In Amy Williams’ first season leading the Huskers, Nebraska went 8-22. Last season, Williams earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors as her Huskers posted a 21-11 record overall and 11-5 conference mark. The 14-win improvement was the best turnaround in the country and Nebraska was rewarded with an NCAA Tournament bid.
Williams’ third season will be about keeping that upward momentum going.
“We’re not trying to be one-hit wonders, we’re not trying to do a quick-fix,” Williams said Monday when she met with the media for the first time this preseason. “We never set out for that when we came here. Maybe things turned around a little bit faster than we expected one year ago but, for us, it’s finding small ways to continue to raise the bar and the expectations for our program.”
Doing so will be a little bit more challenging this season, Williams admitted on Monday, given the schedule the Huskers will play and the turnover on her roster. She said the conference, top-to-bottom is the best its been since she’s been in Lincoln and the Huskers scheduled heavy out of it. But, since official practices began last week and Williams has gotten a chance to really see her team, she’s been encouraged.
Five of the 11 on Nebraska’s roster this season are newcomers. There are four freshmen and a graduate transfer guard from Florida International in Kristian Hudson. Williams said the Huskers don’t have the luxury of easing the new ladies along, all are going to be relied on heavily.
“They’re all very high-IQ players, which helps,” Williams said of her newcomers. “They have picked things up extremely quickly.”
One very particular issue from last season kept Williams and the rest of the coaching staff uncomfortable this offseason: rebounding. In the Huskers’ season-ending loss to Arizona State in the tournament, they were out-rebounded 49-27 overall and beaten 21-8 on the offensive glass. Three of the four freshmen Williams brought in are forwards — 6-foot-1 Leigha Brown, 6-foot-2 Ashtyn Veerbeek and 6-foot-3 Kayla Mershon — who should provide some help in that area.
“Ashtyn Veerbeek, if you look at the Nike EYBL program that she played in, she led the nation in defensive rebounding,” Williams said. “Both of those young ladies can go out of area, Kayla [Mershon] and Ashtyn, and get rebounds and put that as an emphasis.
“Leah, particularly offensively, just has a nose for the ball and I think we’ve had a lot better pursuit of offensive rebounds and players going out of their area to get rebounds. Now we just have to key in with those young kids on the discipline that it takes to be in the right position because that’s the biggest adjustment at this level.”
And while rebounding has been an emphasis all offseason long, Williams has taken a more zoomed-out approach in practice. The Huskers opened last week without a single offensive drill for the first two days. Camp Defense, Williams called it.
“One of my newbies said ‘Coach, you didn’t tell me about Camp Defense before we signed that letter of intent,’” Williams joked. “I said that was absolutely on purpose.”
One of Nebraska’s six departures from the 2017-18 squad was senior guard Jasmine Cincore. The senior leadership is gone, but Cincore gave Williams a switchable defensive stopper who could guard the opposing team’s best offensive threat, regardless of position. Williams doesn’t see a standout replacement for that role yet, so she’s working to improve the team defense.
“We feel like that’s going to be something we’re going to have to pick up very quickly,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to be fantastic at team defense without having that one person we feel like we can lean on heavily.”
Williams' forte in Lincoln has been a deep bench. So, with so many new faces figuring to play significant roles, that means there are going to be growing pains. That’s where sophomore center Kate Cain comes in.
Cain was a Big Ten All-Freshman and All-Defensive team center last season and shattered the program record for blocks in a season with 100. She averaged 9.9 points, a team-best 7.0 rebounds and a school-record and Big Ten-best 3.1 blocks a game. Having that kind of presence in the interior of your defense means your perimeter players can be more aggressive in their pressure, knowing they have someone behind them to clean up mistakes.
“It’s extremely helpful, and not only do we just have a Kate Cain in the middle, we have a Kate Cain that’s been working her tail off all offseason,” Williams said. “She’s gained a lot of strength, she’s gained a lot of confidence and now she’s way more vocal on the court.”
The key for Cain this year will be consistency. As you’d expect from a freshman, she had her ups and downs last year. Cain posted a 22-point, 14-rebound, 11-block triple-double in a home win over FAU in December and a 4-point, 3-rebound performance in the team’s tournament loss in March.
“A part of it is confidence,” Williams said. “We’ve been talking to Kate a lot about just body language and positive body language. Consistency is really what she wants to strive for. There were some games where she had extremely big games last year and then some games where she felt like she didn’t show up quite as much.
“She wants to try and eliminate those games and be more consistent for our team.”
Williams said Cain is growing into a leadership role as well. Along with senior forward Maddie Simon and junior guard Hannah Whitish, the Huskers have a strong foundation. Maybe their most natural leader, though, is Hudson. Williams said her communication in practice has stood out.
There are plenty of unknowns with the Huskers heading into 2018, but this was a team relatively unknown heading into 2017 when it shocked the conference.
“It’s going to be a lot tougher to see those small gains and find those small ways we’re looking to raise the bar for our program,” Williams said, “but we’re just continuing to approach it like that and the wins will take care of themselves.”
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.