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2019-’20 Nebraska Cornhuskers Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Breaking up with someone is never easy. There’s the awkwardness of talking with them about it, separating items that were acquired during the relationship, and thinking about what could have been. While this occurs more often in personal relationships, it’s also applicable to head coaches at the college level as well. We grow familiar with certain personalities and splitting up can be a painful process.

This is the way things seemed for Tim Miles and Nebraska last season. Miles was generally liked by the fanbase. He was approachable, open to change, and tried was often ahead of the curve in how he operated. Miles also took Nebraska to its first NCAA Tournament in well over a decade in his second year at the helm. Unfortunately, things fell apart after that remarkable season, culminating in Nebraska’s decision to fire him last spring.

Miles’ tenure in Lincoln wasn’t a failure. He made the Big Dance and multiple appearances in the NIT. For a program that’s struggled as much as Nebraska over its history, that’s nothing to overlook. However, it’s also reasonable to think it was time for Nebraska to try someone else as well. Miles had missed the NCAA Tournament for five straight years at the time of his termination and only finished above .500 in Big Ten play twice in seven seasons with the Huskers. Things also didn’t seem to be trending up either, as Nebraska was set to lose a considerable amount of talent after last season.

With these struggles in mind, Nebraska opted to pull the plug on the Miles’ era. And after a relatively short head coaching search, Nebraska settled on Fred Hoiberg. He is best known for his remarkable success at Iowa State, but more recently served as the head coach for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. The Cyclones made four straight NCAA Tournaments prior to Hoiberg’s departure from Ames for the NBA, including one trip to the Sweet 16.

On paper, Hoiberg was a home run hire for the Huskers. It’s incredible to think that a program that’s never won an NCAA Tournament game was able to land one of the most successful college head coaches of the last decade. Before Hoiberg left for the Bulls, he was routinely linked to massive openings at the college level. There’s little debating that he was likely at least under consideration for openings at programs like UCLA this offseason. He’s an outstanding recruiter and runs an exciting offensive scheme.

But as Nebraska fans well know, games aren’t won on paper. Hoiberg arrives with an impressive resume, but that’s hardly a guarantee he’ll be successful in Lincoln. To start, he hasn’t been a head coach at the college level since 2015. His offenses may have been revolutionary at that point, but they aren’t now. Moreover, Hoiberg inherits a Nebraska roster largely devoid of elite talent and will need to rebuild things from scratch. The Huskers don’t have a winning culture. Hoiberg is going to have to find a way to create one. And fast.

The good news is that he should have some pieces to work with this season, thanks in large part to a massive recruiting effort on his part last spring. Hoiberg filled the roster with a variety of prospects ranging between decent and long shots. Nebraska will likely lag behind the rest of the Big Ten in talent for much of this season, but at least the team should have some depth. Hoiberg and fans will have to hope he can hit on a few diamonds in the rough.

So, what should fans expect out of the Huskers in Hoiberg’s first year? Let’s take a look.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 20-15 (8-12)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #44
  • NET Rating: #51
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA (R32)

Heading into last season, expectations were high for the Huskers. Many fans thought the team would return to the NCAA Tournament and have an outside shot at a Big Ten title, with a chance to get that elusive first NCAA win for the program. And the hype wasn’t just in the fan base, either. The media also viewed Nebraska as a solid team entering the season, culminating in Nebraska’s rise up to 24th in the AP Poll at one point in the season.

That excitement appeared to be well placed early in the season. The Huskers were able to jump out to a 7-1 start and got to 11-2 overall before entering the heart of Big Ten play. And Nebraska wasn’t just piling up wins against terrible teams, either. The Huskers beat Clemson on the road and other teams like Creighton and Seton Hall. A murderer’s row? No, but enough meat on the bone to imply the team was pretty good.

Unfortunately, that’s when the wheels fell off. Nebraska lost its first two games in January and nine of its next 11 games, including losses to Illinois and Rutgers. By that time, Nebraska was sitting at 13-11 overall and 3-10 in Big Ten play. Many of the losses came on the road or against quality competition, so it was hard to get angry over a particular loss, but they certainly piled up over time. A loss here or there is one thing, seven in a row is another.

It’s also important to put that seven-game losing streak in context. Here’s what it included:

  • 1/17 - Michigan State
  • 1/21 - at Rutgers
  • 1/26 - Ohio State
  • 1/29 - Wisconsin
  • 2/2 - at Illinois
  • 2/6 - Maryland
  • 2/9 - at Purdue

It’s easy to justify losing to Michigan State at home and Purdue on the road, but the rest of those were very winnable games. To start, Nebraska was a better team than Illinois and Rutgers last season. The games were on the road, but the Huskers were just better. A team can’t lose both of those games. Moreover, Ohio State finished just three spots higher on KenPom than the Huskers last year. Considering that game was in Lincoln, one has to think it was winnable as well. Additionally, even if Maryland and Wisconsin were better than Nebraska, both those games came at home as well. The Huskers desperately needed to find a way to just pull off one upset. Unfortunately, that didn’t end up happening.

Nebraska did score some nice wins down the stretch, including a solid win over Iowa at home and two wins in the Big Ten Tournament, but it the seven-game losing streak in January and early February doomed the team. While the Huskers ended up making the NIT and beating Butler in the opening round, it felt like the team and Miles let something slip away. The Huskers weren’t a perfect team and had some tough injuries during the season, but the roster was good enough to make the NCAAs. Things just didn’t come together.

Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over Clemson, Creighton, and Seton Hall, regular season wins over Indiana and Iowa, and the postseason wins over Maryland and Butler. Low points of the season included the losses to Illinois and Rutgers and the postseason loss to TCU.

Individual statistical leaders were James Palmer, Isaiah Roby, and Glynn Watson. Palmer led the team in minutes, points, steals, usage, and total win shares. Roby led the team in rebounds and blocks. Watson led the team in assists.

2. Offseason Exits

For nearly a decade now, I have had the privilege of covering Big Ten basketball, at least in some capacity. I started out writing about Michigan and later expanded coverage into the league as a whole. It’s been a fun run and I have gotten to cover a variety of teams. Some were good, some were great, and some were horrendous.

During my entire run, I have never seen of attrition like what Nebraska experienced this offseason. The Huskers didn’t just lose a player or two. Nebraska literally lost its entire team.

That might sound hyperbolic, but believe me, it’s not. The Huskers lost 11 players from last year’s roster. Considering that a team gets 13 scholarships to work with, that’s incredible. Even with a coaching change and a large graduating class, you just never see attrition like this in the Big Ten. The departing players are as follows:

  • Nana Akenten;
  • Thomas Allen;
  • Tanner Borchardt;
  • Isaac Copeland;
  • Justin Costello;
  • Karrington Davis;
  • Amir Harris;
  • Brady Heiman;
  • James Palmer;
  • Isaiah Roby;
  • Johnny Trueblood; and
  • Glynn Watson.

That’s, uh, a lot.

Maybe this is an easier way to approach things. Nebraska will be returning the following players from last season: Dachon Burke and Thorir Thorbjarnarson. That’s it. Just two players from last year’s roster. There has probably been a team or two in the history of the league that has experienced something like this, but it’s definitely new to me. For all intents and purposes, Nebraska will be a brand new team next season.

For all my other previews, I would use this section to talk about how these departures will impact the team. But that seems unnecessary here. I mean, Nebraska is losing 11 players from last year’s roster, including the team’s top four in total minutes and six of its top seven. The roster was completely gutted this offseason. That doesn’t mean this season is doomed, but we can probably throw out everything from last season when evaluating this group.

3. New Additions

Given the substantial departures noted above, it probably comes as no surprise to learn that the Huskers have added a lot this offseason. After all, the team essentially had to replace its entire roster. And all things being considered, Hoiberg did a pretty good job facing that challenge. Things could have looked even rougher if he wasn’t able to secure so many commitments in the short time after taking over the job.

The Huskers will be adding six new recruits and five transfers this offseason. The recruits are Akol Arop, Kevin Cross, Samari Curtis, Jervay Green, Cameron Mack, and Yvan Ouedraogo. Mack is listed as a point guard, Curtis and Green as shooting guards, Arop as a small forward, and Cross and Ouedraogo as power forwards. All six are rated as three-star prospects by 247Sports.

Curtis and Ouedraogo are the recruits receiving the most attention. Both are rated as top 200 players and Ouedraogo arrives from overseas. He’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds. Meanwhile, Curtis is one of the top players out of the state of Ohio and received attention from programs including Cincinnati, Dayton, and Xavier among others. Green and Mack are also wildcards as they arrive via the JUCO route. On paper, one would think they both should be able to hit the ground running a bit better than true freshmen.

The transfer additions are Dalan Banton from Western Kentucky, Haanif Cheatman from Florida Gulf Coast, Matej Kavas from Seattle, Shamiel Stevenson from Pittsburgh, and Derrick Walker from Tennessee. Banton, Stevenson, and Walker are all expected to redshirt this season due to NCAA transfer rules. As such, we can probably check back in on those guys prior to the 2020-’21 season.

Cheatham and Kavas will be able to contribute this season, though. During last season, Cheatham averaged 13.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game for Florida Gulf Coast. The team only went 14-18, in part because Cheatham was sidelined with injury. Prior to going down, he was a really active played offensively, leading the team in usage. His efficiency numbers weren’t great, but he’s listed at 6-foot-5 and should be able to help the team immediately in the backcourt. Kavas was a sharpshooter for Seattle and listed at 6-foot-8. He seems like a potential starter on the wing for the Huskers.

Nebraska is also adding some walk-ons in Charlie Easley, Jace Piatkowski, and Bret Porter. It’s hard to see any of those three contributing significantly this season for the Huskers.

Before we talk about these additions as a whole, it’s important to keep things in perspective. This group lacks a clear standout prospect. Generally speaking, that’s not great, especially when there are 11 newcomers. However, Hoiberg and his staff were in a tough spot. They couldn’t get too caught up on quality. This class was about quantity. That isn’t to say this group is terrible and won’t develop. It’s just reality. This isn’t some crazy class stacked with five-stars. However, that wasn’t the realistic goal here. Hoiberg simply needed to fill the roster.

With that in mind, it’s hard to complain about what the Huskers are bringing in this season. There are some really nice long-term prospects, two transfers who should start early, and plenty of other options as well. It will be interesting to see what Hoiberg can do next year with more time.

4. Points of Optimism

While I hate to keep harping on this so much, it needs to be mentioned again here. With so much roster turnover from last season, pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of Nebraska’s team this season is exceedingly difficult. Predicting freshmen and transfers is always a tricky endeavor and that’s basically Nebraska’s entire team.

But if we do need to pick some reasons to be optimistic, it has to lie in the team’s new pieces as well. Turning over an entire roster means Nebraska won’t have its best pieces from last year, but it also won’t have the same problems it did last year either. Turnover isn’t always a bad thing. If the team can hit on a freshman or two early, it’s not that hard to see things piecing together for the Huskers this season. After all, Nebraska is adding some pretty stable pieces like Cheatham and Kavas.

Having a new coach is also something that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. A lot of my analysis would duplicate what I wrote down for my Indiana preview two years ago when the Hoosiers hired Archie Miller:

If there’s one thing that’s going to get Hoosier fans excited for the upcoming season, it’s the hire of Archie Miller as head coach. Tom Crean had his successes in Bloomington, but sometimes a program just needs a fresh face. While change for the sake of change is usually a bad decision, a fresh perspective can lead to good things. Fans will be hoping that’s the case for Miller and the Hoosiers moving forward.

Miller’s success as a coach is largely unquestioned. He served as an assistant at Western Kentucky, North Carolina State, Ohio State, and Arizona among others beyond taking over at Dayton in 2011. Since becoming the head coach of the Flyers, he’s led Dayton to a 139-63 (.688) overall record, two league titles, four straight NCAA Tournaments, and an Elite Eight appearance in 2014. One can make a decent argument that the only mid-major to see more success than Dayton over the last six seasons was Gonzaga. That alone speaks volumes.

Conventional wisdom would imply that Miller’s track record indicates big things to come for Indiana. There’s little arguing that Miller will have access to more resources and better players at Indiana than he ever saw during his time at Dayton. The expectations will be higher, of course, but if Miller can continue his track record of development and recruiting in Bloomington, good things should follow.

Miles had his success in Lincoln, but a change was needed. Hoiberg brings with him great experience at the college level and NBA coaching experience. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it does bring potential. This is what Husker fans are hoping can bring together a mixed array of pieces this season.

5. Points of Concern

This might sound like I am backtracking from what I wrote above, but it’s just as true here as it was earlier. Nebraska’s biggest challenge this season will be overcoming its substantial offseason departures. Every team experiences attrition, but not like this. We’re talking about an entire roster being gutted in an offseason.

And as I discussed above, attrition by itself doesn’t guarantee failure. Turnover can be a good thing in certain situations. It’s kind of like drinking a glass of red wine here and there. It can have some nice benefits, if consumed in the proper manner. But to take our analogy one step further, Nebraska basically did the equivalent of chugging three bottles of wine. This is either going to be one hell of a ride, or it’s going to come crashing down in flames.

Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but break it down. Nebraska returns two so-so players, adds two decent graduate transfers, and will otherwise look to true freshmen and JUCO transfers to carry things this season. There’s no reasonable way you can look at that situation and feel confident. This isn’t a situation where a team lost a player or two. Unless everything goes right, things could go completely off the rails.

The other thing that’s probably obvious, but should be mentioned as well is the team’s clear lack of star power on the roster. Players like Isaac Copeland and James Palmer have carried the flag in years past. However, they’re gone now and the Huskers have no clear replacements. It’s exceedingly difficult to win in today’s world of college basketball without at least one star player. And if Nebraska is going to find one, its hopes ride on some small schools transfers and some three-star prospects in year one. That doesn’t seem like a great model for success.

It feels like I keep repeating myself here, but it’s the elephant in the room. For a team to overcome this much attrition in a single offseason, it either needs to add an elite recruiting class or get everything to break just about perfectly. We know the Huskers didn’t do the first thing. Can Nebraska get things to break perfectly elsewhere? We’ll see.

6. Top Player

Nebraska had a handful of potential star players heading into last season. Copeland and Palmer looked like reliable options and Roby arguably had more talent than anyone on the roster. Here’s what our site wrote at the time:

Of the four returners, the guy that has the post potential is a toss up in my eyes between James Palmer and Isaiah Roby. And honestly, I couldn’t choose. So, I did what any other inquisitive person would do, I asked a few Husker fans I know. I asked them who they thought was their best player and who they thought was the player with the highest ceiling.

They both said their best player was Palmer, but the player that could take his mantle is Roby.

They didn’t really help much, I know. Fandom is a weird thing.

So, I started flipping through some of the preseason hit pieces that have come out, and I was truly amazed at how many people are talking about Roby as if he’s a sure fire NBA first rounder in 2019. Dig around a little bit and you’ll see quotes from all over about Roby’s potential. About Roby’s athleticism. About how Roby could be one of the best players in the country if he can figure out a way in his junior campaign to put all of the pieces together.

Unfortunately for Husker fans, all those guys are now gone. There’s literally no “sure thing” on this team. Cheatham looks like the safest bet, but it’s anyone’s guess. Again, Nebraska is almost exclusively going to be relying on newcomers, with many of those slots filled by true freshmen and JUCO transfers. Maybe some of those players come in and really hit the ground running. It’s certainly possible. Other Big Ten teams have done it before. However, three-star players and JUCO transfers are not generally players who end up being “stars” in year one.

With all that said, my bet here is on Cheatham. He seems like someone who can play efficiently and will get more than his fair share of opportunities.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 9/27 - Opening Night With Husker Hoops
  • 10/30 - Doane (Ex.)
  • 11/5 - UC Riverside
  • 11/9 - Southern Utah
  • 11/15 - South Dakota State
  • 11/22 - Southern
  • 11/25 - Washington State (George Town, Cayman Islands)
  • 11/26 - George Mason/Old Dominion (George Town, Cayman Islands)
  • 11/27 - TBD (George Town, Cayman Islands)
  • 12/4 - at Georgia Tech
  • 12/7 - at Creighton
  • 12/13 - at Indiana
  • 12/15 - Purdue
  • 12/21 - North Dakota
  • 12/27 - Texas A&M - Corpus Christi
  • 1/3 - Rutgers
  • 1/7 - Iowa
  • 1/11 - at Northwestern
  • 1/14 - at Ohio State
  • 1/18 - Indiana
  • 1/21 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/25 - at Rutgers
  • 1/28 - Michigan
  • 2/1 - Penn State
  • 2/8 - at Iowa
  • 2/11 - at Maryland
  • 2/15 - Wisconsin
  • 2/20 - Michigan State
  • 2/24 - at Illinois
  • 2/27 - Ohio State
  • 3/1 - Northwestern
  • 3/5 - at Michigan
  • 3/8 - at Minnesota

In previous years, I have spent considerable time critiquing Nebraska’s schedule and the program’s apparent choice to prioritize wins over resume building opportunities. It’s something that I am routinely amazed athletic departments don’t focus more on that could easily help the program’s postseason odds. This directly hurt Nebraska just a few years back. The program likely would have had enough to make the field if its strength of schedule was better.

But that’s not the case this year. Yes, Nebraska’s schedule is still pretty weak, but what exactly do you expect? The roster was completely overhauled and Hoiberg needs to establish his footing. Two months of manageable games before a buzz saw in Big Ten play isn’t exactly a crazy choice. And that’s what the Huskers certainly went with this year.

The non-conference slate is pretty underwhelming for Nebraska this season. South Dakota State might be the second-best team on the schedule, which should tell you something. The road trips to Creighton and Georgia Tech will draw the most eyes, but neither was exactly great last season. Perhaps the Huskers can steal two road wins there. The rest of the slate looks pretty manageable, including a trip to the Cayman Islands where the team will open with Washington State, who finished 207th on KenPom last season.

We all generally know what to expect out of Big Ten play, but the biggest thing that fans should be excited about is the number of quality opponents coming to Lincoln. The team will face Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin at home. All five of those teams made the NCAA Tournament last season. And considering what Nebraska has been at home in recent years, that’s where fans need to hope this team makes its mark. Pull off some upsets and get some excitement rolling into this program.

It’s hard to have an overly strong reaction to this schedule given how many games are against underwhelming opponents. However, if Nebraska can protect home court and steal some games in non-conference play, things could come together well.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Cameron Mack (Rs. So.) - 80%
  • SG: Dachon Burke (Rs. Jr.) - 75%
  • SF: Jervay Green (Jr.) - 75%
  • PF: Haanif Cheatham (Rs. Sr.) - 90%
  • C: Yvan Ouedraogo (Fr.) - 60%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

With so much offseason turnover, projecting Nebraska’s lineup heading into this season is brutal. Virtually the entire roster is filled with newcomers. If anyone arrives on campus a little better than we thought, they could easily get into this starting lineup. No spot is absolutely locked down at the moment.

The backcourt figured to be led by three players in Cameron Mack, Dachon Burke, and Jervay Green. Both Mack and Green are JUCO transfers and Burke is a former transfer from Robert Morris. Given their experience, all three project to play early and often for the Huskers this season. None project to be top-tier Big Ten players, but again, they have experience. As such, they will probably lock down the starting spots, at least early on.

Mack is the traditional point guard out of the three, so expect him to lock things down there. Burke and Green should start alongside him. Junior Thorir Thorbjarnarson and freshman Samari Curtis figure to be reserve options. Expect Hoiberg to work all of these players in over the next few weeks to see who takes off.

In the frontcourt, Haanif Cheatham enters this season with more hype than any other Husker. Most expect him to be the team’s star player this season and he should get more than enough opportunities with the attrition elsewhere. It would be pretty surprising if he wasn’t able to lock down a starting spot. Matej Kavs is also a potential option here.

Yvan Ouedraogo is projected by most to grab the starting center spot early on. He’s a true freshman that should have some growing pains, but arrives with some excitement. The various other freshmen should also be able to provide depth here.

Nebraska’s starting lineup entering this season is more than a mystery. Not only does the team have a plethora of new players, but they haven’t played together before. It’s anyone’s guess how things shake out.

9. Team Perspective From Bryce Bennett of BTPowerhouse

“There’s simply too much turnover with the coaching staff and roster for Nebraska to contend towards much of anything this season.

However, here’s why you should still watch and follow them.

This is going to be an interesting team to watch this season. There are so many moving parts and new pieces molding togethers. It could be a disaster, but I think there are going to be some moments where you’ll start to see what Hoiberg wants to build in Lincoln and the buy-in from players. Here’s predicting that the Husker faithful will still be out in full force trying to will this team to some upsets at home.

Ultimately, the story of this season is Hoiberg laying the foundational work to get the Huskers to higher places in the future.”

10. Overall Season Outlook

This has probably come across by now, but previewing this year’s Nebraska team hasn’t been fun. With so many moving parts, it’s really hard to feel confident with any of my projections. This team could end up being good, mediocre, bad, or anywhere in between. It’s genuinely one of those situations where nobody knows what will happen.

Much of this uncertainty comes from the roster turnover. However, it’s also partly because the program is going through a coaching transition as well. Hoiberg had success at Iowa State, but will that carry over in Lincoln? It’s hard to tell, especially with how much the game has evolved since Hoiberg left. His offense is no longer revolutionary. A lot of programs now run what seemed so new when he was at Iowa State.

All told, I went with a relatively underwhelming projection for this group. At the end of the day, while Nebraska is an unknown, most of the team’s new pieces are not highly regarded. This is a lot of players that went the JUCO route and/or weren’t elite prospects. It’s hard to win in a league as tough as the Big Ten with that recipe.

Perhaps this is one of those situations where the pieces come together and form something greater than themselves. However, on paper, this looks like a bottom end Big Ten team. It will be interesting to see what Hoiberg can do in his new home.

Big Ten Prediction: 13th Place