With the preseason in the books, Tim Miles and the Nebraska basketball team have set their sights on Saturday’s season-opener against Eastern Illinois.
“We’re excited to finally get going and let these games count for real,” Miles said. “We’ve been undefeated long enough; hopefully we can keep it going obviously for as long as we can. I think the guys are itching for a game, they’re itching to compete and I know that I am too.”
The Huskers have two exhibitions, a closed scrimmage and an open intrasquad scrimmage under their belts, and the challenge now is to carry the success from the preseason over into the games that count.
“It’s crazy because I feel like we’re undefeated, 3-0,” senior guard Evan Taylor said. “But now it’s really for real. None of that really matters any more. That was just kind of a pump up, warm up. As long as you prepare the same and keep the same mentality, I think the rest will take care of itself.”
The Panthers have Nebraska’s full attention after knocking off conference mate Illinois 80-67 in an exhibition game last Friday.
“I found out the night it happened,” Taylor said. “Somebody on our team put it in the group chat and they were like ‘That’s our first game.’ That kind of just sparked it for me, personally. Every game obviously you have to respect your opponent, but they come in here with some confidence already beating a Big Ten school. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Eastern Illinois did drop an exhibition game to Southern Indiana on Monday 95-92, but the Panthers have shown they’re capable of putting up a lot of points. Guards Jujuan Starks (18.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game) and Montell Goodwin (15.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game) led the way for Eastern Illinois in the two-game exhibition season.
“First of all, they’re very sound,“ Miles said. “Coach [Jay] Spoonhour’s got great DNA, he’s been around the game at a high level and coached at a small level, whether it be JUCO or the OVC. But I think Eastern Illinois has got a team that’s got a chance to do well in the Ohio Valley. When I say well, I mean very well, and that’s an excellent league. The Ohio Valley has teams that win in the NCAA on a regular basis.
“This is the type of opponent we love when scheduling. We’re playing at home and they're a good team, they’ve got a chance to beat you. Now, that scares the crap out of you, which is good if you don’t mind not sleeping. it also is going to bode well for your strength of schedule and everything that goes with it in that strategy of scheduling down the road. But it’s no bargain now; it’s going to be a heck of a game. I think fans are going to love it.”
Three Huskers — junior Glynn Watson Jr. (knee), sophomore Isaiah Roby (finger) and senior Anton Gill (knee/groin) sat out Tuesday’s exhibition win against Northwood with minor injuries. Miles addressed their status looking ahead to Saturday’s game.
“I would expect that Glynn and Isaiah Roby have injuries that will go away in time,” Miles said. “We’re going to have to manage Anton; there’s no doubt about it. The injury [last year] was just too severe. It’s not one of those things you just expect to disappear. Certainly, it could get better and better and better. But through our immediate season here that’s something we’re going to have to deal with. So we could have him for a while, and if he takes a step backwards in terms of soreness or whatever, he might have to rest.”
Miles said he expects the players to be available on Saturday, but there are still a few practices to go before he will know for sure.
Point guard Thomas Allen was brought in to be an immediate impact player, and with Watson out of the lineup Allen started and put up 18 points on Tuesday. However, with plenty of depth and experience on the wings, the path to playing time for fellow freshmen Nana Akenten and Thorir Thorbjarnarson is much less direct. Even so, Miles said there is no plan to redshirt them at this stage.
“I have talked to both young guys and they’ve indicated to me that they want to play, so we’re going to let them play,” Miles said. “I’ve had it work all kinds of ways. I’ve had kids say ‘I want to redshirt’ and four games into it they haven’t played and they’re like ‘I’ve got to play,’ and so we play them. I’ve had kids that started out ‘I’m not going to redshirt,’ didn’t play for four games and said ‘How about if I redshirt?’ So it’s a decision we don’t have to make immediately but at this point everybody’s available to play.”
Taylor, one of three seniors on the team, said the freshmen’s resiliency is what has stuck out to him so far.
“I talk to them all the time; being a freshman is tough, especially on a talented team,” Taylor said. “Everything’s new. But I told Thomas before the game when we were waiting for the starting lineups to be announced, ‘The game moves at your pace; don’t let anybody speed you up, whether it’s our coaches, what they do, what we say. Play at your pace.’ I think he took that and he had a good game, so hopefully we can build off that.
“As far as Nana and Thor go, I know how hard they work and how much they want to be on the floor, but it’s a learning process. I just tell them ‘Stick to it, you’ll see better days. Take the good with the good, take the bad with the bad, but always stay positive.’”
Wednesday marked the first day of the early signing period for college basketball, and both of Nebraska’s commits — Bishop O’Connell (Virginia) point guard Xavier Johnson and Platteview (Nebraska) center Brady Heiman — put pen to paper. However, as of Miles’ press conference on Thursday afternoon, Nebraska had only received the letter of intent from Johnson.
“I’m thrilled to have Xavier join us,” Miles said. “He’s one of those guys that he’s as fast a guard as there is in the country. It was a good point guard year; I think that he would be higher ranked and rated if it hadn’t been such a deep year throughout high school basketball, but that’s fine by me.”
Heiman said he sent in his in via the mail on Thursday morning, so Nebraska should have it in hand soon. Nebraska still has two scholarships available for 2018 and he addressed what he’ll be looking for as he and his staff seek to fill out their 2018 class.
“Athleticism inside, no doubt,” Miles said. “We’re going to lose some size and athleticism and that’s something that we really need. Always looking for more shooting.”
Saturday’s season-opener at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set to tip off at 7:30 p.m. and will be available only on BTN Plus or via radio.
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.