After a tune-up behind closed doors over in Ames and a dress rehearsal of sorts during an open practice and scrimmage at Pinnacle Bank Arena last week, game week has finally arrived for the Nebraska men’s basketball team.
The Huskers will host Division II Wayne (Neb.) State on Thursday night at the Vault for a 7 p.m. exhibition game. Outside of general good play and cohesiveness, Miles said he’s looking for one thing in particular in the game.
“I guess my most interesting thing is which of those young guys is going to step up?” Miles said. “Thomas Allen looks like right now he’s going to be the fifth starter. So where’s Nana [Akenten], where’s Amir Harris, where is Brady Heiman, Tanner Borchardt? Where do this guys all fit in?”
Allen, the sophomore combo-guard from Raleigh, North Carolina, is the most experienced player on the team outside of the core four of Glynn Watson Jr., James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland and Isaiah Roby, so Miles naming him the fifth starter shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“He can score really well,” said Roby, the junior forward from Dixon, Illinois. “Especially with the other starters that we have already, two guys in Glynn and James kind of being more ball-dominant guys, having somebody like Tom who can knock down open 3s and help us out that way, that’s just something that we need and that’s something he can do really well. That’s probably his biggest benefit to being in the starting lineup for sure.”
Allen will fill that spot to open the season, but nothing is set in stone and Miles said he is excited about the versatility his roster provides him in terms of lineup options.
“I think [Allen] has earned it,” Miles said. “He’s played it, he fits the bill. I’ve asked some of the older guys, ‘Hey, what do you think about that fifth spot? Who are you most comfortable with?’ Stuff like that. Not that they’re uncomfortable with anybody, but you still have a preference to start the game and start the season. Who you think you are in October is not always who you end up being in January or February; you’ve heard me say that about seven years in a row and that’s true. Tom needs to keep stepping it up and some of these other guys need to keep moving. We could even go big, put Roby at a wing, so to speak, or even Copeland at a wing and play Tanner at the center. So we have options.”
One player who provides some of that versatility is sophomore Nana Akenten, an athletic 6-foot-6, 218-pound wing who played sparingly last season. The sharp-shooter from Bolingbrook, Illinois, has been working some in practice with the big men, providing Miles with an intriguing option as a small-ball stretch-four to spell Roby or Copeland if the situation calls for it. Without any other experienced options on the bench, Akenten will certainly be given a chance to lock down a rotation spot this season.
“He’s taken a step forward just in knowing what’s going on, defending better, rebounding better, kind of recognizing what the team needs and then helping us, trying to be a star in that role,” Miles said. “So if we know we need some rebounding, he’s athletic enough to go rebound and go make plays on the glass, and he’s shown some progress in that way, some real progress.”
One player who probably won’t be an option for that rotation this season is Robert Morris transfer Dachon Burke. Despite former Illinois guard Mark Smith getting a waiver for immediate eligibility at Missouri this season, Miles said he hasn’t made any moves in seeking the same for Burke.
“We’ve thought about it, but we haven’t done anything,” Miles said. “I asked Dachon about it because he texted me. I’m like, ‘Well, we have to think of a compelling reason.’ And some have been denied. So we’ve thought about it … take it to Jo Potuto and just have her laugh at me knowingly? Because there’s the spirit of the rule too kind of idea, right?”
Roby has dealt with some foot problems stemming back to summer workouts, but Miles said he doesn’t anticipate the situation will limit the 6-foot-8 forward-turned-center too much this season.
“He’s full-go,” Miles said. “He’s not perfect, but he’s full-go. I know there’s nobody in this room that had that problem, but those really good athletes, they know their body better than anybody,” Miles said, taking a playful shot at the assembled media at Monday’s press conference. “I don’t think I’m wrong here, as I spy the room.”
Roby said the closed scrimmage against Iowa State on Oct. 21 was just what the doctor ordered for the team at that point in the preseason. The Huskers lost the game 78-74 overall but won the second half by 10. He said the pace in practice has been much better and the guys have been more efficient in their practices, working “smarter, not harder.”
“It’s been going good ever since we kind of got a taste of playing some other guys,” Roby said. Practice kind of got to a point where we were playing the same guys for however long, a couple months, so it kind of got stagnant. Then we went to Iowa State and I think that kind of refueled us a little bit. It was kind of like a tale of two halves: the first half was pretty bad, the second half was really good. That kind of refueled our practices a little bit.”
The Huskers will get one more chance prior to the season-opener on Nov. 6 to take on somebody in a different uniform on Thursday. Wayne State’s roster features a couple of Lincoln products as well as a few players who are former teammates of current Huskers Brady Heiman and Johnny Trueblood.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to play a local school,” Miles said. “That’s why we try and do these things. I look for different reasons — we played Southwest State because my former point guard is the coach and I love him; it’s an unconditional thing that if we can help him, but we also want to help the the schools around here too. And we have; I think we’ve played just about everybody — Kearney, Chadron [State], the public schools I know for sure. I think it’s good thing to do. I know Coach [Jeff] Kaminsky does a very good job so you know what you’re getting: you’re getting a guy that’s going to run his stuff and we’re going to have to play well because he’s going to put you in some tough spots.”
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.