Nebraska Basketball
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Nebraska Basketball, A Centerpiece: Big Ten Coaches Weigh in on the Huskers

October 11, 2018

CHICAGO — When Michigan lost to Villanova in the national championship last season, it marked the fifth straight loss for a Big Ten team in college basketball’s title game. The league hasn’t won a title since Michigan State did so in 2000. So, naturally, that was a topic of discussion from the national media when everyone converged on Chicago for Big Ten media day Thursday.

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon, who spent three of his six years with the Terps playing in the ACC, says we’re all looking at it the wrong way. “It is what it is” with regards to the title conversation, he says, and he hopes they’ll break through soon, but Turgeon shared a recruiting pitch he uses when he takes in-home visits, one that’s probably pretty persuasive.

“I always ask, ‘How do you feel about the Big Ten?’” he says. “’What’s the best league?’

“They’ll say this league or that league,” Turgeon says of recruits, so he reels off some stats.

“From 2010, you start with NCAA Tournament teams, you start with NCAA Tournament wins, Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, Final Fours, the Big Ten is [No.] 1 or 2 in all those categories. We’ve had the most AP All-Americans,” he said. “Since 2010, we’ve been one of the top two leagues consistently in the country. We just haven’t had that national champion.”

Turgeon had an explanation for that, too.

“Usually the other team has four NBA guys and our Big Ten team only has two NBA guys, which just shows you the strength of coaching in our league,” he said. And that fact, at least in Turgeon’s mind, highlights what it is that has allowed the Big Ten to be so successful overall.

“Our league gets older … I think we do it better than other leagues.”

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino said the one-and-done kids are really only going to three or four schools anyway. The ones that figure things out and enjoy sustained success are the teams that feature seniors and juniors each year. That’s been Villanova’s path to the title in two of the last three seasons. Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery says “the best teams are the veteran teams.”

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Which got me thinking… Nebraska is a veteran team entering the 2018-19 campaign. Three of the five starters are seniors and another is a junior with plenty of experience. So, what do the rest of the Big Ten’s coaches think about head coach Tim Miles’ squad?

There’s universal admiration.

Mark Turgeon, Maryland

"I told Tim before we tipped off last year it’s hard to get old and Tim got old quick by taking transfers and he got really good transfers. Unfortunately for them, their league schedule wasn’t what they needed it to be last year or they would have been an NCAA Tournament team. If they could have had this team at home or that team at home, they would have had those teams. I really believe that.

"Tim’s done a nice job. Now, whether it was calculated or it was luck or whether it just happened, I’m not sure Tim knows, but he’s got a really nice group of players. How many seniors do they have this year? [Guard James] Palmer’s a senior, [forward Isaac] Copeland’s a senior and [guard Glynn] Watson’s a senior. That’s three really good seniors that have been through a lot. I don’t know where they’re picked, I don’t really pay attention, but I’d think they’re one of the top five teams in our league, especially with their home court advantage and the things their fans bring to everything. They’ve got the talent to be very successful. And defensively they’re going to be good. Tim, his teams are always great defensively.

"If [Roby]'s improved his jump shot, which I’m sure he has, they’re going to be even harder to guard this year with the speed and athleticism they have. Tim’s really excited about some other guys he’s mentioned to me. He feels like there’s seven or eight really good players. That’s really all you need to be successful so it’s going to be a great year for Nebraska."

Steve Pikiell, Rutgers

"Oh, I think Tim’s done an unbelievable job. First of all, I think he’s a terrific coach. It’s a program that shows you the depth of our league. Last year, Penn State and Nebraska deserved to be in the tournament, I don’t know how they weren’t. Our fifth-place team went to the national championship, that’s how hard this league is. The job he’s done and the talent he’s been able to amass, they took a huge jump last year and got everybody back this year. He’s going to have a great year. He’s got matchup problems for coaches in the league. His guys are all matchup problems.

Is one of those guys Isaiah Roby?

"Isaiah Roby’s terrific. I think he’s as big a matchup problem as maybe anybody in the league. Can go inside, can go outside, athletic, plays with a nice demeanor. Palmer is a matchup problem. They’ve got a lot of those guys. But Roby is a talent. I’ve talked to people, GMs and NBA personnel, and they think he’s one of those guys that has all the tools to continue playing for a long time.

"He’s really a guy that can play three, four and five and now you’ve got him at the five spot and he can defend fives. He’s a real problem for teams like us that have traditional fives. Being able to move guys around is a huge advantage and he’s got a lot of those guys."

Greg Gard, Wisconsin

"He’s got a lot back. I haven’t studied everybody’s roster in-depth, I’ll do that as we get ready to play them, but knowing those four guys they got back and knowing the experience they got last year and how they played, I thought they were in a position to be an NCAA Tournament team.

"Tim’s got a really good team and he’ll do a good job with them. You can’t replace experience. I’ve learned that from being on both sides of it. We’ve always been old and grizzled so to speak and having gone through a year where we weren’t as old and grizzled as normal, you appreciate what that experience can do and what a benefit it can be. Tim will be in a position this year where he’s going to have that to draw upon."

Richard Pitino, Minnesota

"I would say anything short of a Big Ten title is a disappointment for Tim. I’m just kidding. He’s got a lot of guys back from a really good team, a team that won a lot of games, unfortunately didn’t make the NCAA Tournament but justifiably could have been in. I think any other year they would have been in. Terrific coach, really good evaluator of talent, gets his guys to play really hard. People probably don’t talk about that enough, those guys compete."

Pat Chambers, Penn State

"I think [Miles] did a great job last year. He should have been in the NCAA Tournament. He’s got a great team back. He’s a great coach and I think Nebraska should be fortunate to have somebody like Tim, who’s an outlier, who’s personality is exactly what Nebraska basketball needs. Somebody who’s a little bit different, somebody who can laugh at himself, somebody who can make other people laugh, somebody who can recruit, somebody who can X and O. He’s got a great staff, too. He’s got a really talented bunch. From where he started to where he is today, I think he’s done a great job.

"I don’t expect them to [fail to live up to expecations], because when you’re senior-led with Glynn Watson and you’ve got Copeland and James and Roby continuing to mature and get better, I think you’ve got a great nucleus."

Chris Collins, Northwestern

"Well [Tim]’s not as funny as he thinks he is.

*inserts eyeball emoji*

"They have a chance to be a terrific team. They have veterans, which is huge in a conference like the Big Ten. They have a chip on their shoulder. I knew how good they were, I felt they were worthy of being an NCAA team but they didn’t get that call so I’m sure they’ve used that as fuel and motivation, which is good, it’s healthy for a team with great senior leadership and guys who have played in a lot of games.

"Incredible versatility with that front line of Roby, Copeland and Palmer. It presents a lot of problems for teams and then you’ve got the speed element of Glynn and being a four-year point guard. There’s a lot of pieces to feel good about and they’re very well coached. They play great defense, they play together, they have a chance to be right there in the Big Ten race. There’s no question about it."

Collins also had too good a quote on Roby to not include it in here: "His ability to put the ball on the floor, run the floor, pick and pop, make threes, make plays off the dribble, you just don’t see a lot of centers that can do that. It puts your defense in peril. And then his ability now as he’s gotten stronger to hold his ground down there and be a shot-blocker defensively. He’s a unique cover and the way they use him really magnifies his strengths and has made him a very effective player."

Fran McCaffery, Iowa

"They’ve got a really good team, and they’ve got a veteran team, which, in our league, is critical, especially when you’re playing 20 games. [Miles has] got pieces now that fit, he’s got depth, athletic ability, great fanbase, great venue. They’re going to be a handful for anyone who plays them this year, in our league or anywhere else.

"The year before, Tim did a great job bringing [Roby] along because he was inconsistent, but he was a pup. It’s fun to watch guys like him come into their own. Their whole season changed when they put him into the starting lineup. I thought [former Nebraska center Jordy] Tshimanga was going to be the guy and Roby’s just better and their team is better and their team played better together with him in there.

"I thought Palmer was underrated and he was pretty well-respected. I thought he was one of the best players in college basketball, period, last year. I didn’t really know much about him and he impressed me. I thought he was going to go pro. I didn’t think he would be back, I really didn’t, but he is and that makes them that much tougher."

John Beilein, Michigan

"They’re tremendous. There were three teams last year that beat us bad, North Carolina at North Carolina, Nebraska at Nebraska and Villanova in the finals. We were good last year and we were no match for Nebraska out there, they were really good. When I see where they’re picked with some people I say, ‘What, are you crazy?' This is a really good team."

Chris Holtmann, Ohio State

"They’re very good. They were very good last year. Tim’s an outstanding coach and they were terrific defensively last year and I think they can be even better this year. I thought they were an NCAA Tournament team last year. I thought they could have won a game or two. This year they’re one of the best teams in the country. When you’re talking top-30 teams, I think they’re one of the best teams in the country."

Matt Painter, Purdue

"They’ve got a lot of experience and sometimes you’ll have people have a lot of talent but not a lot of experience. The one thing they have is the experience of being together for a year or two. To be able to have that many seniors together, even though they haven’t been together the whole time, they’ve had a couple guys who have transferred in, but it still helps you.

"If [Roby] can get consistent from three, he really is going to be dangerous because he can drive the ball, he’s athletic, he can pass and he knows how to play. He’s like a big guard out there and when you put him at the five, it’s difficult."

One note before we wrap this up. This is still technically preseason for basketball programs, meaning coaches are still trying to figure out what they have in their own teams, meaning they're not going to be able to just rattle off another team's four best players. Their top guy? Maybe, everyone knows Purdue's Carsen Edwards, but the fourth guy? Every coach that spoke with Hail Varsity brought up Glynn Watson Jr. unprompted and Isaac Copeland unprompted, two guys who it would be pretty easy to overlook. 

It's also worth mentioning that the praise for Nebraska seems legit. There was a tone to each coach's voice that isn't really accurately portrayed in print that gave the sense their words weren't coach-speak. 

Nebraska was a centerpiece Thursday. The Huskers' table during breakout sessions was literally at the center of the action and at one point, BTN's Michelle McMahon stopped by their table to talk with Copeland and Palmer and a crowd of 20 or so people formed around their airspace. 

There are certainly plenty of expectations for Nebraska this season. Are they good enough to break the Big Ten's title drought? They need to win a NCAA Tournament game before we go there. But they're a safer bet to just be another one of those old, grizzled teams that wins. Maybe they can make Turgeon's recruiting pitch sound even better.

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