On Sunday afternoon, Nebraska’s seniors will take the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena for the final time as Iowa comes to town for the regular season finale.
Expectations and excitement were through the roof for this team coming into the year and this group of upperclassmen came back with one goal on their minds: the NCAA Tournament. Barring a miracle run through the Big Ten Tournament, the Huskers are going to fall short of that goal, but this group of seniors has still accomplished a lot in Lincoln.
We have to begin with Glynn Watson Jr.
Watson, a senior point guard out of Bellwood, Illinois, was the crown jewel of Tim Miles’ 2015 recruiting class which was the most highly-ranked class of his tenure in Lincoln. The class included five players — Watson, Ed Morrow, Michael Jacobson, Jack McVeigh and Bakari Evelyn and Watson was a consensus top-100 recruit that year. However, one by one his classmates departed, seeking to continue their basketball careers elsewhere. Watson very well could have done the same as the Huskers won a combined 28 games his first two years on campus, but instead he chose to stick it out and try to lead a turnaround.
It took just 12 games before Miles decided to insert Watson into the starting lineup as a freshman next to senior Benny Parker in the backcourt and he started 16 straight games before moving back to the bench for the final six games in favor of Tai Webster.
Watson has started all but four games he’s played in over the past three years and is currently fourth on Nebraska’s career starts list with 107, four behind Dave Hoppen. He will finish — at the least — in a tie for second in games played as he is currently at 128 with at least two games remaining. Cookie Belcher is first with 131 appearances.
With 25 points in his last game, Watson passed Venson Hamilton and sits in 12th place on Nebraska’s career scoring chart with 1,422 points, 53 behind Rich King in 11th. He also ranks inside the top 10 in a handful of other statistical categories including steals (fifth at 171), 3-point field goals (seventh with 163), free-throw percentage (seventh at .796) and assists (eighth at 358).
Watson’s game certainly has its flaws. He’s been incredibly streaky as a shooter and his playmaking comes and goes. But when he’s on (like he was at Michigan State), he is a lot of fun to watch with his ability to create separation and hit difficult shots. He has also grown into an impact defender over the course of his career despite his relatively small stature.
Watson hasn’t had quite the career many envisioned he was capable of when he arrived in Lincoln, but he’s still put together a very productive four-year career as a Husker at a time when few players stuck around for all four years.
Watson’s backcourt mate, James Palmer Jr., is just as inconsistent, though his valleys might not be quite as deep as he has managed to find a way to put up points even when he’s not playing well. In just two seasons as a Husker, Palmer has vaulted himself into 25th place on Nebraska’s career scoring chart wth 1,143 points and if he merely hits his average against Iowa, he’ll jump even further to 20th place.
A big part of Palmer’s ability to rack up points is the way he can get to the foul line, and he is currently ninth all-time in free throws made with 342, just three behind Rich King in eighth place. Palmer was a First-Team All-Big Ten performer as a junior after a terrific campaign including a 10-game stretch or so during which he looked like an All-American. Palmer was named a preseason All-Big Ten performer again heading into this season and made a couple different award watch lists, and although his scoring has gone up a bit, his efficiency has tanked as he’s shooting under 37 percent from the field.
Still, when his shot is falling he’s a bucket-getter like few others as he showed against Creighton earlier this season.
Isaac Copeland Jr. was the other high-profile transfer that arrived in Lincoln looking to change Nebraska’s fortunes alongside Palmer. The former 5-star recruit and Georgetown Hoya put together a solid junior season as a Husker, putting up 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and growing into a reliable and efficient offensive threat in Big Ten play.
Copeland got off to a great start this season and for long stretches of the nonconference he looked like Nebraska’s best player. He stepped his game up another level as a senior as his efficiency as a scorer inside the arc was outstanding with his reliable mid-range face-up game and an improved post game.
Sadly, Copeland’s Husker career was cut short on a meaningless play just nine games into the Big Ten schedule as he suffered a torn ACL. Injuries throughout his career prevented Copeland from reaching his ceiling in college, but he certainly put in the work and grew into a key player and a leader for the Huskers.
In a cool gesture, junior forward Isaiah Roby will wear a No. 14 jersey against Iowa in honor of Copeland.
Nebraska’s final senior has perhaps the most interest story of them all. Recruited primarily as a football player out of high school, Gothenburg native Tanner Borchardt chose to forego an athletic career and instead enroll at Nebraska as a regular student. But when the Huskers put out the call for on open tryout on campus seeking potential walk-ons, Borchardt decided to give it a shot. Nebraska needed depth in the post and decided to give the then-6-foot-8, 275-pound Borchardt a chance.
He only played in eight games as a freshman, hitting all three of his shots for six points and grabbing nine rebounds. After the season was over, he decided to go back to the student life and left the team. Borchardt began to miss basketball, though, and late in his sophomore year Miles welcomed him back into the program just in time to serve as Isaac Haas on the scout team ahead of the Huskers’ game against Purdue. He played one game as a sophomore, devoted his offseason to re-shaping his body and came back 10 to 15 pounds lighter.
Borchardt earned his way onto the court as a part of Nebraska’s three-headed center station (when they weren’t playing Roby as a small-ball five), totaling 18 points and 36 rebounds in 118 minutes across 20 games. Miles rewarded his work by placing him on scholarship, and he worked even harder to lose weight last offseason.
Borchardt is listed at 250 pounds on this year’s roster, and since Copeland went down he’s moved into he starting lineup. He’s limited offensively compared to nearly every center he matches up with in the Big Ten but has still found a way to have a positive impact when he hasn’t been in foul trouble, averaging 2.8 points and 4.1 rebounds
Borchardt’s rise from student to tryout success story to scholarship player to starter has been one of the more heartwarming storylines from the Tim Miles era, and Borchardt deserves a hearty round of applause ahead of Sunday’s game.
All the seniors do. This season hasn’t gone they way they hoped, but they’ve put three or four years of work into this program and were the driving forces behind last year’s 22-win season. So get there early and cheer loud, Nebraska fans. This will be the last time you see those four seniors on the floor at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Send them out on a high note and help them get a win against the Hawkeyes.
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.