LINCOLN — James Palmer stroked his chin, raised his eyebrows and laughed into the camera on his iPhone.
“What’s up, y’all,” he said to about 1,000 followers on Instagram, watching live. “Let me show y’all around.”
The All-Big Ten guard shouted across the court to junior forward Isaiah Roby to come say hi and show off Nebraska’s new pinstripe Adidas jersey. Palmer threw his arm around a Nebraska official and in selfie mode, yelled into the front camera.
“Talk to ’em, Shay, talk to ’em!”
After a few minutes, the show was over and Palmer handed the phone to Glynn Watson. In front of a group of reporters, Palmer dropped the act.
“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to win games and make it to the tournament, which we didn’t do last year,” Palmer said.
Jokes and Instagram Live aside, that’s the primary focus of this team, even months from March. In a lot of ways, this team is just like last year’s, Watson said.
They’re goofy, they get along, they mesh well on court. But there’s something a little different about this offseason. Expectations for the Huskers are as high as they’ve been during Tim Miles’ seven years in Lincoln after going 22-11 in 2017.
Guys can feel the pressure and expectations. And they’ve accepted the challenge.
“I’ve always been a guy that’s locked in but I think this year it’s a little bit more pressure,” Palmer said Wednesday. “Not pressure, but as far as mentally, I think we need to focus in a little more than last year because obviously we didn’t get to our ultimate goal and that’s what we wanna do this year.”
NU returns nearly all of its production from a season ago, which ended with a 66-59 loss to Mississippi State in the first round of the NIT. Nebraska will begin practices next week after a summer of workouts and weight training. The Huskers begin their season Nov. 1 with an exhibition against Wayne State at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The team doesn’t outright talk about the NCAA tournament much, senior forward Isaac Copeland said. But Nebraska remains the only Power Five school without an NCAA tournament win. And with last year’s performance, and the return of starters Roby, Copeland, Watson and Palmer, the storyline will follow Nebraska everywhere this season. Which is why the Huskers are working now — in September — on cleaning up mistakes that led to the NIT bid a year ago.
“We’re very locked in just seeing how close we were last year, where we went wrong, where we slipped up, just kind of attacking those things early on so we’re ready when the time comes,” Copeland said.
Copeland and Palmer’s return gives Nebraska its best shot at finishing in the top tier of the Big Ten in years.
Palmer, a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2017-18 with 17.2 points per game and 4.4 rebounds, shot 30 percent from behind the arc and 44 percent from the floor. Copeland was an All-Big Ten honorable mention, with 12.9 points per game and 6.1 rebounds. Both turned down potential futures in the NBA for a shot at the NCAA tournament.
Copeland and Palmer join fellow starters Roby and Watson, who together create a dangerous “lineup of death” as some Big Ten coaches called it when Nebraska goes small and moves forward Roby to the 5 spot. With the departure of center Jordy Tshimanga, who left the program in the summer, Nebraska is looking for that fifth guy to step into a starting role, be it down low or on the wing.
Watson isn’t too concerned about who the fifth guy is. He thinks Nebraska has plenty of options. He likes what the freshmen have brought to the table, particularly guard-forward Amir Harris from Maryland.
And Watson has seen strides from sophomore guards Nana Akenten and Thomas Allen, both of whom said Wednesday they were humbled by last season and are ready to prove their worth this year.
Watson has seen a lot of change at Nebraska. Transfers, expectations ebbing and flowing. This team feels different than the last three, Watson said. There seems to be a chip on its shoulder. And a drive for that prized invitation.
“I feel like it’s on us, I feel like we have the right pieces and everything,” Watson said. “Everything’s just falling into place.”