High expectations have foiled Husker hoops before; this year’s team wants to handle them

High expectations have foiled Husker hoops before; this year’s team wants to handle them
The expectations have returned for Nebraska basketball, albeit for a team that in a lot of ways is the polar opposite of that 2014-15 team that fell far short of expectations. (ELSIE STORMBERG/THE WORLD-HERALD)

LINCOLN — Tim Miles isn’t into comparing his teams, especially not this one.

“Comparison is a thief of joy,” Miles said on Monday.

But there’s no getting around the fact that Miles and Nebraska have been here before. After Nebraska made the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14, the Huskers were a preseason Top 25 team the following year. They returned nearly everyone, including Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford and Shavon Shields. And then the Huskers tanked. They were horrible, losing 11 of their final 12 games and finishing 13-18 on the year.

Now, with arguably Miles’ best team in his seven years in Lincoln, Nebraska faces a similar task after a 22-11 season a year ago. And the expectations have now returned, albeit for a team that in a lot of ways is the polar opposite of that 2014-15 team that fell far short of expectations.

“We’re just further down the line on what an expectation looks like,” Miles said. “The 2014 team was such an upstart and this team has been put together in a lot longer form, it feels like.”

This team is also much more mild-mannered than the 2014-15 team. Petteway — who led the team in scoring that year — was a frenetic player who Miles said would “threaten” guys to work harder. Players on this team are much more soft-spoken. Senior point guard Glynn Watson even said as much last week, mentioning the four leaders — himself, Isaiah Roby, James Palmer and Isaac Copeland — are all lead-by-example guys. No one is really barking a lot during practice.

Typically, that would be concerning for Miles, who would prefer to have an “alpha dog” on the floor.

“It worries you, let’s put it that way,” Miles said. “But at the same time, this is such a rock-solid group it doesn’t worry me a lot.”

Nebraska begins practice for the season on Tuesday, and health wise, there are some early concerns. Roby is currently dealing with plantar fasciitis, a heel injury that could take weeks to fully heal. Miles said Roby will get some reps in early practices, but not as many. He won’t go live on 5-on-5 drills. The timetable on his return is fluid, since plantar fasciitis can inflame easily. The junior forward averaged 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2 blocks a year ago.

Karrington Davis, a true freshman from St. Louis, Missouri, will also be held out of practice early while he rehabs hip issues.

In their place, Miles is looking at a few younger guards to step up, primarily true freshman Amir Harris and sophomores Thomas Allen and Nana Akenten. Harris is a lanky player who can guard various positions. Allen and Akenten are shooters, who Miles hopes can stretch the floor with a smaller lineup.

No doubt, Nebraska will lean heavily on Palmer, the All-Big Ten forward who transferred into the program two years ago from Miami. Miles said on Monday the one thing Palmer missed last year were “pro habits.” He’s seen those habits form over the last few months from Palmer, who scored 17.2 points per game and shot 44 percent from the floor. The senior has been showing up to the gym to shoot at 6 a.m. most mornings, and during fall workouts, was often shooting for at least an hour before coaches showed up.

“Every day showing up and working to get better and he’s been remarkable in that shift,” Miles said.

Palmer is a good example of how different this team is from the 13-18 team that followed NU’s last NCAA tournament team. Palmer is quiet and consistent, unlike Petteway could be at times.

This team knows who they are, both offensively and defensively, Miles said, while the 2014-15 experiment was a work in progress in Miles’ third year. But a key early in these preseason practices and throughout the season will be unlocking something inside the team to break them out of their comfort zone. He doesn’t want them too comfortable in their own skin, and wants a little more grit from everyone. Miles even joked he wants to give Allen and Roby Batman costumes.

“So they have an alter ego,” Miles said. “So they can put the Batman on and, ‘Now I’m Batman, damn it, now I’m gonna go play great.’”

This team doesn’t have a lot of change in it, Miles said. The players are consistent and have good habits, and that’s encouraging, he said. And there’s one clear expectation: Last year was not good enough.

“Really all we’ve talked about is how to make this collective group better,” Miles said. “I think this team could be really good.”

And the mentality in the locker room?

“We know we didn’t make it, we’re gonna make it this year, we’re going to keep working,” Miles said.

Isaac Copeland, Thomas Allen ready for big roles; Huskers schedule with eye on March Madness

A year ago the only thing Isaac Copeland could do is stand in place and shoot.

“Now the guy is going up and he can throw it off the side of the backboard, windmill dunk it,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “I mean, he looks 18 again.”

That’s good news for Nebraska. Copeland, the Huskers’ starting forward, will be vital this year, especially if Isaiah Roby’s injury persists. Copeland was honorable mention All-Big Ten last season with 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

Miles said he thinks Copeland needs to improve on one-on-one isolation, but Nebraska has guys who can create one-on-one already, like Glynn Watson or James Palmer.

The biggest plus of all may be Copeland’s shot. He hit 36.9 percent of his 3-pointers last year but was near 40 percent in the final 10 games of the season.

“He looks like he’s continued that trend in our workouts,” Miles said.

Allen steps up

Nebraska is in search of a two-guard to replace Anton Gill, and it just might be sophomore Thomas Allen. The highly-recruited shooting guard wasn’t much of a factor last year, playing just 9.9 minutes a game and averaging 3.2 points.

Miles said he and Allen had a chat after the season, and Miles pointed out his best two games were against Kansas and Michigan — two Final Four teams. Allen, then a true freshman, shot 5 for 7 from the floor against KU and made 3 of 4 3-pointers in just 14 minutes.

“So what that tells me is you can compete against the best, but how do you bring it every day,” Miles told Allen.

So far, Miles has liked how Allen has responded. And then quipped about giving Allen a Batman costume.

Scheduling tougher

Nebraska won 22 games last year but didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Part of that was because of a schedule that let Nebraska down.

Miles is pretty sure that won’t be the case this year.

“We tried to put together a schedule that challenges us,” Miles said. “And I think we’ve got the things in place to get us down the line.”

Nebraska will play Creighton, Seton Hall, at Clemson and a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State in the nonconference. Plus the Huskers will play either Texas Tech or USC in a December tournament in Kansas City. Add that to 20 league games in a Big Ten that will likely be stronger than it was last year, and Miles thinks Nebraska will be in pretty good shape.

“I think it should be enough schedule to get us where we need to go but I don’t think anybody really knows how the new metric is going to figure out,” Miles said.

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