Huskers Ready to Start Climb in 2017-18
The Nebraska women's basketball team laid the foundation for growth in Coach Amy Williams' first season with the Huskers in 2016-17. Now the Big Red are ready to see some improved performance on the court.
Nebraska has plenty of room to climb after tying for 11th in the 14-team Big Ten Conference last season and finishing with a 7-22 record.
Although Nebraska must overcome the loss of a 2016-17 starting frontcourt that combined for 25.5 points and 15.1 rebounds per game while starting every contest last season, Williams and the Huskers are optimistic.
While the frontcourt took heavy losses, the starting backcourt returns intact and adds a pair of experienced Division I transfers and two talented freshmen.
"This past offseason provided us a great opportunity to make big strides with our team's strength and conditioning, as well as needed skill development," Williams said. "A couple of big home wins toward the end of last season provided some very good motivation and something to build on throughout the offseason. We are eager for the 2017-18 season, and we expect progress and growth for our program."
Nebraska's growth in the backcourt is expected to start with sophomore Hannah Whitish. The 5-9 guard from Barneveld, Wis., is the Big Red's top returning scorer after averaging 9.0 points per game a year ago. Whitish, who started every Big Ten game for Nebraska, averaged 11.1 points in conference play, while shooting a sizzling 41.8 percent (38-91) from three-point range. She was also Nebraska's top playmaker, averaging 3.7 assists in Big Ten action.
Whitish's play blossomed throughout the season, as she produced double figures in each of Nebraska's last four games including a career-high 24-point performance in an overtime upset of NCAA Tournament-bound Michigan State on Feb. 26, 2017. Whitish knocked down 5-of-8 three-pointers against the Spartans while adding five rebounds and five assists in 44 minutes of work.
"It was a pleasure to watch Hannah's growth throughout her freshman year, and she has continued that growth into the offseason," Williams said. "She made significant gains in the weight room, and she is carrying herself with more confidence. We are excited about the leadership she is displaying."
Fellow sophomore Nicea Eliely is expected to rejoin Whitish as a returning starter in the backcourt. Eliely, a 6-1 wing from Colorado Springs, Colo., started all 29 games for the Huskers as a true freshman, averaging 7.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and a team-leading 1.6 steals per game. Eliely was Nebraska's top defender throughout her freshman season, and with a year of experience under her belt, the Huskers expect to see even better defensive play from the long, athletic wing. She added strength during the offseason and also improved her skill level at the offensive end to give herself more options in not only scoring but also creating opportunities for her teammates.
"Nicea had a good offseason and went to work on several areas of her game," Williams said. "She has the capabilities of bringing more production in multiple areas, and we are looking for a big sophomore season from her."
However, Eliely suffered a foot/ankle injury in mid-October that sidelined her late in preseason. She is expected to make a full recovery but she may be slowed or limited by the injury early in the season.
A third returning starter offers more experience and versatility to the Big Red backcourt. Senior Jasmine Cincore started every game a year ago and averaged 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per contest. A solid defender, the 5-10 Cincore also ranked second on the squad with 31 total steals.
Nebraska's 2016-17 women's basketball Lifter of the Year, Cincore has the strength to guard larger players inside and could be used in a small forward/power forward role this season, even though she has experience playing point guard in her career.
"Jasmine adds so much to our program on and off the basketball court," Williams said. "She is dependable, consistent, hard-working and she really sets the tone for our team, particularly on the defensive end. She is poised to be a key piece of our team in her senior year."
Nebraska gains even more experience, depth and leadership from senior contributor Emily Wood. The 5-5 guard from Salina, Kan., originally came to Nebraska as a walk-on before earning a scholarship in her first season.
Arguably Nebraska's hardest worker on the court, Wood's gritty determination and countless hours in the gym have allowed her to increase her skill level exponentially over the past few seasons. Last season, Wood averaged 2.1 points and 0.9 rebounds in just under 10 minutes per game while playing in all 29 contests.
Despite the increased competition for playing time in the backcourt this season, Wood gladly accepted the role of pushing herself and her teammates by putting in a huge summer in the gym and the weight room. She also completed her bachelor's degree in management from Nebraska in just three seasons and is pushing herself to complete her MBA from Nebraska in 2018.
"Emily Wood has all the characteristics we look for in a Husker," Williams said. "She is selfless, hard-working, smart, gritty and tough. She does everything you are supposed to do when no one is watching. She works diligently, not just to make herself a better player, but to impact our team culture in a positive manner."
While Whitish, Eliely, Cincore and Wood give the Big Red more than 2,500 returning minutes from last season's backcourt, Nebraska's most experienced Division I player is Husker newcomer Janay Morton.
The 5-10 guard from Brooklyn Park, Minn., was a three-year starter at Eastern Michigan before transferring to Nebraska prior to the start of the 2016-17 season. Morton spent a year practicing in Nebraska's system while redshirting because of NCAA transfer rules. Morton gained a level of comfort and confidence in the system last year, but hit a speed bump during the summer with a foot injury. She underwent surgery in late-September of 2017, but was expected to return to action for the start of the regular season.
She may be slowed somewhat in non-conference play while she returns to full health. Morton is a proven performer. She earned All-MAC honors as a junior and was a member of the 2016 MAC All-Defensive Team. In three seasons at Eastern Michigan, Morton totaled 1,341 points, 359 rebounds, 249 assists and 223 steals, while averaging nearly 1,000 minutes per season.
"Janay is very hungry heading into her senior season, after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, and then being limited this preseason by injury," Williams said. "Once healthy and back in the groove, she is capable of being an explosive guard who can make things happen on either end of the court."
Another Division I transfer, Bria Stallworth could make a significant impact for the Huskers this season. The 5-6 sophomore from Chicago sat out alongside Morton because of NCAA transfer rules last season. Stallworth, who earned a spot on the Atlantic-10 All-Rookie Team as a true freshman in 2015-16, is a quick, play-marking guard who can also defend and score. In fact, she led all A-10 freshman by averaging 13.2 points per game at UMass in 2015-16. She hit 35.7 percent of her three-point attempts and 81.8 percent of her free throws while playing nearly 1,000 minutes in her only season at UMass.
"Bria is able to push tempo and create plays with penetration, while providing an additional threat from the perimeter," Williams said. "We will be looking for Bria to become more consistent as she learns our system and progresses into her sophomore season."
A third newcomer to the Nebraska backcourt in 2017-18 is true freshman Taylor Kissinger. The 6-1 guard/forward from Minden, Neb., was one of the top three-point shooters in the nation coming out of high school and was ranked among the nation's top 50 overall players. The four-time all-state selection for the Whippets had both her junior and senior seasons of high school cut short by hand/arm injuries.
Kissinger has had an excellent summer and has progressed quickly in Nebraska's program, gaining strength and making an impact in practice.
“Taylor is an offensive threat who possesses the unique talent of having a quick release and depth on her perimeter shot," Williams said. ”Due to her high basketball IQ, she has been picking things up very quickly and is already playing with great confidence." Kissinger is expected to see time at the wing position, but could also provide size and rebounding in a small forward/power forward role, if necessary.
With depth and experience creating a positive for the Nebraska backcourt, Maddie Simon is expected to focus her attention on the power forward position. The 6-2 junior out of Lincoln Pius X High School has been a significant contributor in the Nebraska backcourt the past two seasons, including a starting role down the stretch in the regular season as a freshman in 2015-16.
Through two seasons, she has averaged 4.5 points and 1.9 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game. With the loss of Nebraska's starting frontcourt, and inexperience and injuries challenging the inside game, Simon could step into a more prominent role.
"After shifting back and forth between the wing and forward spots last year, Maddie has been able to focus on the forward position heading into this season," Williams said. "She is athletic and strong, and her work in the offseason has her playing with more confidence as she heads into this year."
Another young power forward for the Huskers who could find a greater role than a year ago is Grace Mitchell. The 6-2 sophomore from Wellington, Kan., played in all 29 games and averaged nearly 11 minutes per contest. Mitchell, who is a strong, hard-working athlete, averaged 1.8 points and 1.7 rebounds last season and hit 40 percent (4-10) of her three-pointers.
“Grace embraced the challenge of being asked to switch positions last year and spent the offseason becoming more and more comfortable with that switch," Williams said. ”She is a workhorse in the weight room and is not afraid to mix it up with bigger players. We will rely on her to help our rebounding efforts this year."
The Huskers are hopeful for the return of Rachel Blackburn inside to bolster them at both ends of the court. The 6-3 forward from Leavenworth, Kan., was a starter early in her freshman season of 2015-16, before succumbing to severe knee pain. Blackburn redshirted after having multiple knee surgeries last season and was extremely limited for nearly a full year. Blackburn has been slowly progressing during preseason practice and her workload has been increasing as weeks have passed.
In the first nine games of her career, Blackburn averaged 6.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while providing suffocating defense at the rim. Blackburn's intelligence in defensive rotation could take pressure off her teammates and help a Husker defense that surrendered a staggering 76.3 points per game last season, including 80.4 points per night in Big Ten play.
"Rachel brings a lot to our team because she is a high IQ basketball player who possesses the gritty toughness we are looking to instill in our program," Williams said. "As she gradually works back into practices and games, she is showing great leadership, both verbally and by example."
Nebraska's lone returning post player from a year ago, Darrien Washington, returns for her fourth season as a Husker in 2017-18. The 6-2 junior from Oakland, Calif., averaged 2.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in 12 minutes per contest last season while playing in 23 games. Washington is a big, strong traditional post player who has improved her conditioning during the offseason and is ready to play a larger role, if needed.
"Darrien's commitment to her strength and conditioning in this offseason has paid off so far in practice, as she is having more of an impact on both ends," Williams said. "We will need Darrien to set the tone with our rebounding efforts and play with confidence and consistency all year."
The newest addition to Nebraska's post game is freshman Kate Cain. The 6-5 center from Middletown, N.Y., decided to join the Huskers on June 23, 2017, after originally signing her National Letter of Intent with Delaware. After a coaching change at Delaware, Cain reopened her recruitment and the No. 82 player in the nation, according to ESPN, landed in Lincoln. Cain, whose parents were both outstanding Division I players on the East Coast, could bring an immediate defensive presence to the Huskers while also providing some scoring punch on the block.
"Our coaching staff has been very impressed with how quickly Kate has been learning our system," Williams said. "Her soft touch and skill set will allow her to contribute right away offensively, and her size will help provide some protection around the rim on the defensive end."
Nebraska will be challenged by a strong schedule, but it should be a bit more manageable than the suffocating schedule the Huskers faced a year ago. The Husker schedule features non-conference home games against Power Five conference teams Arkansas (SEC, Nov. 16), Clemson (ACC, Nov. 30) and Washington State (Pac-12, Dec. 22) at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Huskers also clash with in-state rival Creighton (BIG EAST, Nov. 19), along with other non-conference home contests against SIU Edwardsville (Nov. 11), UMKC (Nov. 14), Arkansas Pine Bluff (Dec. 2) and Florida Atlantic (Dec. 19).
The Big Red's non-conference road schedule starts with the San Juan Shootout, which will be played in Daytona Beach, Fla., in a move from Puerto Rico that followed the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The Huskers take on Buffalo (Nov. 23) and Coastal Carolina (Nov. 24) at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach. NU returns to road action against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse (Dec. 6), before battling Drake in Des Moines (Dec. 9). The Huskers close road non-conference play at San Jose State (Dec. 17).
Nebraska opens Big Ten play against defending conference co-champion Ohio State (Dec. 28), before playing three straight road games at Minnesota (Dec. 31), Northwestern (Jan. 7) and Illinois (Jan. 10). The Huskers return to Pinnacle Bank Arena for back-to-back games against Michigan (Jan. 13) and Iowa (Jan. 16), before heading to Piscataway, N.J., to joust with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Jan. 21).
Nebraska then opens a stretch with four-of-five games at home, starting against Purdue (Jan. 24), before a brief trip to Iowa City to complete the season series with the Hawkeyes (Jan. 28). Home games against Illinois (Feb. 1), Maryland (Feb. 4) and Wisconsin (Feb. 11) follow at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Back-to-back road games at Michigan State (Feb. 14) and Indiana (Feb. 17) will set up Senior Night against Penn State (Feb. 22) at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Huskers close the regular season on the road at defending Big Ten champion Maryland (Feb. 25), before the Big Ten Tournament returns to Indianapolis (Feb. 28-March 4).