- Matt Cox
Key Returners: James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland Jr., Glynn Watson Jr., Isaiah Roby
Key Losses: Evan Taylor, Anton Gill, Jordy Tshimanga (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Karrington Davis
Outlook: Bang, bang and BANG. That's the sound of Tim Miles' terrific trio of wings - James Palmer, Isaac Copeland and Isaiah Roby - all choosing to return to school for the 2018-19 campaign after testing the NBA draft water this summer. With all due respect to Glynn Watson (more on him later) and the rest of the supporting cast, it was the Palmer / Copeland / Roby triumvirate that catapulted the Cornhuskers into Big Ten contenders last season after a disastrous 13th place finish the year prior. Props to Tim Miles for scooping up Copeland (Georgetown) and Palmer (Miami FL) from two top-flight programs via the transfer wire and continuing to be patient with Roby's development after a shaky first season in Lincoln.
What makes this threesome so valuable as a unit is the way their individual skill sets complement one another, which was evident in how well they played together last season. Palmer is a multi-purpose wing who can score from all three levels with ease and is probably the most well-rounded and polished offensively. Standing 6'6 and blessed with a 6'11 wingspan, Palmer's length and savvy vision make him an underrated facilitator for others - precisely why Miles so frequently runs the half-court offense through him.
Copeland - a frequent beneficiary of Palmer's playmaking - is an especially tough cover for opposing forwards with his ability to space the floor at 6'9. He and rising sophomore Thomas Allen are the top-2 long range marksmen returning for the Huskers this year, but highly regarded prospect Nana Akenten could provide an additional scoring / shooting punch off-the-bench as well.
Last, but certainly not least, of the wing triplets is Roby, who's just barely scratching the surface of his potential - just ask many of the NBA draft experts who already have him pegged as a top-60 prospect heading into the 2019 draft. The Huskers will once again be thin up-front, but Roby's defensive versatility and shot-blocking presence should partially mitigate the lack of girth inside. It's not surprising that the advanced on/off numbers from last year show that Nebraska was in-fact better defensively when Miles played a true big at the 5 (specifically, Jordy Tshimanga) instead of Roby or Copeland, but the offensive firepower generated with Palmer / Roby / Copeland at the 3 / 4 / 5 spots, respectively, should more than compensate for that on the other end.
Both Roby and Copeland must continue to emerge as reliable rim-protectors and interior defenders to allow Miles to play his best offensive lineup even more frequently than what we saw last season (see chart below):
The only nitpick to note about the 'Skers offensively is their inefficient shot-selection. Per hoop-math.com, 38% of Nebraska's field goal attempts were 2-point jump shots (23rd highest rate in the country) where they converted a subpar 37% of those tries. The primary culprit in this department was Glynn Watson. Watson's talent and ability are unquestioned by Miles and the staff, but his junior season last year took somewhat of a wrong turn. The 3-year starter suffered from a season-long shooting slump that dropped his FG% splits to .38/.29/.78 from 2pt/3pt/FT, respectively. The Huskers badly need Watson to return to his sophomore season form, when he connected on 40% of his triples and kept his 2-point shooting percentage above 40%.
The saving grace for Nebraska's offense last year - which helped offset the adverse impact of over-relying on mid-range jumpers - was the ability to generate points efficiently at the charity stripe. There's no reason to think the Huskers can't replicate this again in 2018-19, especially with the abundance of mismatch opportunities for Roby, Palmer and Copeland to exploit slower bigs off the dribble. But if Nebraska wants to raise their offensive ceiling higher than the 75th nationally ranked adjusted offensive efficiency last season, either these mid-range pull-ups need to start falling - or these shots need to be re-allocated to behind the 3-point arc.
Bottom Line: In this day and age in sports, the time window for coaches to show success and prove their worth is shrinking by the minute. Once the boosters and diehards start to become even the slightest bit disgruntled with the pace of improvement, coaches are thrown into the hot seat and rarely, if ever, get off of it.
Tim Miles is Exhibit A of this phenomenon. While the 3-year span from 2015 - 2017 is certainly a forgettable stretch, he took the Huskers dancing in 2014 (a feat neither of his two predecessors accomplished) and now has a freight-train of momentum heading into 2019 fresh off a 22-win season, the program's highest total in over 20 years.
True to the name of this section, the bottom-line is that Miles appears to be back in control of his situation in Lincoln even with a new boss (athletic director Bill Moos) assessing his performance. This will truly be a 'make-or-break' year in both Miles' career and the Nebraska basketball program, which seems destined to forever play 2nd fiddle to its football program and cross-state rival Creighton. With the talent and experience fused together on this year's roster, a bid to the Big Dance will be the ultimate measure of success for the 2018-19 Huskers.