooting for observing NBA scouts, Copeland can get more comfortable and Roby is only scratching the surface of his potential. 

There doesn’t appear to be any Thunder on the Huskers’ horizon, only clear skies.

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