Over the last week-and-a-half, we’ve been looking back at the 2017-18 basketball season and breaking the roster down into point guards, wings, forwards and centers for season reviews. To put a cap on the season that was in Nebrasketball, it’s time to reminisce on the highs and lows and hand out some superlatives.
Best Win: 72-52 vs. Michigan in Lincoln
Considering how the season turned out, there weren’t actually many candidates for this despite Nebraska racking up 22 wins (which is why they ended up in the NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament). The Wolverines were the only team that went dancing that Nebraska beat all season.
That alone is enough to make this the best win of the year, but the way it happened left no doubt. No, I’m not talking about the 20-point margin of victory, although that was certainly memorable and incredibly impressive. The most notable thing about this win was that it was the pinnacle of the small-ball basketball that made Nebraska so tough to deal with for a lot of teams this season.
Center’s Jordy Tshimanga, Duby Okeke and Tanner Borchardt played a combined 10 minutes in the game. Isaiah Roby played 29 minutes with most of them coming at the five alongside Isaac Copeland. The Huskers switched every screen and completely flustered the Michigan offense. The Huskers held Michigan’s leading scorer, Moritz Wagner, to a season-low two points (which led to heavy heckling by the student section).
The Huskers were incredibly efficient on offense as well with James Palmer Jr. leading all scorers with 19 and three other Huskers finishing in double figures as well.
Worst Loss: 58-77 vs. Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament
Oddly enough, the worst loss of the season came to the same team as the best win. There are more candidates for this one (to St. John’s, at Illinois, to Mississippi State to end the season), but the stakes on the line with this game and Nebraska completely falling on its face makes this the pick.
Whereas the Huskers were locked in defensively in the first go-around, Nebraska was out of sorts and had several blown assignments and miscues that allowed Michigan to get off to a great start and the Huskers couldn’t overcome that. Wagner put up 20 points in this one and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added another 21 as the Wolverines shot 11-of-23 from deep.
On the other end, Nebraska just couldn’t get anything going as the Huskers shot 30.2 percent from the field for the game and turned the ball over 10 times compared to just five assists for the game.
Nebraska needed this game to have any shot at earning an at-large bid to the Big Dance, and they didn’t show up.
Now, onto happier things.
Most Valuable Player: James Palmer Jr.
This was an easy one. Palmer was the first first-team All-Big Ten performer for the Huskers since Terran Petteway after finishing fifth in the conference in scoring at 17.2 points per game. He had 31 double-digit scoring games including eight of 20 or more with a high of 34.
Palmer grew into one of the more unstoppable offensive forces in the conference with his ability to get to the rim and draw fouls, especially in the open floor. He showed he was more than just a scorer as well as he put together 11 games with four or more assists with a high of nine.
Palmer got off to somewhat of a slow start in the nonconference portion of the season as after two years as a reserve at Miami and one redshirt year he was thrust into a prominent role. However, he worked off the rust and figured out how to play his game within Nebraska’s system, growing into the team’s most valuable player. He saved the team from a terrible loss with the game-winner against Illinois and came up big in wins against the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin and Maryland.
With Glynn Watson Jr.’s season-long slump, Nebraska needed somebody to step up and fill the scoring void, and Palmer did that. If he chooses to return to Lincoln for one more year, the Huskers should have a chance to accomplish what they came up short of this year:: earning an NCAA Tournament berth.
Most Improved Player: Isaiah Roby
Palmer was a candidate for this one as well, but considering he wasn’t eligible to play last season it’s hard to judge just ho much he improved compared to where he was when he got to Nebraska. Roby, on the other hand, improved drastically across the board and developed into one of Nebraska’s most important players.
The stress reaction that kept Roby off the court for months leading up to the season put him behind the eight ball from the start and he never quite caught up throughout the season. He showed flashes of his immense potential, but overall struggled to make an impact on a consistent and efficient basis.
Roby shot under 50 percent inside the arc in part because of a lack of strength, and he made just four of his 20 3-point attempts. Overall, it took him 94 field goal attempts and 21 free-throw attempts (yes, he hardly got to the charity stripe as a freshman) to score 94 points.
He showed some passing acumen at times, but he turned the ball over 3.2 times per 40 minutes while dishing out just 1.9 assists per 40. The lack of strength was a factor here as well as was his struggles adjusting to the speed of the game.
Fast-forward to this season after a healthy offseason spent in the weight room and Roby converted better than 60 percent of his 2-pointers and 40 percent of his 3-pointers. He nearly tripled his scoring average (from 3.1 to 8.7) in less than nine extra minutes of playing time per game. He still turned the ball over a bit more than is ideal (2.5 per 40) but he bumped his assists up to 2.8 per 40, which is a solid ratio for a starting center, which is what Roby became over the second half of the season.
I could go on and on here with the leap Roby has made, but I think I’ve painted the picture well enough. A similar jump next season could have Roby in All-Big Ten consideration and could land him in the NBA Draft as well.
Defensive Player of the Year: Isaiah Roby
Duby Okeke deserves a shout-out here for his demoralizing blocks (he held an absurd 12.7 block percentage this year) but playing less than 200 minutes this season disqualifies him from award consideration.
That being said, Roby takes this one as well. The 6-foot-8, 226-pound forward-turned-small-ball-center didn’t just use his 7-foot-3 wingspan and 42-inch vertical to throw down poster dunks; he used them to protect the rim as well. Roby blocked 2.0 shots per game this season in just 24 minutes per game. He had games of six, four, five and five blocks this season and failed to register a block just three times this year.
Roby stepped up his defensive rebounding in his new role this season, registering a 20 percent defensive rebounding rate which was on par with the 6-foot-11, 267-pound Jordy Tshimanga’s (20.6 percent). His mobility at the five was a game-changer defensively for the Huskers as he was able to switch any ball screen and contain ball-handlers well enough for the Huskers to get stops.
Roby led the Huskers in defensive rating (95.6), was tied for first with Isaac Copeland in defensive win shares (1.6) despite playing nearly 250 less minutes. He was second to Okeke in defensive box plus/minus with 6.5, which was third in the Big Ten among qualifiers behind two of the best defenders in college basketball in Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.
Roby didn’t make an all-defensive team in the Big Ten this season, but he had a strong argument for it and will have a great opportunity to make the cut next season if he can cut down on his fouling (over five fouls per 40 minutes in each of his first two seasons).
Rookie of the Year: Thomas Allen
This season wasn’t a great one for the freshman class at Nebraska. Thomas Allen wins this by default considering he was the only one of the three freshmen who was part of the regular rotation despite none of the three redshirting this year.
Allen split back-up point guard duties with Evan Taylor and struggled somewhat in that role as a true freshman. He logged double-digit minutes just 14 times. He logged just 17 assists to 20 turnovers, and for the most part, the offense ran a lot better with Glynn Watson Jr. on the floor despite the upperclassman’s struggles.
Allen wasn’t brought to Lincoln as a pure point guard, though. His perimeter jumper and overall scoring acumen is what made him such a highly-touted recruit. As a freshman, he logged 13 games without a single point and just eight with two or more field goals.
One of Allen’s best games came against Kansas when the freshman — who was recruited by Bill Self before choosing Nebraska — came off the bench to put in 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting including 3-of-4 from deep in 14 minutes. Watson got in first-half foul trouble and Allen stepped up to the plate. His only other double-digit scoring performance came two games later when he put up 14 against Delaware State while leading the team with a season-high 26 minutes.
For the season, Allen shot 35.4 percent from 3, a decent yet unspectacular number. However, when you look at the games where he got off three or more shots from deep, he connected on 43.8 percent (14-of-32). Allen’s lack of size hurt him as a finisher at times inside the arc, but he did display some craftiness in the paint as well as the ability to hit floaters, an important tool for guards to have in their arsenal.
Allen didn’t have a huge impact as a freshman, but he did show enough to think that an offseason of further development plus an increased role could produce big results for the Huskers next season.
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.