Nebraska is the only power-conference school without an NCAA Tournament victory in its history and is coming off its worst season in five years under Tim Miles, but an unusual influx of talent has many around Lincoln believing the 2017-18 campaign could be the kind that turns the program around. The new-look Cornhuskers take their first shot at living up to increased expectations Saturday when they host Eastern Illinois in the season opener for both schools.
Miles’ job security - not to mention the outlook for Nebraska basketball in general - was on shaky ground in the wake of a 12-win season in 2016-17 immediately following the graduation of do-everything guard Tai Webster and four other players transferring to other schools. Three incoming transfers with NCAA Tournament experience - James Palmer Jr. (Miami), Duby Okeke (Winthrop) and Isaac Copeland (Georgetown) - have quickly created a favorable impression in their new home, however, and they will be counted upon to complement junior playmaker Glynn Watson Jr. “I really like where this team is mentally and physically. We’re going to be a lot better. I think we can make a charge,” Miles recently told the Omaha World-Herald. The Panthers, who defeated Missouri in their only game against a power-conference school last season, are predicted to finish sixth in the Ohio Valley Conference despite returning four senior starters from last year’s 14-15 squad.
TV: 8:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network Plus
ABOUT EASTERN ILLINOIS (2016-17: 14-15): Montell Goodwin (14.3 points) is the Panthers’ top returning scorer and ranked 10th in the OVC in 3-point field goal percentage (39.1) last season; the 6-2 guard enjoyed one of the finest games last season when he buried four triples and scored 22 points against Missouri. Muusa Dama (conference-best marks with 9.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks last season) collected 269 rebounds and anchors the defense for Eastern Illinois after setting a single-season school record with 61 blocked shots. Another senior, 5-7 guard Terrell Lewis (10.3 points, 4.7 assists), enters his final season as the school’s all-time assist leader with 463; he led the OVC in assist-to-turnover ratio in 2016-17 at 2.72.
ABOUT NEBRASKA (2016-17: 12-19): Miles has repeatedly said he believes Watson (13 points per game, 1.6 steals) is capable of being an All-Big Ten first-team performer, meaning the 6-foot point guard will be instrumental in leading the up-tempo offense the Cornhuskers plan on using this season. Of the aforementioned newcomers, Palmer and Copeland are expected to begin the season as starters; Palmer - a 6-6, 210-pound junior guard - has led Nebraska in scoring in its first two preseason outings, including an exhibition victory over Mississippi State and a closed-scrimmage win against Iowa State. The 6-9, 221-pound Copeland averaged 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds with the Hoyas as a sophomore in 2015-16 before back surgery ended his season last year with Georgetown after only seven games.
1. Okeke rejected 165 shots in three seasons at Winthrop - a total that would rank him fourth on Nebraska’s all-time list (since 1978).
2. The Panthers knocked off Illinois 80-67 in their exhibition opener on Nov. 3 before surrendering 16 3-pointers in a 95-92 loss to Southern Indiana three days later.
3. The Cornhuskers ranked 345th out of 347 Division I teams last year in 3-point percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 39.9 percent beyond the arc.
PREDICTION: Nebraska 87, Eastern Illinois 72