Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Williams Prepping Freshmen For Action

By Brian Rosenthal

Amy Williams made certain in June that each of her four incoming freshmen – part of a Top 20 recruiting class, according to ESPN – understood the importance of the summer workouts ahead of them.

The Nebraska women’s basketball coach told the foursome in certain words they wouldn't have the luxury of easing into things.

It’s now or never.

Sink or swim.

Look at the Nebraska roster, and it’s easy to believe Williams when she says she’ll need every freshman prepared and ready to contribute.

Williams, last season’s Big Ten Coach of the Year, begins her third season at Nebraska with a mere 11 players. Include senior graduate transfer Kristian Hudson, and that means new faces make up 45 percent of the Nebraska roster.

Fortunately for Williams, she’s recruited freshmen who are bright, intelligent, high basketball IQ players.

“They have picked things up extremely quickly, which has allowed us to advance,” Williams said. “Part of that is just a testament to pretty good upperclassmen who have been doing a fantastic job with the leadership with those four freshmen.”

That includes junior Hannah Whitish, a second-team All-Big Ten guard, and Lincoln native Maddie Simon, the only four-year senior on the roster.

“She has worked really, really hard,” Williams said of the oft-injured Simon. “She has been through some downs and some ups, and some downs and some ups. She’s gained experience, and she’s leaning on that experience to really be a great leader.”

The team’s most natural leader, Williams said, is also the team’s newest player. Hudson, who spent the past three seasons as the starting point guard at Florida International University in Miami, joined Nebraska in June.

“She naturally has incredible leadership skills,” Williams said, “and does a great job of communicating on the floor and off the floor.”

Nebraska, which begins the regular season Nov. 7 against Drake, began practice last week with what Williams termed “Camp Defense.”

It’s pretty self-explanatory, really.

“No offensive drills at all,” Williams said. “One of my newbies said, ‘Coach, you didn’t tell me about Camp Defense before I signed that letter of intent.’ I said that was absolutely on purpose.”

Williams spent the first few practices focused on defense for a couple of reasons. One, the Huskers must replace some key defenders, including Jasmine Cincore, a noted defensive stopper.

“We feel like that’s 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 to put on the other team’s top scorer, regardless of position, like we were able to do with Jasmine.”

Secondly, Williams was bothered throughout the offseason by the fact Nebraska couldn’t keep Arizona State off the boards in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss. She described it as “a thorn in our side” and blamed the rebounding woes partly on poor defense.

“When we went back and really evaluated that,” Williams said, “we feel like defensive positioning was a huge reason why we gave up so many offensive rebounds in that game.”

Of course, the fact Nebraska even made the NCAA Tournament after winning only eight games the prior season represented a major accomplishment. The Huskers finished 21-11 overall, and 11-5 in the Big Ten.

But Williams doesn’t want to be one-hit wonders.

“We’re not trying a quick fix,” Williams said. “We never set out for that when we came here, and maybe some things turned around a little bit faster than we expected one year ago. But for us, it’s finding more ways to raise the bar and the expectations for our program.”

Things like “Camp Defense” and telling freshmen early in the summer to be prepared.

“We feel they’re talented and working hard,” Williams said, “and will be able to make that transition.”

Some could help with the aforementioned rebounding concerns, too.

Ashtyn Veerbeek, a 6-foot-2 forward from Sioux Center, Iowa, led nation in defensive rebounding on the AAU circuit. Both she and Kayla Mershon, a 6-3 forward from Chanhassen, Minnesota, “can go out of area and get rebounds,” Williams said.

Also, Leigha Brown, a 6-1 forward from Auburn, Indiana, has a nose for the ball offensively, Williams said.

“I think we’ve had a lot better pursuit of offensive rebounds and players going out of their area to get rebounds,” Williams said. “Now we just need to key in on those young players the discipline it takes to be in the right position, because that’s the biggest adjustment at this level.”

Williams also expects improvement from 6-5 sophomore Kate Cain, who averaged a team-best seven rebounds last season.

“Not only do we have a Kate Cain in the middle, we have a Kate Cain who has been working her tail off all off-season,” Williams said. “She’s gained a lot of strength, she’s gained a lot of confidence, she’s way more vocal on the court, she’s talking.

“She’s letting her teammates know, ‘Hey, I’m back here, I can clean some mistakes up.’ It gives them a little bit more confidence to get out and get pressure on the ball and be freed up to be a little more aggressive defensively.”

Cain also averaged 9.9 points, as Nebraska returns its five top scorers, led by Whitish, at 12.6.

“We’re excited with the progress we’re making,” Williams said, “and none of it would be happening without the strong leadership from the upperclassmen.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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