LINCOLN — When the Nebraska women’s basketball team started training camp last week, coach Amy Williams had a wicked surprise for her players, especially those four freshmen who were part of a nationally ranked recruiting class.
The Huskers spent the first several days practicing defense. Not a single offensive drill.
“One of my newbies said, ‘Coach, you didn’t tell me about Camp Defense before we signed that letter of intent,’” Williams joked Monday. “That was absolutely on purpose.”
A stunning 12.7-point improvement in points allowed spurred a surprise run to the NCAA tournament in Williams’ second year, but defensive lapses in the opening-round tourney game led to rebounding struggles and a 73-62 loss to Arizona State.
Williams never quite shook that loss. Neither did her assistants. A thorn in their side.
“It kept us uncomfortable all offseason,” Williams said.
And while NU returns its top five scorers, it lost two of its top perimeter defenders, and last year’s easily navigable nonconference schedule has turned into a bear this season with road games at Louisville, Creighton and Miami.
Coupled with an 18-game Big Ten schedule, Nebraska could have a better team — and a higher RPI — and yet not duplicate its 21-11 record.
Williams knows all that.
“We’re not trying to be one-hit wonders, we’re not trying to do a quick fix. We never set out for that when we came here,” she said. “Maybe some things turned around a little bit faster than we expected one year ago, but, for us, it’s about finding small ways to continue to raise the bar and the expectation of our program.”
So Nebraska has to maintain its strengths — shot-blocking from center Kate Cain, a 6 percent shooting advantage on 3-pointers — and chip away at weaknesses like inconsistent rebounding.
Cue the four freshmen. Ashtyn Veerbeek, Kayla Mershon, Sam Haiby and Leigha Brown are quick learners, Williams said. Several can get rebounds “out of their area,” snatching them away from opponents with athleticism and hustle.
The 6-foot-2 Veerbeek — a consensus top-100 recruit who had more than 1,000 career rebounds at Hull (Iowa) Western Christian High School — led the Nike EYBL AAU circuit in rebounds one summer.
“To me, it’s important to get every rebound and help,” Veerbeek said. “Effort. Never taking a play off. Always scratching and doing the little things — boxing out, doing it right.”
Once the Huskers turn their attention to offense, they should have multiple options. Hannah Whitish, Maddie Simon and Taylor Kissinger all averaged double-digit points last season, and Cain was at 9.9. Simon often was NU’s most versatile scorer in Big Ten play, and she hit 80 percent of her free throws. And while Brown was the lowest-rated recruit of the four freshmen, she might be the best after her senior year at DeKalb (Ind.) High School, where she averaged 28 points.
“Leigha Brown has been really, really good in practice,” Williams said.
» Cain — part of the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team last season after setting a school record with 100 blocks — has worked on her confidence, conditioning and body language in the offseason, Williams said. Cain wants to improve her consistency, as she had a series of up-and-down games that tended to be dependent on whether she got in foul trouble.
» NU’s top leaders, Williams said, are Simon, Whitish and senior graduate transfer Kristian Hudson, who started for three seasons at Florida International.
“She naturally has incredible leadership skills and does a great job of communicating on the floor,” Williams said of Hudson. Hudson, Whitish and Haiby are all options at point guard.
» In a separate interview with The World-Herald, Williams said the team has no injuries among its 11 players early in camp. Williams has held out some players because of viruses.
» The 6-2 Mershon could be a longer version of former Husker Hailie Sample, who helped lead NU to four straight NCAA Tournaments. Mershon is not a shoot-first player and can guard multiple positions.
“She’s always moving and active,” Veerbeek said.
» The Big Ten is as strong top to bottom, Williams said, as she’s seen it. Maryland, which has won three of four Big Ten Tournaments since joining the league, will be a heavy favorite.