COLLEGE BASKETBALL BACK!
Ahem, excuse me. Give me a moment to get my emotions in check.
OK, I think I’m good.
I know most of the people in this state are football-first fans, but I’m a basketball guy through and through and for me, this is one of the best times of the year. The NBA has been going for a bit now, my youth teams are a couple weeks into their season, high school tryouts in Nebraska start on Monday and now college basketball is back as well.
With the return of college basketball comes the start of my third season covering the Nebraska men’s basketball team, and I have to admit, Tim Miles isn’t the only one who likes this squad (something he’s seemingly said every time someone has put a microphone in front of him).
The last two years, my expectations were not very high for Nebrasketball. The flaws on those rosters (guys having to play out of position, lack of depth, limited talent at certain spots) made it hard to see those teams finishing anywhere but near the bottom of the Big Ten, and that is how those years played out.
Outside expectations are low once again, but this is a very different team than the one that went 12-19 last season. Between transfers and freshmen, Nebraska has added two new starters and quality reserves at key positions.
Nebraska has Big Ten-caliber players throughout the lineup (something that hasn’t necessarily been the case in recent years), depth and versatility. This team has what it takes to win.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to grad transfer senior center Duby Okeke, who joined the Huskers after playing on a NCAA Tournament team at Winthrop.
“This is probably the most talented team I’ll ever play with; I’m not going to lie to you,” Okeke said. “Different guys with different stuff, different backgrounds, but it’s just like I see us doing so much more. We have no ceiling. I know a lot of teams say that, but if you look at our roster and actually see what we do day-in and day-out, it’s probably one of the most talented teams I’ll be a part of.”
Winthrop may be a mid-major, but it has had far more success on the court than Nebraska has. Still not convinced? Then listen to James Palmer Jr., a transfer from Miami who was part of two NCAA tournament teams including a Sweet 16 squad during his sophomore year.
“I think this team can be real good,” Palmer said. “We can make a run in the tournament. We have to focus on getting there first but I think this can be one of the best teams that has ever come through Nebraska.”
Obviously, talk is cheap, and as Okeke said, nearly every team speaks optimistically during the preseason. However, there does seem to be a significant amount of belief in this squad from the players and coaches that I’m not sure I’ve seen in recent years.
Glynn Watson Jr. is back at point guard and the junior is ready to make this team his, according to Miles. Watson has role players with potential around him in the likes of senior guard Evan Taylor, junior forward, sophomore forward Isaiah Roby and sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga and an intriguing understudy at point guard in 4-star recruit Thomas Allen.
However, in order for the Huskers to live up to the expectations they’ve set for themselves, the transfers are going to have to come up big, most notably the two new starters in Palmer and Georgetown forward Isaac Copeland.
In his two season at Miami, Palmer averaged 3.6 points in 12.5 minutes per game. Palmer actually saw his playing time decrease as a sophomore rather than increase, dropping from 13.3 to 11.6. In Lincoln, the 6-foot-6 wing can expect to get as many minutes as he can handle.
“Palmer’s going from a guy that was, as I say, little brother — and I’m the youngest of five, so I can freely say this,” Miles said. “So little brother gets to come along if, what? You don’t bug us, if everything’s going good, you’re little brother. Now, you start bugging us, things don’t go well, you’re gone. He was kind of little brother at Miami. You come in, you’re playing good, you start — oh, turnover, bad shot, gone and we’re just done with you; tonight, you’re going to play 8 minutes. He’s not that guy for us, so he’s got to accept the demands and the responsibility that come with being a go-to guy. That’s different. It’s a different level of concentration, it’s a different level of expectation of yourself.”
So far, Palmer has done just that. He led the team in scoring in each of Nebraska’s preseason games — a charity exhibition against Mississippi State, a closed scrimmage against Iowa State and a regular exhibition against Northwood.
In those three wins, Palmer averaged 19 points in 26.7 minutes while shooting 62.5 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3-point range and 88 percent from the free-throw line.
“I love James,” Miles said after Nebraska’s win over Northwood on Tuesday. “First of all, he’s a bright kid, he’s great to be around, I love being around him, and he can score, there’s no doubt. He can score at a lot of levels — he can make 3s, he can get to the rim, he didn’t take contact as well as he had been even in practice, and he can get to the foul line and make it there too. He can do a lot of things. It’s just him trying to make that next level, take it up a notch, be a two-way, offensive and defensive player — not that he’s not a good player — but just like anybody, he’s got to adjust to that time off and have your concentration ready to go.”
Palmer upped his point total with each game culminating with a 27-point performance on 9-of-14 shooting that impressed Northwood head coach and former Nebraska captain Jeff Rekeweg.
“I tell you, Palmer, he’s the real deal,” Rekeweg said.
Copeland, on the other hand, has struggled mightily in the preseason. He averaged 7.7 points on 32.8 percent shooting including 1-of-12 on 3-pointers.
“I think Copeland's pressing a little bit shooting the ball,” Miles said. “He just needs to see the ball go in some. Everybody’s cheering for him out there every time he shoots it … He’s just got to get out of his own way some.”
Copeland’s struggles haven’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, he missed most of last season with a back injury, and transitioning from the offense he played in at Georgetown under John Thompson III to what Miles is asking him to do now has not been easy.
“You’ve got a guy like Isaac Copeland that says ‘Jeez, I feel like I’m going crazy with all this moving and cutting,’” Miles said. “‘No, you’re doing good.’ But it’s a different style. It’s not space, cut, Princeton style stuff. It’s more wide open. As you can see, he’s struggled a little bit with the acclimation of style of play. The quicker he gets it, the better we are.”
Copeland is still in the “working off the rust” phase, but inconsistency is something that the 6-foot-9 forward struggled with during his time at Georgetown. He has to find a way to consistently produce if Nebraska is going to exceed expectations and avoid any let-downs like they’ve experienced the last three years. It’s not all on him, though. Miles is counting on all of his upperclassmen to set the tone.
“I think this group is old enough to understand that every game matters, that we can’t have throw-away games,” Miles said. “We’ve had one three years in a row where a lesser opponent has come in to Pinnacle Bank Arena that we’ve paid a great deal of money to and beat us. and I used to be that guy beating teams. That’s great. It’s not so great on the other side. I believe we understand the urgency. This team I believe is competitive enough too to come out every night. Now that doesn’t mean we’re perfect — every team’s got to figure out how to win and has to adjust to a role.”
That competitiveness is something the team lacked last season. After opening league play with three straight wins, Nebraska dropped 13 of its last 16 games to finish 12-19 overall.
“Last year as a collective, we kind of accepted losing,” Taylor said. “As a competitor, when you accept that mentality, nothing good is going to come from that. No matter how many games you lose, you can never accept losing.”
Taylor joined the team as a junior college transfer last season and started 21 games. He said he tried to set the tone in preseason workouts and practices and has seen difference.
“I just wanted us to take wining more seriously, whether it’s a rebounding drill or it’s towards our record,” Taylor said. “Just the mentality of winning, it’s a mentality; you can’t turn it on and turn it off. Everything needs to be about winning because that carries over to the season when you want to win games that actually count.”
Perhaps part of the increased competitiveness is the team’s newfound depth, with starters and legitimate backups at every position.
“At the end of the day, if you’re not going to produce, you’re not going to play because we’ve got a lot of guys that can do a lot of things, from top to bottom, freshmen, seniors, juniors, sophomores,” Taylor said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in every age group, so it forces you to come with that mentality that ‘I’ve got to come to play or I’m going to get left behind.’”
Okeke said Nebraska is still searching for consistency, but that’s to be expected this early on.
“The great teams, they don’t get high with the highs, they don’t get low with the lows,” Okeke said. “They just kind of stick to the course and that’s one thing that we have to learn about.”
Nebraska is going to have to learn how to stay even-keeled during another tough nonconference slate that includes games at St. John’s, against Boston College, at Creighton and against Kansas not to mention the Advocare Invitational that includes the likes of Central Florida and West Virginia or the schedule quirk that has Nebraska playing two conference games — against Big Ten contenders Michigan State and Minnesota — in early December.
“It’s just a little bit of everybody kind of finding their own way,” Miles said. “That adjustment period certainly is crucial, but you can’t quicken that process either. You’ve got to just accept it and stay mindful of what we’re about and figure out how to win games, whether it by one, three, five, seven or nine. We’re going to have steps backward, but at the same time this team’s got a bright future and I think they can do some special things for us this year.”
The early returns have been good, and Rekeweg, speaking as an alumnus of Nebraska, said he is excited about the direction of the program and thinks the Huskers have what it takes to compete in the Big Ten this year.
Miles is pretty pumped too.
“I’m very excited to unveil this team,” Miles said. “There are a lot of newcomers. They might be new to our fans, not so new to us. We’ve had them around, maybe redshirting or out injured or whatever it might be, or recruited them … We’ve known these guys for a long time and I’m excited to get them on the floor and just have a blast. I’m really looking forward to making Pinnacle Bank Arena a lot of fun.”
The last few years of program building have led to this year’s roster, and Nebraska has to take advantage. It’s now or never for Miles and his team to make the leap to being competitive in the Big Ten.
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.