Coming off a disappointing 16-18 season including a 6-12 record in the Big Ten, Nebraska is looking to build with youth as the roster features seven freshmen and sophomores.
The Huskers lost two seniors to graduation and three players to transfer from last year’s squad including their top two scorers, Shavon Shields and Andrew White III. But Nebraska added three talented freshmen as well as a transfer coming off a redshirt season to make up for the departures and give the roster a new look.
Tai Webster is the lone senior on this year’s roster as well as the team’s leading returning scorer. The New Zealand native struggled during his first two years as he adjusted to the American style of play but put up 10.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game while shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep as a junior.
The Huskers are hoping Webster can make another jump this season and are relying on him for leadership.
“It’s definitely a big deal to have a guy like Tai Webster coming back who’s played for three years in a row now and has had a big role on this team and was part of that his freshman year,” Jacobson said. “It’s good to have that kind of perspective and just a guy who’s been through it all like he has. He definitely talked to the younger guys – some of the freshmen and even us still – about just different teaching points, things that come about during practices or games.”
Transfer Trend Continues
Since Tim Miles arrived in Lincoln, he has made the transfer market an important part of his recruiting plan. Miles brought in guys like Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford and White and all three found some success with the Huskers. Next up is Anton Gill, a former top 50 recruit who sat out last season after transferring from Louisville.
Gill had to sit out much of the team’s preseason practice while dealing with an injury, but he’s back on the floor and the Huskers will rely on his scoring ability once he is able to get back into game shape and find a rhythm.
“[What stands out is] probably just his ability to score,” Webster said. “It just comes naturally to him. He’s got a whole plethora of moves and whatnot on offense. I think he’s a real exciting player and I think Husker fans will enjoy him a lot.”
Miles already has his next transfer in the program as shooting guard James Palmer Jr. will sit out this season after transferring from Miami and will be eligible to suit up for the Huskers next season. In the meantime, he’ll be a valuable member of the scout team like Gill was before him.
Miles also dipped into the junior college waters to bring in Evan Taylor, a 6-foot-5 utility guard who will play some back-up point guard and bring a defensive spark off the bench.
Tim Miles and his staff put a lot of time and energy into the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes, and now those players going to get every chance to make an impact on this program. Miles has big expectations for the four sophomores – point guard Glynn Watson Jr. and forwards Jack McVeigh, Ed Morrow Jr. and Michael Jacobson – as all four were thrown into the fire and played big roles last year.
“There are a few guys I think will get some grace and there a lot of other guys that will have high expectations,” Miles said about his young team. “You have to live through some mistakes, but those sophomores, like I told them, ‘you’ve played enough games in my book that you’re as good as some juniors in the country because you’ve been out there, you’ve got minutes, you’ve got critical minutes in important games, you’ve started, you’ve taken big shots, whatever it might be that you’ve got a world of experience under your belt, so go act like it.”
Watson is the only true point guard on the roster and will have a lot of responsibility this year to make plays for himself and others. However, Watson said he is comfortable with his team and his role.
“I’m going to have a lot of responsibility,” Watson said. “I feel comfortable with these guys filling some of the roles and people playing a lot of big minutes and playing in the spotlight, things like that … Losing guys and main scorers and things like that is going to be tough but I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can still show up and play every day and be big-time scorers.”
The 6-foot-9 Jacobson and 6-foot-7 Morrow give the Huskers two contrasting styles inside as Jacobson can step out on the floor and knock down jumpers while Morrow brings physicality and a high motor to the table.
McVeigh played mostly as a stretch four last season but Miles is hoping he can play more on the perimeter this year. Wherever he plays, the 6-foot-8 Australian is the team’s top returning 3-point shooter as he made 34 triples last season at a 34 percent clip.
“He still needs more strength and mobility, I’ll tell you that,” Miles said. “But just becoming an expert shooter, going from one made 3 a game to two made 3s a game or three made 3s a game, just elevating that production and that value in a game. He is a true 3-point weapon for us, and we’ve got to get him looks that way too. The best way to do it is through team play, get the ball moving, swing it, drive it, find him and go from there.”
Isaiah Roby, a 6-foot-8 wing from Dixon, Illinois, is the most highly-touted of the freshmen and he made a great first impression with a game-high 16 points in Nebraska’s exhibition against Chadron State. Roby had to sit out a couple months to recover from a stress reaction, but he’s back at 100 percent and is playing catch up early in the season.
“Probably the biggest part of my game is that I’m really versatile,” Roby said. “I can play post, wing, point depending on who’s matching up with me and on defense, depending on who I’m matching up with. I can guard a lot of different position. I like to make a lot of different plays. I like to assist – that’s probably one of the bigger parts of my game is passing.”
Another freshman is 6-foot-7 forward Jeriah Horne from Overland Park, Kansas. Horne is a skilled offensive player who can really shoot from the perimeter. However, he still has a ways to go to crack the rotation in big games.
“Jeriah probably hasn’t picked things up as quickly as he wants to, so he’ll get that,” Miles said. “And he’s realizing how hard you have to play in Division I basketball – all of them need to realize that, Jordy [Tshimanga], Isaiah; none of those guys are really, I think, in tune with how hard you have to play every possession of a practice to be ready for a game. We’ll get them there. It will take time. They’re a talented group and Jeriah can score, so he’s got my attention. It’s just a matter of where he fits in.”
Center of Attention
The final member of the 2016 recruiting class is its biggest – literally. After searching far and wide for a center over the last few years, Tim Miles finally found his true center in the 6-foot-11, 275-pound Jordy Thsimanga. The big man from Montreal is raw, but Miles is going to throw him into the fire and let him learn as he goes.
“I think we can go to Jordy right away,” Miles said. “Well, I’m going to go to him. He’s going to have to prove to me he can’t do it. I believe in him. You really fall in love with the kid one you meet him. He’s an infectious personality. It’s always great to have a big kid that’s like that. A lot of kids are quiet, shy, whatever it might be and Jordy is not that if you’ve met him.
“What’s really exciting about a guy like Jordy is that, one, he’s got skill and ability – he just needs to pick up some nuances of the game; second of all as you look at him, he’s got the attitude that truly craves improvement. He wants to get better every day. When I say that, it’s evident; he’ll come and ask questions all the time, and not just dumb ones; really thoughtful questions. I think that’s where you see his learning curve is going to be good. He’s relatively inexperienced because he’s only played for five years, but at the same time I think he’s been well-groomed so far by his prep school coaches and he’s an eager learner; that really helps.”
Over the last few years, the Huskers have had to play a lot of small ball with wings playing power forward and power forwards playing center. Tshimanga’s presence will allow them to match up more evenly with some of the bigger teams they’ll face, such as Purdue.
“I think it’s huge, especially in this league – it’s a massive league,” Webster said. “It feels like everyone’s got at least one or two of them on each squad. It’s good for our play as well just to be able to throw it in and get the guards moving and stuff like that where we can just let him go to work and kind of take some pressure off the guards that are feeling more of the scoring load. It’s nice to be able to just throw it inside and get a bucket.”
Jacobson was one of those power forwards who had to spend all his time at center last year, and he might have been even more excited than Miles was when Tshimanga committed.
“I was his biggest fan for sure,” Jacobson said. “It’s awesome. I definitely like being able to get out on the perimeter more … He’s a good player. I think he’s going to help us a ton obviously and that’s one of the biggest things we’ve been missing is a true center and he definitely is that in every sense of the word. I’m excited for him and to see what he can do.”
The biggest adjustment for Tshimanga will be how to play defense without fouling. He won’t be able to make much of an impact if he can’t stay on the floor. That goes for the other two freshmen as well.
“Fouls is what I’m worried about,” Miles said. “Part of that is learning how to play in a stance and be ready all the time. What a lot of young kids don’t get is when you feel you’re most comfortable, you’re the most vulnerable on defense. That’s the time you’re going to get screened or something bad’s going to happen where you’ve got to be ready. It’s easy to be ready when you’re right there on the ball or helping with a screen and roll or your guy’s got the ball, but that mental readiness – instead of resting, he’s got to be ready to play. So I have no idea how many minutes he’ll play but as long as he’s productive he’s going to play, and as long as he’s not in foul trouble he’s going to play.”
The young players are going to have to grow up quickly. With nonconference home games against Louisiana Tech and No. 22 Creighton, road games at No. 6 Kansas and Clemson and neutral site games against Dayton and potentially UCLA, the Huskers will be thoroughly tested even before they enter Big Ten play.
“The problem with a young team is our schedule,” Miles said. “It’s an elephant. We built it thinking this was going to be our strongest most complete team. It was when I put it together. Now we’re minus some outside shooting. It was still going to be a huge challenge, but it might be a bigger mountain to climb. But here’s the thing about basketball. You go in thinking one thing and oftentimes what you think in October is not what you are in January. That doesn’t mean we can’t get it done. A Schedule like this provides tremendous opportunity. There are teams out there every year that I laugh about that you’ll see coaches say I didn’t know if we’d get eighth in the league and they get second in the league. You can say the same about the Huskers in 2014. Nobody thought we were going to be anything. We were picked 12th and we got fourth and made the NCAA [Tournament]. You just never know how it’s going to come together. And then the next year, we had one fall apart. It can go both directions. What I’m excited about with this team is we seem as on the same page as any team we’ve had.”
Outside expectations for this team are not particularly high, and that fact hasn’t escaped the players.
“I think we’ve got a lot of heads to turn, a lot of people to prove wrong,” Watson said. “It’s not about that, but everybody thinks we’re going to be so bad and things like that. I think we’ve got a lot of skill and a lot of talent on this team and I feel confident with these guys.”
However, for a young team coming off a disappointing season, progress should be the ultimate goal.
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.