In 2017, Amy Williams’ come-from-nowhere 21-win Huskers fizzled out in the postseason. Coming off a 7-22 year in Williams’ first season with the program, Nebraska won 11 conference games and earned a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament.
In the semis of the conference tourney, the Huskers were bounced by Maryland, a bigger, better group that out-rebounded the Huskers and won the paint battle 24-14. Then, in the NCAA Tournament, Arizona State out-rebounded Nebraska 49-27, grabbing 21 offensive boards. Both teams shot sub-40% from the floor and Nebraska committed fewer turnovers, yet it lost by double-digits.
Williams said she spent much of that offseason fixated on size.
The 2018 recruiting class brought in Leigha Brown, a wing who could more than hold her own in the rebounding department, Kayla Mershon, a 6-foot-3 forward who averaged 12.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks as a senior in high school, and Ashtyn Veerbeek, a 6-foot-2 Iowa Player of the Year.
Veerbeek’s senior season was massive. She posted 25.8 points and 14.4 rebounds a game. Her 346 rebounds led the state of Iowa, while her school-record 619 points broke her previous record (592, 2016-17) and ranked third in the state in 2017-18. Veerbeek's 86 blocked shots as a senior ranked eighth in the state across all classes. She posted shooting splits of 52.2/34.7/81.1. She came to Nebraska as a top-100 recruit.
Losing one of them would hurt any program outside college basketball’s elite.
Losing both of them, as Nebraska did Wednesday, is going to be tough to swallow.
Veerbeek committed to Dordt University, a private, Christian, liberal arts school in Sioux Center, Iowa. The Defenders compete in the Great Plains Athletic Conference in the NAIA. Mershon announced on Instagram she was leaving the program to enroll at Minnesota.
This wasn’t about minutes. There’s no way it could have been, at least not for Veerbeek. The forward started 29 of 30 games this past season, only missing a winter break nonconference game against Manhattan to rest an injury. She played in every game as a freshman off the bench. Mershon did the same, starting the final 14 games of the 2018-19 season and then playing as a reserve in every game last year.
Both women are moving closer to home. Mershon came to Nebraska from Chanhassen, Minnesota. In going back to Minnesota, she’s joining a roster that just graduated the Bello sisters, Taiye and Kehinde. Taiye started every game but one and played 30 minutes a night. Kehinde played in 27 games as the primary big off the bench. Mershon will be the most experienced member of that frontcourt going into next season.
Maybe the rapid development of Issie Bourne, Nebraska’s freshman forward, precipitated this departure, as Mershon’s role became Bourne’s as the season wore on, but for now, it seems this was more about home cooking than anything else.
That rings true for the Veerbeek departure as well. Veerbeek’s high school coach, Bill Harmsen, is the head coach for the Defenders. The team’s leading scorer, Erika Feenstra, played with Veerbeek at Western Christian High School. And campus sits just a short drive away from Western Christian, where Tammi, Veerbeek’s mom, coaches volleyball. Moving from a starting role in the Big Ten to the GPAC is about as uncommon as it gets, but Veerbeek had so many ties to home. And Sioux Center was home.
Even though it seems the moves weren’t signaling something wrong with Nebraska’s program, Nebraska’s program is still going to suffer. Veerbeek averaged seven points and four boards a game in just 21 minutes. She hit double-digits 10 times. Though not the prolific scorer she was in high school, 2019 started showing flashes of a pretty lethal screen-and-roll game for Veerbeek with either Brown or guard Sam Haiby.
Those three formed what appeared to be the foundation of the Huskers moving forward. Kate Cain, the Huskers’ starting center, will be a senior next season; Veerbeek was only about to be a junior. Her best years are still ahead of her, and she was starting to show a game that was rounding into form.
Mershon may have been the most likely replacement. Without her, Amy Williams will be in a tough spot.
With both point guard Hannah Whitish and wing Nicea Eliely graduating, Williams was already going to have a choice to make in the backcourt. Brown, coming off a Sixth Woman of the Year campaign in the Big Ten, was a shoe-in to enter the starting lineup, but as a 3 or a 2? Sliding into the off-guard spot would put Haiby at the point. With Veerbeek in the picture and sharpshooting wing Taylor Kissinger coming back healthy, that might have been Williams’ move.
Now, Kissinger might become the stretch-four Williams asked Maddie Simon to be. She might keep Brown at the 3 and insert sophomore-to-be Trinity Brady into the starting five. Is Brady ready for that yet? What would that small-ball lineup do to Nebraska’s team defense, a strength this past year?
The other option is sliding Bourne into Veerbeek’s spot, and filling out the group with the Haiby-Brown-Kissinger trio. The Australian product would need to work hard this offseason on her perimeter shot if that was the case; a 21% shooter next to Cain would cripple Nebraska’s spacing, especially so as it moves from the spot-up game Whitish implemented at the point to the slashing game Haiby plays with.
And in terms of reinforcements, Nebraska doesn’t have a single recruit in the top-100 this cycle.
Unless someone bursts onto the scene in offseason training, Williams will likely want to roll with one of the more established players she has at her disposal. For two years now, Nebraska has been a team that has relied on youth. It went 14-16 in 2018, with a program-record for losses in two-possession games. Last season, it started hot and then fell apart late.
When Williams introduced the 2018 class and talked about rebounding deficiencies and size and the Arizona State loss eating away at her all offseason, she also said Nebraska didn’t want to be a one-hit-wonder. She said the Huskers were trying to build something sustainable. Prolonged success. Up until this point, that build was moving along nicely. Last season feels like it ended in disappointment because of the way it began, but it still marked a three-win improvement year-over-year.
Wednesday throws a wrench into that build. How Nebraska responds will say a lot about whether this thing keeps going in the right direction.