Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Talk Aside: Huskers Ready For Action

By Brian Rosenthal

For weeks, we’ve been talking, writing, analyzing, asking, debating, and then talking some more, about lofty expectations for the Nebraska men’s basketball season.

It’s the kind of hype and excitement Tim Miles, entering his seventh season as coach, embraces.

Ever since taking a left cross in March by the NCAA selection committee, and then an uppercut by the National Invitational Tournament group, these Huskers have been eager to prove themselves following a 22-11 season and a 13-5, fourth-place Big Ten Conference showing.

This is why James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. bypassed professional opportunities to return for their senior seasons. In turn, national prognosticators have given Nebraska its preseason due. For the first time since 2014-15, Nebraska begins the season ranked in the USA Today coaches poll, at No. 25. Preseason magazine Top 25 polls have been certain to include the Huskers. One of them, Athlon, predicts a Sweet 16 appearance – for a program still looking for any NCAA Tournament wins. Mock NCAA Tournament brackets – yes, those exist in November – have Nebraska seeded as high as No. 4.

Again, a lot of talk, a lot of hype.

Tuesday, at long last, we begin to see how these mostly-veteran Huskers can measure on the court. Nebraska opens the lid on the 2018-19 season with a 7 p.m. home game against Mississippi Valley State. It’s the earliest season opener in program history, and it couldn’t come a day too soon.

“We’re tired of talking about it,” Miles said Monday, “so let’s go. Let’s go compete, let’s go play.”

The high expectations and excitement level are understandable. Nebraska returns 73.4 percent of its scoring, 61.4 percent of its rebounding, 71.5 percent of its assists and 67.2 percent of its blocked shots. That’s from a team that averaged 72.3 points, the program’s highest scoring average since 1996-97.

And these Huskers want to deliver again.

"We're very locked in," Copeland said, "just seeing how close we were last year." 

Including starts from previous schools for transfers Palmer and Copeland, the Huskers return a combined 160 career starts, including 77 by senior point guard Glynn Watson Jr.

“I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see Glynn have a very good year,” Miles said. “Even when his shot struggled a bit against Iowa State (in a scrimmage), he had eight or nine assists and four or five steals. I really think Glynn is completely cool with who he is and what he brings to the table. He’s about us.”

Miles is equally stoked about Copeland, a fifth-year senior and former 5-star player who’s far healthier now than a year ago, when he was coming off back surgery after transferring from Georgetown. At 12.9 points, he’s Nebraska’s second leading returning scorer.

“I think Isaac Copeland is playing better than I’ve ever seen him play,” Miles said. “He’s a guy that really excites me. He looks more athletic, more confident. I think he’s going to have a big year, too. I’m excited about him.”

 Junior forward Isaiah Roby, part of aforementioned starting mix, had a team-best four double-doubles last season, and is Nebraska’s top shot blocker, with 88 career blocks. Roby is also only one of two power conference players to total 50 blocks and 50 assists last season.

Sophomore guard Thomas Allen, who shone brightest last year against NCAA Final Four participants Michigan and Kansas, is Nebraska’s fifth starter, and top three-point shooting option.

Miles would like more three-point options, especially after seeing his team struggle from beyond the arc in a closed scrimmage with Iowa State, and again in last week’s exhibition victory over Wayne State, when the Huskers were 4-of-26.

“It’s something that’s critical to our success,” Miles said. “I think the types of threes we take is important, and who’s taking them.”

Noting there’s no such thing as a “shot doctor” at the brink of a season, Miles is stressing the importance of taking good shots – rhythm shots out of the flow of the offense, or shots at the rim, of which Palmer excels.

Palmer, an All-Big Ten first team selection as a junior, attempted 221 free throws last season, ranking him No. 30 nationally. He’s on the preseason All-Big Ten team, and Monday made the Top 50 players to watch for the Naismith Trophy player of the year. He’s also on the Jerry West Award watch list for the top shooting guard in college basketball.

Palmer, though, looks to improve on his 30.9 percent mark from three-point range.

“He’s worked hard to shoot better,” Miles said. “I think he’s identified why he made shots, why he missed shots. Just his understanding of applying what happens in a game to your practice and being game ready. Last year was a really good year for him to reflect back on his game and see what he can do.”

Defensively, Miles has fewer concerns entering a season’s first game than in most years, largely because of the veteran starters. That doesn’t mean there’s not work remaining throughout the roster, though.

“There’s probably, honestly, six guys I’m confident in knowing what they’re doing, and then there’s the rest of them,” Miles said. “We seem like we have enough guys out there to just keep me worried.”

Miles said he’s yet to decide on a set playing rotation, mostly because he’s still determining at what positions certain young players fit, and with what groups. Freshman center Brady Heiman, for instance, could be the lone five, but he’s also been on the floor with two other bigs, too.

“We’re just going to keep working it around,” Miles said, “until we figure it out.”

Heiman, a 6-foot-11, 215-pound native of Springfield, is Nebraska’s first in-state high school scholarship recruit since 2001. Originally penciled in as a redshirt candidate, Heiman over the summer began preparing to play when center Jordy Tshimanga announced his transfer.  

"When he left, that really opened up my eyes there might be some minutes here," said Heiman, who's gained 16 pounds since his arrive on campus. "The big thing is putting on weight and getting stronger.When I first got here, I'd take a hit in the chest and Tanner Borchardt would knock me back a few feet. Now, I can deliver a hit and stay right there."

Of course, for the younger players, nothing beat game experience.

“You can replicate it in practice and see a lot of reps, but we need to see it over and over and over (in a game),” Miles said. “I’ve been pleased with how many guys have asked me to watch tape and do those sorts of things. Nana Akenten jumps out to me right away. Glynn Watson and James Palmer always want to watch tape, which is great. Thomas Allen has asked before, too. I always think that’s a good sign.”

Akenten, a 6-foot-6, 218-pound wing, has made significant progress after redshirting last season as a freshman. He’s an athletic rebounder who can make three-pointers while playing either big or small forward.

Akenten also lives with Copeland, who’s been a positive influence, Miles said.

“What I’ve seen is his consistency is just better,” Miles said. “He gets better every day. Last year was one of those peaks and valleys, E.K.G type seasons for him. I’ve been impressed with the way he’s gotten better."

Mississippi Valley State and Southeastern Louisiana, the Huskers’ foe Sunday, are opponents as part of the Lincoln Regional round of the Hall of Fame Classic, which continues Nov. 19-20 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., with Nebraska, Texas Tech, Missouri State and USC.

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

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