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Nebraska Basketball Preview: Returners Seeking Bigger Role
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Basketball Preview: Returners Seeking Bigger Role

September 26, 2018

The college basketball offseason officially came to an end on Tuesday as the Huskers and other teams across the country took the court for their first practices of the 2018-19 season.

This week, Hail Varsity is breaking down the Nebrasketball roster as the most anticipated season in recent program history approaches. 

On Tuesday, we broke down the core of the team, the four upperclassmen who played big roles on last year’s 22-win squad. Next up we have the rest of the returners who are seeking to play a bigger role this season. That group includes sophomore guards Thomas Allen Jr., Nana Akenten and Thorir Thorbjarnarson, senior center Tanner Borchardt and walk-ons Johnny Trueblood and Justin Costello.

Allen stands out among that group as the most experienced player as he has about 100 more minutes under his belt than the other five combined despite being just a sophomore. 

Allen was a highly-touted recruit coming out of Brewster Academy but struggled to find a consistent role as a freshman at Nebraska. He played just under 10 minutes per game off the bench behind and sometimes alongside Glynn Watson Jr., averaging 3.2 points.

“I got humbled last year; that’s what it was,” Allen said. “I was a little upset. But I knew this year I could help the team a lot, more than I did last year … I learned a lot just sitting on the side. I learned a lot from Anton [Gill] and Evan [Taylor], the seniors last year.”

Thomas was known as a shooter coming out of Brewster but he only knocked down 17 3s in 32 games, connecting at a decent yet unremarkable 35.4 percent clip. Shots didn’t come nearly as easily to him as they did in high school. One of his focuses over the offseason was quickening his release.

“It’s been going good,” Allen said. “Last year my release was a little slow and I couldn’t get my shot off like I wanted to. Now, I can just shoot it.”

In addition to the speed of the game and the length of defenders at the Division I level that made it tough for him to get clean looks at the basket, Allen also struggled with the physically of the game. Adding muscle was another offseason objective that he managed to check off his list.

“I played at 172 last year and it hurt me a little bit,” Allen said. “Now I’m at 182 or 183 … The whole summer I was hitting the weights hard.”

Allen’s teammates have taken notice of the work he put in over the summer and have high expectations for the 6-foot-1 sophomore.

“My man Tom, he got a lot better,” Watson said. “Making a lot of 3s, that’s what he’s going to help us with, making a lot of 3s and he’s just been trying to improve on his defense and different things as a point guard.”

Like Allen, Watson was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school who had to play through some early struggles in Lincoln, and he’s taken Allen under his wing.

“[I’ve learned] a lot [from Watson], off the court and on the court,” Allen said. “We hang out every day. Learning from him, I know when he first came he didn’t have the year he wanted to have so he learned from that and shared with me some stuff that happened his sophomore year.”

As for Coach Tim Miles, he said he believes Allen has always had the talent and the skill set to succeed; it’s just a matter of “showing up every day with a different mentality.”

“Thomas and I had a great conversation last year after the season,” Miles said. “I brought him in and I said, ‘What do you need to work on?’ He said, ‘My left hand, using screen-and-roll.’ I said, ‘What was your best game of the year? What were your best two games of the year?’ He said, ‘Kansas, definitely,' and he goes ‘probably Michigan.’ I said, ‘Oh, your best two games are against Final Four teams; huh, I don’t think your left hand needs work, I think your mentality needs work. You were obviously ready for those two games. What that tells me is you can compete against the best but how do you bring that every day.’”

Miles said he wants to see more aggressiveness from both Allen and junior forward Isaiah Roby.

“Thomas and Isaiah Roby, I’m gonna get them two Batman costumes so they have an alter ego,” Miles said. “So they can put the Batman [costume] on and ‘now I’m Batman, dammit.’ [Bruce Wayne], that’s who they walk around as every day.”

Allen seems like a prime candidate to slide into the fifth starter spot that Gill and Taylor shared last season if Miles is seeking to maximize floor spacing and offensive firepower, or he could settle in as the sixth man to run the second unit and provide some scoring punch off the bench.

The 6-foot-8 Borchardt actually played the biggest role among the rest of this group last season and could be in store for even more playing time as a senior following Jordy Tshimanga’s departure and Duby Okeke’s eligibility expiring.

Borchardt’s journey has been a long and winding one at Lincoln. After turning down opportunities to play basketball and football at lower levels, he enrolled at Lincoln as a regular student. However, the Huskers stumbled across him while holding an open tryout on campus for walk-ons. Needing size, they invited him to join the team. He played in eight games, hitting all three of his shots for six points and grabbing nine rebounds. Deciding it wasn’t for him, Borchardt left the team after that season but soon realized he had made a mistake. Miles allowed him to re-join the team in January.

Borchardt spent the offseason after his sophomore year working to re-shape his body and he came back a completely different player last season. Borchardt worked his way onto the court as part of Nebraska’s three-headed center rotation along with Tshimanga and Okeke. He played in 20 games and made key contributions in wins against Stetson (eight points, 10 rebounds and two blocks) and at Northwestern (four points, two rebounds, two blocks).

Now listed at 250 pounds (down from a listed 275 pounds when he first joined the team), Borchardt weighs at least 20 more pounds than anyone else on the roster. Nebraska will spend most of its time in a small-ball look with guys like Roby (6-foot-8, 230 pounds), Isaac Copeland (6-foot-9, 225 pounds) and junior college transfer Dedoch Chan (6-foot-8, 210 pounds) playing the front court positions, but Borchardt will be counted on for minutes when the Huskers run into teams with a true center.

Allen will certainly see his minutes increase this season, but losing two senior guards in Gill and Taylor means there are still minutes to be had on the wing and Akenten and Thorbjarnarson are trying to earn them.

Both players chose not to redshirt last year, but neither one was able to earn a spot in the rotation, seeing the floor only in blowout situations.

Akenten played a total of 21 minutes across seven games, hitting just two of his eight 3-point attempts and finishing the year with seven points.

“I didn’t expect to come in and be a starter or anything, but I came in here and it was just a humbling experience for real,” Akenten said. “I sat a lot of the season; it just gave me a lot of time to watch the guys that were on the court and take notes and learn from them …. Being around those guys that we had last year made a huge difference in how my year was going. They just kept encouraging me and I just never gave up. I think I needed that.”

Akenten said he’s a firm believer that “everything happens for a reason” and doesn’t regret choosing not to redshirt as a freshman. Now he’s focusing on doing whatever it takes to get on the field and help his team.

“I’ll get on the rebounds for sure,” Akenten said. “I’m also a knock-down 3-point shooter. I can get to the rim and finish as well. Pretty much whatever Coach needs me to do, I’m doing, whether that’s just strictly rebounding or strictly shooting 3s or playing defense or whatever the case may be.”

Akenten said ball-handling was the area in which he improved most during the offseason.

As for Thorbjarnarson, the 6-foot-6 Icelandic wing took a break from offseason workouts in July to compete in the U20 European Championships with his national team. Iceland finished 15th out of 16 teams, losing their first six games before closing out the event with a 103-84 win over Romania.

Thorbjarnarson had his best game of the event by far against Romania, finishing with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting (3-of-6 from 3) with seven assists, three rebounds and two steals. Overall, though, he struggled, averaging 9.4 points, 3.7 assist and 3.4 turnovers while shooting 34.9 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3.

As a freshman, Thorbjarnarson played 19 minutes across nine games, finishing with eight points on 3-of-7 shooting including 2-of-5 from 3. He also grabbed four boards and dished out three assists. Thirbjarnarson has good size for a wing at 6-foot-6 and 206 pounds and is a crafty playmaker with solid vision.

Rounding out the bench is a pair of former teammates who chose to walk on in Lincoln. Trueblood and Costello won a Class B state championship together at Elkhorn South in 2015 and are together once again on Nebraska’s scout team.

Like Borchardt, Trueblood chose to leave the team after his freshman year but returned last season. The 6-foot-3 guard has appeared in 17 games and scored nine points with five assists in his career to this point. Costello, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound guard, redshirted last season for Nebraska and is arguably one of the best pure shooters on the team.

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