LINCOLN — This is what it’s supposed to look like.
Glynn Watson initiates at the point and dribbles toward James Palmer, who clears out through the baseline. Isaac Copeland replaces Watson at the top of the key and gets a pass. Palmer finds Isaiah Roby’s man on the opposite wing and hits him hard with a screen. Roby cuts backdoor and Copeland finds him. Roby catches and finishes in one smooth motion, and Nebraska extends its lead over Wayne State to 18.
Crisp. Clean. Easy.
This is what Nebraska looks like when everything works according to plan. That’s the key, because the plan this year is one of Nebraska’s most ambitious. And yet, achievable.
For the first time in Tim Miles’ tenure, Nebraska looks like a team that could make a run in the NCAA tournament.
The 2014-15 team — the one after Nebraska’s first NCAA tournament bid in more than a decade — was riddled with internal issues, as Miles has pointed out time and time again.
This team isn’t. It’s composed of Miles’ guys, handpicked from the transfer market and high schools across the country, and filled top to bottom with talent.
The question, though, is: Will it work? Will it finally pay off?
Though the pressure on the program is light in November, the monkey on Nebraska’s back will get heavier and heavier with each passing month. The only Power Five program without an NCAA tournament win is still chasing that white whale.
Miles is in his seventh season and very much aware of Nebraska’s history. And Athletic Director Bill Moos already laid out the parameters. That was clear when Moos opted to extend Miles’ contract just one season.
Moos wants a repeat of last year’s 22-win season.
“I have every reason to believe we can,” Moos said in October. “We’re going to face a little different challenge this year. Across the board, people with knowledge of the Big Ten are picking us to finish in the top four or five of the league. I’m curious to see how we handle that.”
An NCAA bid isn’t required for Moos to keep Miles, he said. He’ll judge the season based on conference wins and the record.
“How we compete within the Big Ten is what I really use as a gauge,” Moos said. “If we can come back and win 13 again, that’s pretty good. If we can do that two years in a row, I’m quite pleased with that.”
If there’s a team Miles can form into a dangerous Big Ten threat, it’s this one. That’s why NU was No. 25 in the preseason coaches poll, and why analysts like BTN’s Andy Katz are projecting Nebraska to be as high as a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
And any Big Ten team would take returning starters Palmer, Copeland, Roby and Watson, Miles says.
Palmer gets most of the spotlight, even if he doesn’t necessarily want it. The senior led NU with 17.2 points per game, 4.4 rebounds and three assists a year ago, earning All-Big Ten first-team honors. He’s preseason All-Big Ten, and should his jumper improve, Miles said, he could be truly special.
Palmer is joined in the backcourt by Watson, who’s been through the ringer in his four years. Since arriving on campus, he’s seen his role change and adapt. Now the once-scrawny freshman will be tasked with managing egos on the floor and keeping the Nebraska ship afloat.
“Those guards they’ve got are as good as anybody in the country, much less the Big Ten,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said at Big Ten media day. “I love what (Miles has) done and I think he’s got a good, good team this year.”
In the frontcourt, Nebraska rolls out Roby and Copeland, two potential NBA draft picks who can play forward and center.
Roby put up a double-double in the exhibition (12 points, 10 rebounds). And Copeland, a former five-star recruit, is playing as well as Miles has ever seen him. The two create matchup nightmares for coaches, on offense and defense.
“The versatility, those two guys create a lot of matchup problems,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “I think adding those two pieces and the emergence of Roby, and him playing center, it just gives them a look, it’s matchup problems all over the place.”
The question mark around this team is the bench. Fifth starter Thomas Allen will be Nebraska’s best chance for a 40 percent 3-point shooter, which Miles needs to spread out on the offensive end.
Sophomore Nana Akenten, freshman Amir Harris and senior forward Tanner Borchardt will see backup duty, and all appear to have taken steps to be productive.
But the bulk of Nebraska’s production this season will likely come from the Fab Four, as Miles calls them. And much like the Fab Five Michigan teams in the early 1990s, there’s only so much time to cash in on the talent you have.
Which is why for Nebraska — and Miles — the time is now. If Nebraska’s going to get back to the NCAA tournament, it’s with this group. And if the Huskers are ever going to be a threat to make a deep run, it’s now.