Amy Williams used to question how her mom did it. How did she manage to teach geometry three times a day, every day, year after year? Did it not get monotonous? Did she not lose some of that passion? “She said the same thing I feel as a coach: every class is different, every team is different, every kid learns different,” Williams told me recently.
So as Nebraska prepares for a new campaign with largely the same team it shocked Big Ten counterparts with last year, Williams’ offseason goal is to take nothing for granted.
“That’s what makes (this year) so exciting, we can lean on some of our returners for some of the things we’ve come to depend on them for, but then getting them to mesh well with some new pieces is a challenge.”
The head women’s basketball coach has one not-so-small hole to sure up with center Kate Cain moving on to the pro level after four years in Lincoln, but of the eight Huskers to see at least 15 minutes a game last season (of which Cain is included), seven return. The Huskers had three women play north of 30 minutes a game last season and all three are back.
Coming off the 2019-20 season, only three of the eight women who played at least 15 minutes returned.
And still Williams coached the group to a 13-13 record and a WNIT berth. Nebraska beat four ranked opponents last season and nearly upset the eventual Big Ten champs in the conference tournament.
“I have a lot of appreciation for experience, so I’m gonna value that,” Williams said. “But, one thing I really feel like we as a coaching staff want to guard against is just kind of taking that for granted, the fact we’ve got several returners.
“We were incredibly intentional last year with focus on leadership and chemistry and connecting and culture and I think in some ways with this team, because we have a lot of returners and an incredibly talented group coming in and our roster is so much bigger, that’s going to create competition, which can sometimes present challenges to chemistry and culture and stuff. We have to remain intentional with our focus on great leadership and the team connecting and chemistry and living the core values of the program.”
Nebraska spent the 4th of July together as a team. Williams has asked her captains, guard Sam Haiby and forward Issie Bourne, to once again bring this group along.
Haiby, at nearly 17 points a game and the team’s unquestioned leader, has some new backcourt pieces to try and mesh with. Nebraska added Jaz Shelley from Oregon, a sophomore who can play with or without the ball, and Allison Weidner, a freshman multi-sport star from Humphrey, Nebraska.
Weidner is part of a signing class that was among the country’s 25 best. A top-100 recruit by ESPN, she had averages of 25 points and 6.4 assists as a senior.
Shelley should have a role right away as a combo guard who has proven herself at the major college basketball level. Part of Oregon teams that won Pac-12 titles and made deep NCAA tourney runs, she chose Nebraska out of the transfer portal pack this summer, linking up with Australian National Team teammates in Bourne and guard Ruby Porter.
“I think the good thing about Jaz is she’s such a high-IQ player,” Williams said. “We’ve watched and witnessed that when we watched her play with the Australian World Championship team with Issie. Obviously you look and know that she hit 10 3s in a game her freshman year at Oregon and she’s a very capable shooter and scorer, but I think the best thing about Jaz is she knows how to make herself better and everyone else around her better. I just think that’s going to elevate everybody else’s (play). It’s fun to play with somebody who can make things happen for you.
“Sammy, Whit, Ruby, Ashley, even the kids we have coming in, I think they can all benefit from Jaz’s basketball IQ.”
Which should give Williams the flexibility to get creative with her on-floor lineups.
Haiby spent the early parts of her Nebraska career playing off-ball with Hannah Whitish handling the point. Whitney Brown, a freshman walk-on last year, was NU’s point guard with the second unit for long stretches last season. Ashley Scoggin, a JUCO transfer last season, started every game in the backcourt with Haiby and can work on or off the ball.
Whereas Nebraska was short on guards last season, sometimes only having three available for games, Williams’ depth there could be long for the 2021-22 campaign.
With Brown, Porter, and Mi’Cole Cayton, Williams has options she knows. Weidner can work her way into comfort. And that’s not to mention Trinity Brady, a 5-foot-11 off-ball guard, will be coming off an injury forced her to miss all but one game last year and Nailah Dillard, a 5-9 transfer from Texas Tech, should be available after hip surgery forced her to miss her first year in Lincoln.
Lots of options.
Bourne shouldn’t need to play any 3 next season.
“I think this could be a big year for her, and I think last year was already a big year for her,” Williams said. “She proved even when we were asking her to do uncharacteristic things and play out of position, or out of her normal comfortable position.
“I think ultimately the skills that she had to develop in a real hurry at the 3 for us are going to make her an even more solid 4 player and wherever we decide to play her.”
With depth on the perimeter decimated and reserve forward Bella Cravens being worthy of starter-level minutes, Nebraska slid Bourne from the post out to the wing. Williams had joked in the preseason they’d tested her out on the perimeter just in case, but it’s a good thing they did.
Bourne looked more natural as a back-to-the-basket player, but she showed improvement as the year went on facing up and attacking defenders off the dribble. She missed four games mid-year with an ankle injury, but came back with a vengeance after returning, with games of 16, 17, 21, and 22 points one right after the other.
“I think she’s developed trust from her teammates and coaches that we can bounce her around wherever our team needs her,” Williams said. “That’s an incredibly valuable and peaceful feeling to know as a head coach. Every season comes with an injury here or there or something like that, so to be able to have that kid where you know, ‘OK, that’s kind of an X-factor that we can plug in where we need her,’ that’s a comforting feeling.”
There’s bound to be another one, too. With all the change Williams has undergone year after year on her roster, her teams have had to reinvent their style of play each offseason. This team seems like it’s headed toward being the exception.
NU can drill down on what it does best. Bourne and Haiby can grow their games naturally rather than focus hard on adding something specific because the team needs it.
“I think that’s going to really be helpful,” Williams said.
With a bigger roster and health, Williams and her staff will have no shortage of lineup permutations. Being someone who has always utilized a deep bench, Williams can build out a pretty dynamic squad for the new year.
“I think that’s gonna be something that we’re looking forward to.”
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.