Nebraska basketball finds itself in an unfamiliar place as the 2018-19 season approaches. For the first time since 2014 and perhaps just the second time ever, the Huskers enter the season with national expectations.
The two primary polls — the AP Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll — came out this week. The AP Poll had the Huskers just outside the top-25, receiving enough votes for 30th, while Nebraska did appear in the coaches poll at No. 25. Andy Katz, a former ESPN college basketball writer who is now a correspondent for NCAA.com, sees the Huskers as the second best team in the Big Ten and the 16th best team nationally.
With 353 teams now making up the NCAA Division I field, that perception puts the Huskers in elite company. The last time Nebraska was held in such high regard was the 2014-15 season when Nebraska entered the season at No. 21 in the preseason AP Poll following a NCAA Tournament berth the year prior.
Just like with this year’s team, that squad was built around a pair of transfers — a high scoring wing and a stretch-big — as well as a versatile forward who chose the Huskers out of high school. That 2014-15 team fell apart, finishing 13-18. What’s different abut this year’s squad?
First of all, that team really only had three difference-makers: Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford and Shavon Shields. After that, the talent level fell off a cliff with the team’s fourth-leading scorer, freshman guard Tarin Smith, averaging just 4.5 points.
The 2018 version has Glynn Watson Jr., a soon-to-be four-year starter at point guard who has averaged just over 10 points for his career. When he’s on, he’s capable of dramatically changing Nebraska’s fate in any given game. The problem is that he only did that, at least for the better, in a few games last season.
As I documented all season long last year, Watson’s shot betrayed him and the rest of his scoring followed suit. After making massive improvements to his perimeter shot and knocking down nearly 40 percent of his 3-pointers as a sophomore, he couldn’t even crack 30 percent as a junior and sported an overall abysmal field goal percentage of 34.7 percent.
However, at Nebraska’s Husker Hoops Preview on Wednesday, assistant coach Armon Gates grabbed the microphone during the team’s scrimmage and declared Watson a new man. The senior did indeed look sharp throughout the evening, leading his red team to a blowout victory during the scrimmage and knocking down multiple 3-pointers between the practice and scrimmage portions. If Watson can get his jumper to start falling again, it adds a dimension that the team lacked far too often last season and that very well might make the difference between a berth in the NCAA Tournament and another invitation to the NIT.
The 2014-15 season featured a lot of turmoil on the court and off. The result was that both Petteway and Pitchford failed to make any meaningful improvement, and in fact, they regressed from where they were the season before. Injuries hurt the frontcourt as well with only seven players appearing in at least 30 games.
All reports point to this team being much more tightly-knit than the 2014-15 one with all the players bought in to doing what it takes to put together a special season. I’m having a hard time seeing James Palmer Jr. or Isaac Copeland Jr. turning in the kind of seasons Petteway or Pitchford did in 2014-15. Like Shavon Shields for the previous team, Isaiah Roby looks poised for an uptick in usage and a more featured role.
So long as the Huskers can stay together and remain on the same page, and with a little injury luck (Roby’s preseason foot problems are worrisome), the Huskers have a better core now than they did in 2014-15.
Each of Nebraska’s key returners has things he needs to clean up (shooting for Palmer and Watson, consistency and rebounding for Copeland and offensive aggressiveness for Roby), but we have a pretty solid idea of what we’re going to get from that quartet. After that, though, it’s a big mystery, and that is where this squad has a chance to separate itself even more from that previous team.
If the Huskers can develop a quality supporting cast, there shouldn’t be any reason for it to miss out on the Big Dance. The trick is that outside of sophomore guard Thomas Allen Jr., the rest of the squad is almost entirely untested at the Division I level.
Allen, the highly-touted recruit who struggled overall with flashes of brilliance sprinkled from time to time as a reserve combo-guard, looks to be the favorite to step in as the team’s fifth starter following the graduation of a couple of senior guards in Anton Gill and Evan Taylor. Allen will be tasked with knocking down shots and spreading the floor while he’s playing with the starting group as well as running some point and creating offense with the second unit.
How far down the bench will Coach Tim Miles go? At this point, the answer doesn’t seem very far, nor does it need to be.
True freshman Amir Harris is poised to play right away and could even push for a starting spot at some point. The only thing the 6-foot-6 guard is missing at this point is a jumper; he’s got everything else and should bring some athleticism, length and versatility on defense to the lineup much like Taylor did.
Sophomores Nana Akenten and Thorir Thorbjarnarson chose not to redshirt last season but neither managed to crack the rotation as the duo saw a combined 36 minutes of game action all year. Nebraska needs at least one of those two to emerge as a viable rotation piece, and I’d give the edge to Akenten at this point. His above-the-rim athleticism and ability to shoot from the perimeter could really help the team so long as he can hold his own defensively and make good decisions on offense. Miles has been training him as something of a three-four tweener, which gives him added value.
Then there’s the front court, and Miles will have to figure out some way to get back-up minutes out of the combination of former walk-on Tanner Borchardt, true freshman Brady Heiman and junior college transfer Dedoch Chan. I don’t know if any of them are ready to consistently produce, but if between the three of them Miles can find 15 to 20 minutes off the bench per game to spell Copeland and Roby, the Huskers should be just fine.
Nebraska is truly a fascinating dichotomy of a roster with a core group that has played a lot of basketball and a supporting cast that has played very little. Will the lack of proven depth hold the team back? Or will the young guys rise to the occasion and give the core four the support they need to avoid history repeating itself? Can the Huskers live up to expectations, put together their second straight 20-win season and break through into the NCAA Tournament?
Only time will tell, but fortunately for Nebrasketball fans, that clock is ticking faster and and faster. The season is just over a week away.
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.