In the Huskers’ season-ending loss to Arizona State in the NCAA tournament last year, they were out-rebounded 49-27 overall and beaten 21-8 on the offensive glass. When head coach Amy Williams met with the media for the first time on Oct. 1 to talk about the upcoming season, she said that disparity cost her some sleep this offseason.
The top-25 recruiting class Williams signed included reinforcements like Ashtyn Veerbeek and Kayla Mershon to help on the boards. The open practice the team held a week ago featured plenty of emphasis on rebounding.
Nebraska won 21 games a season ago — a team that no one saw coming, a team that had eight wins the year prior — but the Achilles heel was rebounding. It worked out perfectly that a few years ago Nebraska had agreed to a couple preseason exhibitions with Arizona State to take place this season and next.
The Huskers wrapped up that scrimmage recently and the results were better, Williams said Monday when she met with the media again.
“It was a fun matchup, a good test for our team, very competitive,” she said.
They opened things up but also worked on more situation basketball. Williams said it “exposed” areas the Huskers need to hammer down before their season begins next week against Drake. Maybe more important than anything else was the rebounding, which Williams said Nebraska “made significant, significant improvement.”
“We closed the gap,” she said. “We still got out-rebounded by three rebounds, I think, in the scrimmage but for us, that was a pretty significant close of the gap. We’d like to be the best rebounding team on the floor and we’re still not there yet so we’ve got plenty that we can continue to work on.”
The other focus point continues to be team defense. With the graduation of switchy wing Jasmine Cincore from last season’s squad, Williams is relying on more of a team defense mentality without a bona fide defensive stopper. The scrimmage left her feeling the Huskers still have plenty of room to improve in that regard.
“Just that sense of urgency that we need as a team overall to be able to play with defensively, we’re not quite there yet,” Williams said, which is ultimately what she wants to see in the team’s exhibition against Nebraska-Kearney on Saturday. “I think the big thing we’re really searching for on Saturday is just understanding the importance of every possession.”
When you’re not a prolific offensive unit (and Nebraska wasn’t a year ago; outside the top 50 in scoring, FG percentage and 3P percentage) and you don’t have a go-to defender on the perimeter, you’ve got to be great at the little things if you want to be great as a team.
Fortunately, Amy Williams has a unique way of getting her team to buy into that.
Nebraska tracks six analytics that define hustle, six numbers that don’t show up in a traditional box score. Williams and her staff look at deflections, loose ball recoveries, charges drawn, screen assists, offensive rebounds and… box outs or maybe shot contests (she couldn’t remember the sixth in the moment).
Whoever leads the group at the end of each week in those categories is dubbed the team’s “Top Dog.” There’s even a turnover chain-inspired “Top Dog” chain for the winner.
“Draymond Green was quoted in an article saying, ‘I’m here to prove you can be a top dog in the NBA without scoring 40 points a game,’” Williams said. “We have a big dog chain, it’s kind of a gaudy gold chain they get to wear around. I tell them they can wear it to class if you want to or you can hang it in your locker, whatever you want, but whoever’s the top dog at the end of the week gets to hold onto that chain for the next game.”
Williams laughed when asked if girls have taken her up on the offer to wear it to class, saying she doesn’t have any photographic proof of that happening yet, even though one wore it to a Husker football game after earning it at a Saturday practice.
The most recent winner was Mershon, a freshman forward, who had a standout performance during the team’s scrimmage against the Sun Devils. She’s leading a freshman group Williams said will all play significant roles this season.
Though she wouldn’t say who specifically, Williams said a freshman led the team both in rebounding and scoring against Arizona State.
With so much of the team new (five of the 11 are newcomers), there's a good chance that will happen often this season. Williams said there were too many turnovers in the scrimmage and they’ll look to iron that out, but Nebraska is going to have to work through growing pains with a remade roster.
“We really haven’t even thought that far,” Williams said when asked about the team’s ceiling. “At this point we feel like we just want to win the day.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.