Two days away from their final home game in a Nebraska uniform, four seniors — guards Evan Taylor, Anton Gill and Malcolm Laws and center Duby Okeke — sat at a podium and answered questions about their Husker tenures. The best-looking senior class in Husker history — as Taylor called them — spoke for about ten minutes before the flow of questions slowed.
“I’ve got one more thing to say,” Gill started as he leaned into the mic. “Let’s start a petition to get our jerseys retired.
“I only played one year so you know my stats aren’t looking too good but it’s the legacy, man,” Gill said. “If we get this thing done, legacy, man. Retire that one-three, retire that 11, that zero, that three. Put it in the rafters.”
That “thing” being the NCAA tournament, which the Huskers have been in the conversation for over the last month. It’s not surprising to any of them that they’re in this position, they knew how good this team could be over the summer, but Nebraska’s ascension from a bleeding 12-19 squad a year ago to a 20-win team with a chance to lock up a four-seed in the Big Ten tournament on Sunday has taken plenty outside of Lincoln by surprise.
Credit the super-nova play of guard James Palmer Jr. or the rapidly improving pogo-stick forward Isaiah Roby or heady transfer Isaac Copeland, but those four seniors sitting at that table Friday have just as much to do with Nebraska’s turnaround as any.
“These guys are special in my eyes,” head coach Tim Miles said. “For our senior leadership to have a team-first mentality first and foremost, it sends a great message down the line. Nobody can complain if a senior’s not complaining.”
So let’s just go down that line, beginning with one of the team’s captains: Taylor.
“He’ll accept any role, he’ll suck the scum for a win,” Miles said. “He’ll do whatever it takes.”
This season, Taylor has been the embodiment of sacrifice. At one point, he had started 40 consecutive games. Following a loss to Penn State in their first meeting, Miles opted to switch up the lineup, flipping Taylor for Gill in the starting unit. Taylor didn’t blink and put up 13 points the next game out, his best offensive showing in nearly a month.
“I just think both of our hearts are in the right place and we want to do what’s best for the team,” Taylor said of him and Gill. “I think that’s just how it goes.”
Taylor won't set any Husker records, but in his second season with the Big Red, he's averaging career-highs across the board. Scoring, rebounding, passing, it's all up. He's a net-positive player for the first time in his college career and his efficiency has spiked as he's grown into his game. That all sounds nice, but with Taylor it hasn't really ever been about the numbers in the box score.
There was a play during the Huskers’ game against Indiana last Tuesday where the ball was up for grabs and Taylor didn’t dive to the floor. Miles remembers it vividly.
“I see Copeland take a charge and I think it’s an act of a higher power and I love him but it’s just like, ‘That was by accident,’ but if you see Evan not dive you’re like, ‘Whoa what’s going on,’” Miles joked. “Evan’s just one of our hardest-working, guttiest guys.”
He’s also a guy that drove the team’s other captain, Anton Gill.
“Evan’s definitely somebody that I admire, just from a competitive standpoint,” Gill said. “He definitely pushed me to be the best I could be every day and I think he’d probably say I did the same for him.”
Gill began his career at Louisville, sat out a year after transferring to Lincoln and then watched his junior season slip away due to knee injuries. “He’s inflicted a lot of damage on his knees,” Miles said and he’s been through more than most know.
“There were a lot of times where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play next year, I didn’t know if I had enough to keep going and Malcolm was a guy, Evan was a guy I was on the phone with,” Gill said of his rehab. “We spent hours and hours and hours at [Taylor’s] apartment just talking, just helping me get through it.
“When I felt like I was the one that didn’t have anymore, they picked me up out of that. We had a lot of those talks, a lot of hard work.”
Miles’ goal for the sixth-man-turned-starter at Christmas was simple: fresh legs. When he’s rested, Gill is at his most effective and since conference play began, he has the fourth-highest offensive rating of anyone on the team.
“You look at Evan Taylor who came on the heels of Andrew White leaving and saw the exodus last year and Anton Gill who came and was here and got hurt, those two kind of became our voice of our team,” Miles said. “Our voice of reason, our voice of, ‘We’ve been other places, this is what a program looks like. This is fine, let’s get this right. We’ve got the talent, let’s go forward,’ and those two have really been critical pieces.”
Another is in the form of Nebraska’s mountain in the middle, Duby Okeke, whom Miles credits as one of the biggest factors in the team’s rim-protecting success this season. The 6-foot-8, 247-pound center arrived with postseason savvy as a grad transfer from Winthrop. His role has fluctuated and diminished as Miles has opted for a smaller starting unit with center Jordy Tshimanga absorbing the second unit minutes, but Okeke knew his contributions would be needed in the locker room just as much.
“I knew this was going to be my only year so I knew whatever the circumstances were going to be, whatever I could do as far as trying to be a leader,” he said. “Try and talk to other guys, try and help them out. Just try and do the little things. It's not always about scoring or starting or whatever. It's just about doing the little things that keep the team together.”
Okeke has had his highlights both on the court and on the bench and regardless of where he’s at, Miles has appreciated the attitude.
“Comes with a smile, works hard, encourages his teammates, can make a difference in the game when he’s in and has really done some very good things for us,” Miles said.
The last of the seniors might be the most under-appreciated. Just like each in the class, Malcolm Laws started his college career elsewhere. He arrived in Lincoln after one season at Florida Atlantic and was blown away.
“Everybody was so welcoming and accepting and the bonds you make here, these are relationships you built for a lifetime,” he said. “A couple years from now we’ll all just be able to call each other and talk about these good times. So, for me, it’s all about the relationships because that’s something you can take with you wherever you go.”
Laws has only appeared in 19 games during his three years with the Huskers but he’s a two-time member of the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team and he’s the kind of glue guy every successful team needs.
“Malcolm is a kid that’s really changed his whole mentality on things and really been a help for us in the locker room, on the practice floor,” Miles said. “A very important ingredient in what we do that people don’t always see and realize.”
His Nebraska legacy might not be for how many points he scored but rather what happened after those buckets. The Bench Mob has gained national attention during the Huskers’ run. Clips of Laws and the rest of the Husker reserves have gone viral on Twitter, garnered over a million views and appeared in the intro for ESPN’s College GameDay.
Laws gets credit as one of the first in the mob and said it actually started two years ago with him and guard Johnny Trueblood. It just didn’t get the attention it’s getting now. “Things change when you start winning,” Taylor said.
Gill and Laws were talking the other day about how, in the moment, it felt like they were together forever and about the sobering thought their playing days are coming to an end. “It’s just crazy looking up like we’re really about to be done here,” Gill said. Make no mistake, none of them want to come back to Pinnacle Bank Arena for another game after Sunday. They’d much rather go play a game in, say, Wichita, Kansas.
“It feels like we’ve known each other forever,” Taylor said. “We built a bond. These guys came up with the idea as a farewell tour at the beginning of the year, this was our last go-around and we were just going to make the best of it. Hopefully we can get into the NCAA tournament and leave a legacy.”
If they do, put the jerseys in the rafters.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.