The football team has hit a bit of a rough patch following tough losses to Wisconsin and with Ohio State, but fear not, Huskers fans. Basketball season is almost here!
Wait, where are you going? No, stay with me. There’s something different about this year’s squad.
I know that is the standard tag line every time a new season starts to draw near, but after seeing a practice, reviewing the roster and talking to people who would know, I’m actually starting to believe it.
We are only 18 days from Nebrasketball’s exhibition game against Northwood and 22 days from the season-opener against Eastern Illinois. Heck, on Sunday the Huskers are traveling down to Starkville, Mississippi, to take on Mississippi State in a special exhibition game to raise money for hurricane relief. With that being the case, it’s time to start talking some hoops.
Half of Nebraska’s roster is made up of newcomers. Nebraska only has one player returning who averaged eight or more points last season. The Huskers have two players looking to make big sophomore leaps. Who will be Nebraska’s top five performers this season? Let’s power rank.
1) Junior PG Glynn Watson Jr. (6-foot, 173 pounds)
As Tim Miles said in his first preseason press conference, this is Watson’s team now and Miles expects him to play like it. Watson is a top-10 returning scorer in the Big Ten after putting up 13 points per game last season while shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from 3-point range.
Watson went from a mediocre 3-point shooter as a freshman to one of the better shooters in the conference as a sophomore, and the next step for him as a scorer is to improve his efficiency inside the arc. If he can cut down on a couple long 2-point attempts per game and finish at a little higher rate at the rim, Watson’s effectiveness should soar.
However, with more talent around him this season, Watson needs to make major strides as a playmaker. Of the top 10 scorers among returning point guards in the Big Ten, Watson is 10th at 2.6 assists per game. Watson is one of the best in the conference at taking care of the ball (1.5 turnovers per game) but he needs to improve his assist numbers if he wants to be considered among the best of the best at the point guard position both in the Big Ten and nationally.
Watson should lead the Huskers in assists and steals this season and should be at worst a top-three scorer, and add the responsibility of running the team on top of that and Watson is the clear No. 1 here.
2) Junior F Isaac Copeland (6-foot-9, 221 pounds)
Copeland receiving his waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility was a major boost for the program, especially when you consider what Nebraska’s nonconference and early Big Ten games look like.
Copeland was incredibly hot-and-cold at Georgetown. He would look like the 5-star prospect he was coming out of high school one game than disappear into the background the next. As a freshman, Copeland contributed 6.8 points per game while shooting 38.9 percent from 3-point range. As a sophomore, he took on more responsibility and put up 11.1 points per game, but his efficiency suffered as his 3-point percentage tanked to 27.2 on more than twice the attempts.
If Nebraska can get more consistent play out of him, it should open up the floor for everyone else (Watson especially). Miles expects Copeland to be a top two scorer and a top three rebounder on this year’s squad, and if he can do that with reasonable efficiency, the Huskers should have a good season. He provides a mix of skill, length and athleticism that Nebraska hasn’t had at the forward position in some time.
3) Junior G James Palmer Jr. (6-foot-6, 210 pounds)
Palmer being this high on the list may come as a surprise to some, but the Huskers love the transfer from Miami. The 6-foot-6 swingman spent two seasons as a reserve for the Hurricanes before transferring to Nebraska and redshirting last season.
“He can make plays,” Miles said. “He’s become a stronger player, a more consistent player than he was in Miami. Miami wanted to keep him; I don’t think there’s any question. When he redshirted, that can really help.”
Palmer can play any of the perimeter spots, giving Miles a lot of potential lineups he can use depending on the match-ups. Palmer isn’t necessarily an explosive athlete who will blow by his man and dunk on the help defender’s head. Rather, Palmer is more methodical, getting to his spots at his own pace but getting there nonetheless. His shot is unconventional, but he can hit it at a solid rate both on the catch and off the dribble. When the team needs a bucket late in the clock, the ball will likely be in either Watson’s or Palmer’s hands.
He’s not just a scorer, though. Palmer is a capable playmaker as well who can operate as a secondary ball-handler or even take the reigns of the offense on a couple possessions if Miles wants to run Watson off some screens.
4) Sophomore C Jordy Tshimanga (6-foot-11, 268 pounds)
Miles finally found his big man in the middle last year in the 6-foot-11 center from Montreal. Now it’s up to Tshimanga to take a step forward and be a consistent force. The first step is learning how to stay on the floor. As a freshman, Tshimanga only played 20 or more minutes twice, with a high of 24. The biggest reason for that is that he averaged 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes last year, racking up four or more fouls in six games.
Tshimanga is a year older and has put some serious work in over the offseason to improve his body, and that combination should help him to stay on the floor for longer stretches this season. After that, Tshimanga has to be more effective on offense. At 6-foot-11 and with the vast majority of his shots coming in the paint, Tshimanga shot just 44.9 percent. He also led the team in turnovers per 40 minutes at 4.7 and shot 62.5 percent from the charity stripe.
If Tshimanga can give the Huskers at least 20-25 minutes per game of effective play on both ends, Nebraska should be able to match up with most of the teams they face this season. If he fails to make those improvements, Nebraska will have to rely on a lot more Duby Okeke (14 minutes and 3.2 points per game at Winthrop last year) or small-ball lineups than Miles would probably like.
5) Sophomore F Isaiah Roby (6-foot-8, 226 pounds)
Roby has as high of a ceiling as anybody on this roster (4-star recruit in 2016), but after what he showed last season it’s hard to put him any higher on this list, especially with the presence of Palmer and Copeland as guys he might be competing with for playing time.
Roby’s biggest impact this season should probably come on the defensive end of the floor as his offensive game continues to develop. With other scoring options like Watson, Palmer and Copeland set to play big minutes, Roby should be able to play a complementary role on that end, getting his buckets in transition or while taking advantage of driving lanes created by improved spacing and serving as a ball-mover in the halfcourt.
Roby’s length as a shot-blocker and disruptor could be huge for the Huskers this year. With a full offseason of good health to develop his body (something he did not get last season) he’s looking a lot bouncier and stronger, and his athleticism and length should allow him to defend a variety of different players individually while also covering for his teammates in help side.
Roby is the swiss-army knife for this team that will play a variety of roles. He’s the kind of guy who can elevate an already solid team, whereas the guys I listed before him are more cornerstones that have to show up in order for the team to reach that “solid” level in the first place.
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.