The holiday season has arrived and for Nebraska basketball, that means a lot of time between games.
After beating Creighton on Dec. 8, the Huskers had seven days until their next game against Oklahoma in Sioux Falls last Sunday. After five more days off from competition, Nebraska will host Cal State Fullerton on Saturday, then Nebraska doesn’t play again until the next Saturday, Dec. 29.
Coach Tim Miles characterized their recent practices as “not bad.”
“It’s always interesting when they get out of a routine and we get them into practice,” Miles said. “Like anything, the guys are antsy but to me, I think their awareness is good but what you can’t let slip is your attention to detail, and that’s usually what could happen.”
The down time has allowed the Huskers to get back toward full health after an illness swept through the team last week. Freshman guard Amir Harris remains out until at least after Christmas, according to Miles, but everyone else practiced all week.
“It’s good for you if your guys are sick or whatever and they need a little time off, but you do have to, in these breaks, keep that competitive fire because you don't want to lose your momentum or what you have going,” Miles said. “Hopefully this team shows its maturity and is able to maintain that.”
With two nonconference remaining against an 8-3 team and a Division II one, Miles has been mixing things up between competitive practices, film review and shooting sessions to keep the players in the gym as they close out 2018.
“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” senior point guard Glynn Watson Jr. said. “We’ve had our ups and downs and things like that but Coach Miles did a good job in film to get on us and tell us we’ve got to stay competitive and keep pushing. We know we’ve got to take care of these next two games before conference play and then we’re going to get to rolling in the Big Ten conference.”
The illness bug that hit the team last week led to sophomore guard Thomas Allen Jr. coming off the bench against the Cowboys in Sioux Falls, and that meant another sophomore in Nana Akenten logged his first start.
“It was great,” Akenten said. “It was life-changing for real for me because I hadn’t experienced that. The crowd out there was amazing. For me, it’s just a starting point. I’ve got to take steps and it’s just something that I want to, God willing, make a permanent thing. I’m going to just keep working towards that.”
Harris’ absence from the rotation could open up some opportunities for sophomore Thorir Thorbjarnarson as well. With Nebraska struggling offensively in the first half against Oklahoma State, Miles turned to the seldom-used Icelandic native to provide a spark, and he responded by immediately setting up Isaac Copeland Jr. for a dunk.
“Thor’s a good player,” Watson said. “He just keeps getting better each and every day. He plays with the scout team so he doesn’t get too many reps with us, knowing our plays and things like that, but just like last game when he came in against Oklahoma State, I think he had the first pass when he first got in and then he made another good play at the end … Thor’s a good player. He knows how to play the game, he’s a smart player and he can help us out.”
Miles backed up that assessment of the 6-foot-5 guard. Thorbjarnarson has only logged 42 minutes in six games so far this season but he has six assists in that time and has one of the highest assist percentages on the team.
“Thor always makes our offense better; there’s no doubt about it,” Miles said. “He moves the ball, he’s a great passer. I love the way he passes out of screen-and-roll. He’s like Iceland’s version of Manu Ginobili with the way he plays. He’s doing better. He’s been on the scout team all the time and he’s going against our top guys all the time. I’ve even seen him grow and develop like Brady has by not getting reps with the top guys but by going against those top guys.”
One benefit to all of the free time winter break provides is a chance for Miles and his staff to spend some more time with individual players without the stress of school life or game prep.
“There’s no doubt that during the break and especially after Christmas that we’ll spend more individual time,” Miles said. “I had a chance to meet with Isaiah Roby. We spent a half hour, 45 minutes together and I think that’s what’s great is your girlfriend isn’t waiting for you tapping on her watch and you don’t have class or anything to worry about. You can just hang out with coach for a while and figure out how to get better.”
Cal State Fullerton enters Saturday’s game with a 3-8 record with the team’s only wins coming against West Coast Baptist, Monmouth and Cal Lutheran. However, the Titans went 20-12 last season, winning the Big West and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament and returned their top four scorers from hat team.
“I think they’re an aggressive team,” Miles said. “[Kyle] Allman and [Khalil] Ahmad are really good guards. I think their inside kids are good; [Jackson] Rowe and [Johnny] Wang can do a lot of things, are very athletic. They’re a team that runs good motion too so they do a good job spacing. Now, they haven’t made as many 3s as they want to I’m guessing but they’re well coached. As we look at this, any time you’ve got a team that returns four starters from a championship team, which is what they were last year in the Big West, we look forward to scheduling that kind of game because I think it will make us better.”
Allman, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, is leading the charge at 18.3 points per game, shooting 36.2 percent from 3 but only 40.2 percent inside the arc. Ahmad is a 6-foot-4 senior guard putting up 17.6 points and 1.9 steals per game, shooting 35.6 percent from deep. Rowe, a 6-foot-7 forward, leads the team with 6.7 rebounds per game while chipping in 10.4 points per game on 60.3 percent from the field.
No matter how much the Titans have struggled this season, they have Nebraska’s full attention as the Huskers look to close out the nonconference.
“These games are really important for us,” Akenten said. “We’ve got to go in here and just instill our will on these guys because we’ve got Maryland coming up as soon as we get back from break to start off the new year. But there aren’t any games that we should be taking lightly. We should play them as any other game.”
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday. BTN will televise the game with Wayne Randazzo and Nick Bahe on the call.
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.