Nebraska women’s basketball doesn’t have the benefit of being underdogs heading into this season.
Last year, the Huskers didn’t have exceptionally high outside expectations, coming off a 13-13 year in 2020-21 and losing one of their best players in Kate Cain.
That’s different now. Nebraska was better than expected in 2021-22, going 24-9, defeating some of the Big Ten’s best teams and reaching the NCAA Tournament. It had two second team All-Big Ten selections, along with two more honorable mentions. That success culminated in the Huskers being projected to finish fifth in the conference by media.
The two conference second team honorees — Jaz Shelley and Alexis Markowski — were the Huskers’ player representatives at Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday.
Shelley said the Huskers benefitted from their “underdog” status and lack of pressure. But losing that aspect doesn’t mean the mentality will shift for the worse.
“I think we’re even more hungry than we were before,” Shelley said. “Because now we’ve experienced some sort of success and we know we can still do better than that.”
Shelley mentioned seeing teams make the Sweet 16 last year that the Huskers had beaten and asking why that couldn’t be them. The teams that fall under that category were Creighton, Indiana and Michigan.
As head coach Amy Williams also said on Wednesday, the team wasn’t happy with how they closed out an otherwise successful season. That gave rise to the idea of expecting more that the team has embraced throughout the offseason.
“We weren’t very happy and there’s a fire lit in us,” Alexis Markowski said. “And we feel that we want to expect more and if we want to accomplish the goals we want, we should expect more.”
Shelley said that materialized in things like extra conditioning sessions in the summer, or additional work in practice this fall. Once the team takes the court in the regular season, she said Nebraska needs to be more consistent defensively.
“I think that our defense can really take over a game and it really translate to offense,” she said. “I think we just need to get fitter and be able to stay on the court for longer and that comes into how our defense was played towards the end of the season.”
In conference play, the Huskers ranked seventh in the conference in points allowed per game at 68.1. In the Big Ten Tournament, they allowed 76.6 per game, including 83 points in the semifinal loss to Iowa.
Markowski, the team’s only preseason All-Big Ten first team selection, will also play a big role in the team’s progression. Along with improving her skills on the court, the sophomore feels she’s grown as a leader.
“I felt like this year for me was to grow as a leader and become more of a leader on our team and I think for me as a leader, I’m a believer,” Markowski said. “I believe in my team and just to reinstate that in the girls and to be like, we can do this if we believe in each other and just keep growing the confidence in my teammates, that’s the way I’m gonna lead.”
She said that being able to lean on the team’s upperclassmen has helped with that. Shelley is one of those veteran players, and Markowski will be hoping she stays in that role even longer. The guard is entering her fourth year of college basketball, but she’ll have the option to stay another year as result of COVID-19 eligibility rules.
Shelley wouldn’t be opposed to returning, but said she has a number of things to consider. Those items include potential professional opportunities and the fact that international athletes currently can’t take advantage of name, image and likeness policies while in the United States. There’s no timeline for her decision, but she wants it to be made before the end of the year.
“I don’t think I want to wait until the end of the season just because I don’t think it’s fair for like, recruiting purposes and stuff,” Shelley said. “And like if I know, I know.”
That decision will mostly play out in the background as the Huskers focus on their goals for the season. The pressure is on a different level than last year, but Shelley and Markowski said they don’t mind it.
“Pressure can be hard but it’s also you can really thrive with those situations and I know me and Lex, we love to be on the big stage and that’s where we’re fighting to get,” Shelley said. “And I know that there’s a lot of people on our team that want the same thing.”