Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Football

Weighty Expectations, Maturity Tests, Potential Breakout Candidate

March 8, 2020
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With a number of things going on in the Husker-sphere right now, it felt like a good time to cover a few different topics. Let’s dive in.

The Weight of Expectations

Everyone thought Nebraska was going to be something a year ago it clearly just wasn’t ready to be. It wasn’t just local media, and it probably didn’t even start with local media, but Nebraska was a paper darling before it earned the right to be on-field darlings. The reasons for doubt were in overabundance well before ESPN’s College GameDay started setting up camp east of Memorial Stadium, but that 48-7 loss to Ohio State on national television answered everyone’s question of “Was Nebraska ready?”

By the time that game reached halftime, the national folks who don’t religiously adhere to statistical/probability-based models were at a point of not wanting to talk about Nebraska again until it had proven on the field it was worthy of that attention.

We don’t like being made to look foolish (even though it’s pretty easy sometimes). Nebraska, in a lot of corners of the college football blogosphere, was toxic this offseason. No one is going to put NU in the AP poll. No one is going to consider putting NU in the coaches poll. The Huskers might not be showing up in any “X-Number of Coaches Who Should Be On the Hot Seat” pieces either.

They’re just not showing up anywhere.

From conversations with national folks, a consensus is clear: yeah, everyone was too quick to jump the gun, but Husker coach Scott Frost hasn’t forgotten how to coach. One person said it’s about getting better in the trenches. One person said it’s about letting them build naturally.

Nebraska is a team now three recruiting cycles deep with this coaching staff, set to begin a third offseason strength-training program with this S&C staff. How close is Nebraska to being a Big Ten champion threat isn’t the question right now. The question is simply what is Nebraska?

Adrian Martinez a season ago, through conversations folks in the know, felt expectations. The whole offense did. Nebraska was supposed to be a top-10 outfit on that side of the ball, a damn-near red-washed 2017 UCF remake. When a drive stalled, the next drive was about wiping away the perception of the failure before instead of just sticking to the script. The deep throws weren’t hoping for six points, they were hoping for 26.

There should be something calming about being able to work on what you need to work on in peace, about being able to continue to groom your quarterback without the “H” word looming over his head.

It’s the silent stepper that scares the most.

Nebraska added more bullets to the arsenal on offense—guys like Omar Manning, Zavier Betts, Alante Brown, and Sevion Morrison from the 2020 recruiting class and Travis Vokolek coming off a sit-out year—and returns everyone of consequence in the offensive line room.

“In my conversations with Scott, he’s very, very pleased and optimistic,” Athletic Director Bill Moos told me this week. “I really think we’re moving in the right direction on solid footing. I’d look for a real good spring practice. The energy that I see and I’m hearing about has been outstanding.

What exactly does that turn into this season? The fun part is about to start.

Cam Mack’s First Season

The first guy to triple-double in the history of the Nebraska basketball program should be a source of exuberance. That he did it as only a sophomore should be a ticket office’s dream.

Instead, Cam Mack is a source of turbulence.

It’s the most Nebraska (program, not state) thing ever that something so exciting flamed out so spectacularly. But Mack doesn’t need to spend his offseason working on ball security (his assist-to-turnover ratio for a first year player was pretty remarkable) or a go-to move offensively.

If he’s part of this thing going forward, which I’m still not convinced is a given, and not because he was indefinitely suspended by Husker hoops head coach Fred Hoiberg, the most important growth this offseason needs to be in the maturity department.

Mack has faced disciplinary action ahead of four different games this season. He was benched three different times earlier in the year for showing up late to team meetings or to the busses. Against Michigan on March 5, Mack was suspended for the game following a negligent driving citation by Lincoln PD after leaving the scene of a minor traffic accident.

Two days later, Hoiberg announced Mack’s suspension had become indefinite for a “violation of team rules.”

Mack’s defense is turnstile at worst and passable at best. His 56% clip from the free throw line, on nearly four attempts a game, is unbelievably bad for a guard. With Teddy Allen and Dalano Banton joining the picture after the year ends, Mack went from looking like the next best thing to being in a position where he has to prove the juice is worth the squeeze.

The only way that happens is if this off-the-court stuff fades to the background and he figures out how to stay on the straight and narrow. He’s young, and this comes with the territory at a major basketball program, but the maturity has to catch up to the speedster.

A Potentially-Necessary Offseason Tweak

Leigha Brown needs to take 20 shots a game next year for Nebraska. Convince me otherwise.

The Husker women’s basketball team went 17-13 this season, a 3-game improvement off of last year’s record, a perfectly fine step forward for what has been an incredibly young team for the last two seasons.

But Nebraska started 13-2, so this might feel more like a limping to the finish line than a steady build to something sustainably strong.

With senior point guard Hannah Whitish (8.7 points a game) leaving the program, Nebraska’s offense is going to look different next season. Sophomore guard Sam Haiby, who spelled Whitish a year ago at the point guard spot and then this year moved into the backcourt with Whitish, figures to take over as the primary ball-handler.

Nicea Eliely (8.3 ppg), Nebraska’s best perimeter defender at the other guard spot, has graduated. Brown, following a Sixth Woman of the Year award from the Big Ten conference, should move into the starting lineup on a permanent basis for the first time in her career.

She scored 20 points or more nine times this season. She led the team in scoring in 14 of its 30 games.

Nebraska would be wise to structure its offense more around Brown’s ability to put the ball through the hoop.

That’s not to say scrap head coach Amy Williams “by committee” approach, because she has had success at Nebraska and the depth she cultivates (and the way she goes about it) gives Nebraska advantages down the stretch of games more often than not. But, Brown is the kind of elite scorer Nebraska needs.

She scored 22 points in each of Nebraska’s last three games. She likes to force her way down to the free throw line extended area and rise up for a jumper, and she’s pretty effective getting to that spot. A 33% shooter from deep on the season, her 3-point shot came along as the season progressed. During this scoring run, she’s hit 8-of-14 from beyond the arc. And she’s the first Husker since 2013 to make 100 free throws in a season.

A multi-level scorer like that is hard to come by and Nebraska has been grooming one for the last two years. Brown feels like an early candidate for a national breakout story next season.

 
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