Last season, the Huskers ended the season losing 13 of their last 16 to finish 12-19 on the year.
On Sunday, Nebraska has a chance to wrap up the regular season with 22 wins including 13 in the Big Ten. The newcomers to the team certainly have played a large role in that turnaround, but that kind of complete culture change doesn’t just happen. It started back during the summer.
Duby Okeke, a grad transfer from Winthrop who had been part of an NCAA-tournament team prior to joining the Huskers, noticed something special about the group of players Coach Tim Miles and his staff had assembled in Lincoln.
“I kind of saw the chemistry outside of the court,” Okeke said. “When I first got here, we didn’t really play with each other or anything like that, but you could just tell when we were all around each other.”
Nebraska hasn’t always played pretty basketball this season. They’ve had to grind through some tough games and they’ve also elevated their level of play to bring home some shoot-outs. But the one thing that has shown itself in all of those games is a natural competitiveness across the roster.
Senior guard Anton Gill pointed to some offseason pick-up games where that trait really showed itself.
“I remember we played pick-up and I wasn’t supposed to play, so we waited for Coach [Kenya] Hunter to leave to play,” Gill said. “I wasn’t cleared yet. [Evan Taylor] had already played like three or four games; he was killing James [Palmer Jr.] and all them. I get on the court and we play. He wins one game and he runs off the court, ‘Bro, this is my gym! This is my gym! This is my gym!’ It was bad, but that’s us, a bunch of competitive guys that want to be good and believe in their talent. You’ve seen that throughout the year.”
Taylor saw the same thing during those summer pick-up runs. Gill in particular personified the characteristic as the team couldn’t keep him off the court even before he had been medically cleared to return to the court following the knee injury that cut his junior season short.
“Since the summer we’ve been playing pick-up, you could just feel how competitive our team was,” Taylor said. “People don’t know this, but Anton would sneak and play pick-up when he wasn’t allowed to play yet. He was just so competitive, like ‘I’ve got to play, make sure [trainer] R.J. [Pietig] is not here so I don’t get in trouble.’ You can just see the drive. That’s when I knew we were going to be a good team because we’ve got guys that really want it.”
Gill had a long way to go to even get to the point where he could play pick-up, sanctioned or otherwise, and he credited his fellow seniors in particular with helping him get through it.
“My situation was a little different considering my injuries and all that,” Gill said. “Me, it was more mentally. I look at these guys like my brothers. There were a lot of times where I didn’t even know if I would be able to play next year, I didn’t know if I had enough to keep going. Malcolm [Laws] was the guy with me, Evan was the guy I was on the phone with. We spent hours and hours and hours at [Evan’s] apartment just talking, just helping me get through it. Those were the type of things I’ll take with me forever. When I felt like I was low and I didn’t have any more, they picked me up out of that. We had a lot of those talks, a lot of hard work. It just feels good to be in this position now where we hold our own destiny.”
The senior class — perfectly symbolized by Gill — has established sacrifice and selflessness as a requirement for this team, and success has followed.
“I’m only a year into this — actually, this is my only year — whatever I can do as far as like trying to be a leader, trying to talk to the other guys, try to help them out, just try to do the little things,” Okeke said. “It’s not always about scoring or starting or whatever, it’s about doing the little things that keep the team together so when the time comes that we all need each other, that’s probably going to be the most important thing.”
Nebraska’s senior class is made up of role players — a rebounder and shot-blocker, a shooter, a glue guy and a walk-on — but good teams need those players and Nebraska has turned itself into a good team thanks in large part to their contributions.
A ticket to the Big Dance is far from a given, but Nebraska has put itself into a position where it’s a very real possibility.
From 12-19 to potentially 22-9 in a year, and it all started back in the summer.
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.