Padding the Stats: There's Basketball Talent in Nebraska
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: There’s Basketball Talent in Nebraska

February 22, 2019

On Monday, Coach Tim Miles went on national college basketball writer Jeff Goodman’s podcast to offer his perspective about life on the hot seat. 

I’m not going to get into that podcast or the comment that prompted an apology from Miles himself. Miles knows how to play the game as well as anyone and has done a great job of building support among the national media like Goodman.

Unfortunately for Miles, his team followed up that podcast with arguably its most embarrassing performance of the season, a 95-71 loss at Penn State. Not a great look. But that’s not what I’m writing about today either.

On Wednesday, our own Chris Schmidt had Goodman on Hail Varsity Radio to discuss the podcast, Miles and the Nebraska basketball program as a whole.

In one segment, Goodman said that he had Nebraska ranked as the ninth-best coaching job in the Big Ten and in the 50-75 range nationally. He praised the facilities and fan support, but:

“The bad part, there are no players in the area, there are no players in Nebraska every year and you need that, especially at a place like Nebraska because otherwise you’ve got to go into somebody else’s backyard and try to beat them in their backyard. You’re not a program that’s like Carolina, Duke, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky; they can go anywhere they want. They can go anywhere they want and fight and beat somebody for a player. But if you’re in Nebraska, you’re not beating Michigan for a Detroit kid or Michigan State. You’re not going to California and beating UCLA or even USC for California kids. So that’s the hard part of the Nebraska job and that’s what I don’t know if enough people understand, that it’s hard to recruit at Nebraska. It’s really hard.”

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News said something very similar on Unsportsmanlike Conduct on AM 1620 in Omaha this week.

There’s no doubt that there isn’t nearly the amount of high-major talent in Nebraska as there are many other states, but to say there is “no talent” is not accurate. Just because Nebraska has chosen to ignore it over the last several years doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

In last week’s Padding the Stats column, I tracked down all those that played their high school ball in Nebraska that are currently hooping at the Division I level. Almost all of them are playing at the mid-major level, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t play some kind of role in the Big Ten.

On Thursday, South Dakota State big man Mike Daum passed Danny Manning and Oscar Robertson to move into 10th place on the NCAA’s all-time scoring chart with a 38-point, 20-rebound performance in the Jackrabbits’ win over North Dakota State. Daum is the Summit League’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder and is 19 points shy of 3,000 for his career. He could make a sizeable impact at any program in the country, and he’s from Kimball, Nebraska.

To be fair, Kimball is a five-hour drive west of Lincoln; it’s closer to Colorado than the major cities in Nebraska. When Daum first arrived in Brookings, the South Dakota State staff thought they had made a mistake offering him. But after a redshirt year spent reshaping his body, Daum emerged as a certified beast during his redshirt freshman year and hasn’t stopped getting buckets since. Nebraska watched him once and he was terrible in that workout. But that was the only real look they gave him, and everyone has a bad day from time to time.

But forget Daum; let’s look a little closer to home. Omaha has produced two homegrown NBA players in the last few years in Omaha Benson’s Khyri Thomas and Omaha North’s Justin Patton, both of whom went to Creighton. The Bluejays have another Omaha product in Burke’s Shereef Mitchell set to enroll this summer after spending a postgrad year at Sunrise Christian Academy.

Omaha Central alumnus Tre’Shawn Thurman spent three years at Omaha and is now starting for a top-10 team in the country in Nevada as a senior. Another former Central Eagle, Akoy Agau, never developed into the star many expected while he was in high school but he has been a rotation player for multiple high-major schools and is wrapping up his career as a sixth-year senior back where it began, at Louisville.

Fremont’s Mitch Hahn has developed into a flat-out killer for Omaha; you’re telling me he couldn’t play for this Nebraska team with his height and ability to shoot the ball? Get out of here. He wouldn’t be the same kind of star he has become as a Maverick, but he could certainly contribute and that’s the way I’ve felt about a lot of players that went on to have standout careers at the mid major level over the last handful of years. Nebraska has wasted a number of scholarships on players that either busted or didn’t stick around to finish their careers.

Heck, look what Nebraska stumbled onto with Gothenburg native Tanner Borchardt hiding on its own campus as a regular student. Where would the Huskers be this year had Borchardt not showed up at that walk-on tryout years ago, or had he not come back after he left the team following his freshman season? Borchardt turned himself into a legitimate Division I role player over the last couple of years and now he’s starting for the Huskers.

Nebraska has another local product on scholarship right now as well in Platteview big man Brady Heiman. He probably needed a redshirt year, but Nebraska needed him to play right away and he’s had his moments.

Look ahead and the Huskers already have a letter of intent from 2019 Omaha Creighton Prep forward Akol Arop and a commitment from 2020 Lincoln North Star guard Donovan Williams, a 4-star and top-100 recruit according to Rivals. In 2021, Millard North wing Hunter Sallis holds an offer from Nebraska (along with a handful of other high-majors) and is a 4-star recruit ranked 50th in the 2021 class by Rivals. As much potential as Sallis clearly has, Bellevue West point guard Chucky Hepburn has been an even better player to this point and also holds an offer from Nebraska.

So yes, Jeff Goodman and Mike DeCourcy, there is in fact some talent in Nebraska. Maybe not as much as some other states, but there’s enough for a starting point.

Here’s a breakdown of scholarship players from Big Ten states currently on Big Ten Rosters:

State Players
Illinois 19
Ohio 17
Indiana 15
Michigan 14
Minnesota 8
Maryland 8
Pennsylvania 8
Iowa 6
New Jersey 6
Nebraska 2
Wisconsin 2

Wisconsin seems to be doing just fine without a ton of local players; why is that only a problem for Nebraska?

In fact, here’s a look at the roster make-up of all 14 Big Ten teams:

School Roster Breakdown
Michigan State 7 from Michigan (players from 4 other states/countries)
Iowa 6 from Iowa (6 others)
Minnesota 5 from Minnesota (8 others)
Penn State 5 from Pennsylvania (5 others)
Purdue 5 from Indiana (5 others)
Ohio State 4 from Ohio (6 others)
Michigan 4 from Michigan (6 others)
Northwestern 3 from Illinois (6 others)
Illinois 3 from Illinois (6 others)
Maryland 3 from Maryland (5 others)
Indiana 3 from Indiana (9 others)
Wisconsin 2 from Wisconsin (7 others)
Nebraska 2 from Nebraska (6 others)
Rutgers 1 from New Jersey (9 others)

The truth about recruiting? Everybody goes into “somebody else’s backyard” to recruit. That’s how it works. Nebraska can’t fill its roster with in-state guys every year, but what’s stopping them from having some recruiting success in Illinois or Minnesota or Missouri or Iowa or any of the other surrounding states? Goodman is wrong again — there is talent “in the area.”

And geography only has so much to do with recruiting anyway. The makeup of your coaching staff and the connections your coaches have play just as big a part if not more so than the location of the school. Nebraska’s current roster is made up of two Nebraskans, three players from Illinois, five from the East Coast area (Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina), one from St. Louis (by way of Florida) and one from overseas.

Goodman’s argument also doesn’t take into account the transfer market which Nebraska has used to great effect. In many cases, relationships and opportunity matter much more to transfers than location. Nebraska’s top two scorers this year are transfers.

The Nebraska job isn’t one of the best in the country by any means (which was Goodman’s main point), but Miles has managed to bring a decent amount of talent to Lincoln. Recruiting hasn’t been the main issue; roster management, player development and offensive scheme are the areas that have let Nebraska down during the Miles era.

Geography doesn’t help the Nebraska basketball program, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for the lack of success either.

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