Sunday will mark the final game of 2019 for the Nebraska basketball game, so this seems like a good time to look back at the year that was in Nebrasketball.
The results over the past 12 months haven’t exactly been pretty. They’ve been filled with a few wins, a lot of losses, a devastating injury, crushed dreams, a coaching change and a near complete roster flip. The Husker team getting ready to dive into 2020 looks nothing like the one that began 2019, although the team that began 2019 also didn’t look much like the one that closed out 2018.
Lets start there. The 2018-19 Huskers under Tim Miles entered the season with plenty of hype with the four-man core of Glynn Watson Jr., James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland Jr. and Isaiah Roby returning. Early in the year, the team looked capable of living up to that hype. Nebraska went 11-2 before the calendar turned to January with losses to two NCAA Tournament teams in eventual national runner-up Texas Tech and Minnesota and a 19-point win over in-state rival Creighton (that first win against the Bluejays under Miles).
For whatever reason, however, Nebraska couldn’t carry that momentum over into conference play in 2019. Nebraska got off to a 2-5 start before losing Copeland — maybe the team’s most consistent performer — to a torn ACL (he just recently scored his first professional points with the Texas Legends of the NBA G League). Nebraska went 3-11 without Copeland to close out the season, though one of those wins came against Iowa in overtime on Senior Day with the Huskers even more short-handed.
That win sparked the Huskers’ miraculous run through the postseason that featured a six or seven-man rotation including a walk-on, giving birth to the legend of Johnny Trueblood. Nebraska won two games in the Big Ten Tournament and nearly won a third, coming up just short against Wisconsin. Nebraska’s strong start and finish was enough for an NIT berth, and the Huskers won their opening game there before seeing their season end against TCU in the second round.
Nebraska entered the 2018-19 season with as much hype as any team has had in program history and didn’t even make it to 20 wins. The signs of life down the stretch wasn’t enough for Miles to keep his job as Bill Moos fired him after the season ended (eventually) and hired the Mayor of Ames, Iowa State legend and former Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to take his place.
Most of the main pieces from the 2018-19 season were moving on regardless as Watson, Palmer, Copeland, former walk-on turned starting center Tanner Borchardt and even Trueblood were all seniors and Roby declared for the NBA Draft. Even so, Hoiberg went about flipping the roster even further once he took over. Thomas Allen Jr., Nana Akenten, Brady Heiman, Amir Harris, Karrington Davis and even walk-on Justin Costello all transferred, leaving Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Dachon Burke Jr., coming off a redshirt, as the only players who returned.
Hoiberg and his staff used every avenue available to them to replenish the roster, bringing in 11 new players — two junior college transfers, two graduate transfers, three sit-out transfers and four high school recruits (one of which was from France).
The new-look Huskers have struggled to open the 2019-20 season as they’ve gotten off to a 5-7 start with three buy-game losses already (Miles had three total in his last four seasons). Most probably expected Nebraska to struggle early on as the players adjusted to their new teammates and learned how to play in Hoiberg’s system, but I don’t think anyone expected losses to UC Riverside, Southern Utah and North Dakota.
So far on top of the losses (which included a 19-point defeat at Creighton that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates) we’ve seen one player already decide to transfer and another earn a two-game suspension. On the other end of the spectrum, sophomore point guard Cam Mack recorded the first triple-double in program history and has notched a couple double-doubles as well, showing off passing acumen I have not seen before in a Husker uniform.
In total, Nebraska went 13-22 (.371) in 2019 with one game left to play against a 4-8 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi team. I’d chalk that up as a win, but based on what we’ve seen that probably isn’t a good idea so I’ll just leave it out for now. That is the lowest winning percentage in a calendar year over the last decade.
One could call this rock bottom for the program, but with the schedule about to get much tougher as Big Ten play begins, it very well might get worse. That being said, the Huskers are already 1-1 in league play with an overtime loss at Indiana and a home win over Purdue, two good teams. This team is very much a work in progress but it has shown signs of putting things together in the midst of all the struggles.
I expect the record to continue to look rough as 2020 begins, but based on Hoiberg’s track record, there’s no reason it has to end that way. If the Huskers can steal a few wins here and there and show consistent progress, an Iowa State-esque leap in year two under Hoiberg isn’t out of the question.
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.