The Big Ten is stacked with talented big men this season.
Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is the first name that comes to mind. The 6-foot-10, 237-pound center has a case to be considered the best player in the entire conference, and I’ve talked to people around college basketball who would take Happ over preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Carsen Edwards if given the choice. But he’s not the only big set to wreak havoc this season.
Nearly every team in the league has one (or multiple) bigs that belong near the top of the scouting report.
Indiana’s Juwan Morgan (6-foot-8, 232) is one of the most productive players returning in the league, and if junior De’Ron Davis can return to form after recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, the 6-foot-10, 255-pound center is a load.
Iowa’s Tyler Cook (6-foot-9, 250), a physical yet skilled post, leads a big Iowa frontcourt that also includes Luka Garza (6-foot-11, 245 pounds), Cordell Pemsl (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) and Ryan Kriener (6-foot-9, 255 pounds). The Hawkeyes are so deep in the front court that talented sophomore Jack Nunge will redshirt this season.
Maryland has a dynamic one-two punch in sophomore Bruno Fernando (6-foot-10, 240) and 5-star freshman Jalen Smith (6-foot-10, 215), the second-highest-rated recruit in the conference. Ohio State is built around sophomore Kaleb Wesson (6-foot-9, 270 pounds). Michigan State has one of the most efficient scorers in the league in Nick Ward (6-foot-9, 245) with a former 4-star recruit in Xavier Tillman (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) backing him up.
Michigan and Purdue both have a pair of strong defensive 7-footers in their front courts in junior Jon Teske (7-foot-1, 260) and sophomore Matt Haarms (7-foot-3, 250 pounds) while Penn State and Northwestern each boast a guy capable of dropping a double-double on any given night in junior Mike Watkins for the Nittany Lions and senior Dererk Pardon for the Wildcats.
Minnesota has double-double machine Jordan Murphy (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) as well as freshman Daniel Oturu (6-foot-10, 225 pounds), a top-100 recruit in the 2018 class. Even Illinois and Rutgers have some big bodies they can throw out there on the court.
I lay all this out to say that the Nebraska frontcourt has its work cut out for it this season. Nebraska really hit its stride when Coach Tim Miles — out of necessity when center Jordy Tshimanga briefly left the team — went all in on a small-ball lineup with 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward Isaiah Roby at the five next to 6-foot-9, 225-pound Isaac Copeland Jr. That look gave the Huskers the ability to switch everything on defense and Roby’s length and shot-blocking instincts meant the Huskers still had a rim protector in the paint.
Miles isn’t going to try to fix something that isn’t broken, so Nebraska is sticking with that same frontcourt to start games this season. However, Roby only started 13 games as a sophomore and averaged 24 minutes per game. That number went up 26.9 minutes per game in conference play and was at almost 30 per game as a starter. Can Roby maintain his level of play through the wear and fair of playing the five for a whole season, especially considering he’s coming off an offseason where he was limited by a heel injury?
“It’s definitely tough,” Roby said about battling with bigger guys. “I never envisioned myself playing center in the Big Ten. It’s been tough for me just because I’ve got to be able to fill that role of a center for our team to be successful, but it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to … I think it takes teams out of, sometimes, what they want to do. I think it definitely helps us a lot.”
It’s not just the durability that is a question. He’s averaged over five fouls per 40 minutes in each of his first two seasons. So far this season, Roby picked up four fouls in 23 minutes in Nebraska’s closed scrimmage against Iowa State and he also had three in just 16 minutes in the season-opener against Mississippi Valley State including two in the first nine minutes of the game.
“We keep telling him not to foul,” Miles said. “Maybe I’ll tell him to foul … He knows. We did a study with he and Glynn [Watson Jr.], showed them when they foul, how they foul, Matty Holt, our video guy, did a great job of putting all that together. We meet with them, ‘What do you see? ‘Well it’s just silly stuff, it’s the reach.’ So when I say discipline, that’s what I’m talking about, not doing that. So you make them aware of it. What I don’t want it to be is a self-fulfilling prophecy, like ‘Oh, here we go again.’ So I think we need to be careful with how we manage that too.”
The Huskers need Roby to stay out of foul trouble this season, but even if he can do that Nebraska will still need significant contributions off the bench. That’s where former walk-on Tanner Borchardt enters the picture.
Even after slimming down considerably, Borchardt is still the heaviest player not he roster by a good 20 pounds. The Gothenburg native is listed at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds and Nebraska is going to need him when they run up against some of the interior monsters of the Big Ten.
“Tanner’s going to be big for us this year,” Roby said. “He’s our back-up five-man. Knowing the way our seasons usually go he might end up starting some games down the road too. He’s going to have to be ready. I think he’s been putting in a lot of work. Every practice, him and Brady [Heiman] have been in the gym an hour before practice with Coach [Jim Molinari] putting in extra work. He’s taking it seriously and he knows that’s what his role is: his role’s going to be coming off the bench and he’s going to play meaningful minutes. He’s looking forward to that challenge.”
The senior played 13 minutes in the opener and converted his only shot attempt for a three-point play. He also grabbed four boards and a steal. In the Iowa State scrimmage, he made all four of his field goal attempts and finished with nine points, three rebounds and a steal in 16 minutes of action. Nebraska isn’t going to need a ton of points from Borchardt, but his strength defensively in the post and his nose for the ball on the glass should help the Huskers quite a bit.
As for Heiman, the 6-foot-11, 215-pound freshman out of Springfield, Nebraska, he appears to be something of a wildcard. He’s been very productive against lesser competition between the exhibition game against Wayne State and the season opener, but can he replicate that against quality opponents? Heiman went from anticipating a redshirt when he first set foot on campus to nearly recording a double-double (nine points, 13 rebounds) in his Husker debut but Miles is still trying to get a feel for what Heiman’s role will be for this team.
Between Roby, Copeland, Borchardt and Heiman, Nebraska has to fill close to 80 minutes of game time at the four and the five (excluding even smaller lineups with someone like 6-foot-6 sophomore Nana Akenten at the four). Roby’s health and ability to stay on the floor as well as the emergence of Borchardt and Heiman as legitimate options off the bench will go a long way toward determining what kind of season the Huskers have.
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.