Brian McGuire is a sports fanatic who loves all things college sports. He holds a special place in his heart for Cornhuskers ball, feel free to contact him on twitter at @bmac849
Rachel Theriot’s Nebraska career did not end the way fans were hoping for. Prior to last season, the Cornhuskers had been selected for the NCAA Tournament four straight seasons, winning at least one game in two of the past three trips. 2015-16 was supposed to be the fifth straight appearance for head coach Connie Yori’s club. Instead, Nebraska went 18-12, 9-9 in the Big Ten, and was relegated to the NIT for its postseason play.
Theriot, a 6’0” point guard and multi-year starter departs, along with graduate transfer and 2015-16 starting guard Kyndal Clark. If the rest of the top six had returned, the 2016-17 version of the Cornhuskers would have a ton of experience and talent, hoping to begin a new NCAA Tournament streak. Instead, the team is starting fresher than is desired.
Connie Yori resigned as head coach after an investigation into her treatment of players. After the removal of the program’s winningest coach ever, star sophomore Natalie Romeo announced her intentions to transfer. She set the school record for three pointers last season and was the Huskers’ second-leading scorer behind only rising sophomore and former top high school prospect Jessica Shepard. Romeo ended up at Washington, a 2016 Final Four team.
The returning players will have to pick up the slack under new head coach Amy Williams. Shepard is the best of the bunch. She averaged nearly 19 points per game as one of the best freshman in the country, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. At 6-4, Shepard works inside the perimeter so well, getting to the line with ease while averaging 8.6 rebounds per game. She had 10 double-doubles in her 31 games as a rookie player. Shepard was added to this preseason’s All-Big Ten team. The sky's the limit for her, but she won’t be alone in attempting to get Nebraska back into the Big Dance.
Several other contributors return as well, which is a welcome turn for a team that had to replace four out of five starters prior to the 2015-16 season. Though Shepard is the big name, she will be surrounded by capable role players nearly across the board. Sophomore Maddie Simon (6’2” guard) has some starting experience and showed a nice deep shot. Simon is ready for an expanded role in Williams’ speedy system after missing time with injuries last year but will have to clean up a propensity for turnovers. Two others with starting experience in 2015-16 should also see more responsibility as they grow into better players: Jasmine Cincore (junior 5’10” guard) and Allie Havers (senior 6’5” center).
Reserve Rachel Blackburn (sophomore 6’3” forward) was a top-100 recruit out of high school and was a starter for the first portion of the season until injuries and illness forced her to the bench (elevating Havers to a starting role). She showed rock solid defense and a fiery style of play that was the hallmark of Yori-recruited post players. Unfortunately, Blackburn recently underwent knee surgery that will sideline her for the entire 2016-17 season.
Havers, at 6-5, forms a formidable frontline next to Shepard. She averaged more than a block per game and over six rebounds, controlling the paint on the defensive end. As a team, Nebraska may be even more interior oriented this season if it cannot find a replacement gunner for Romeo. Simon leads all returnees in three pointers, having hit a paltry 12 in 2015-16. That responsibility could come down to a slew of three-star recruits, as well as hopeful improvements out of the underclassmen from last year.
Jasmine Cincore (who originally announced her intention to transfer but stayed after Amy Williams was hired) is expected to step into a larger role. The 5’10” junior guard has a hard-driving style of play. While a little rough around the edges, she was possibly the most productive Husker per minute played in 2015-16. Another returning player with starting experience (it seems like most players in 2016-16 ended up having to start a game or two due to illness, injury, or disciplinary actions) is Esther Ramacieri (senior, 5’8” guard).
It is a tough spot for Coach Williams to be entering. The team has just missed the tournament for the first time in five years; it saw its historic coach resign amid turmoil, watched its second-best player leave, and has already lost a key contributor for the season. Still, all eyes are on this team, with many already having the on the radar of teams to watch. Nebraska shot the ball extremely well, shared the ball, played defense within itself and had three borderline stars, and it all wasn’t enough. Shepard will have to carry an even larger burden this season as the immediate leader of the Huskers. Let’s hope the sophomore is up to the task.
|5||Natalie Romeo||Jr (transferred)||5'7"||16||2.9||3.0||4||44||30|
Two other notable losses include the two highest rated recruits in Nebraska’s incoming freshman class. Five guards were originally signed, but only three stuck with the Huskers after the coaching change. Those heading elsewhere were: Mi’Cole Cayton (Cal) and Kathleen Doyle (Iowa).
Four true freshman join the Huskers for 2016-17.
Nicea Eliely - 6’1” guard from Colorado Springs, CO. Reading between the lines in Coach Williams’ comments, she is still pretty raw and will need to make some improvements to see a lot of playing time. She is noted for excellent defense and her recruiting profile considers her a player with “off the charts” potential (also usually code for “raw”). Coach Williams and her staff have enough tall guards ready to roll now that they can afford to spend some time polishing a prospect like Nicea.
Grace Mitchell - 6’2” wing from Wellington, KS. Grace is a long-range scoring threat and excellent ball handler but may have to have to spend a year out of position as the Huskers need depth on the interior to replace Blackburn and Kalenta. If she does play in the post position, expect Coach Williams to creatively find ways to use motion and get her out on the wing to take advantage of her shooting skills, ala Jordan Hooper.
Hannah Whitish - 5’9” point guard from Madison, WI. Hannah comes to a Nebraska roster that is without returning point guard experience. She has an excellent chance to crack the lineup, especially with fellow PG recruit Kathleen Doyle heading elsewhere.
Rylie Cascio Jensen - 5’10” guard from Fremont, NE. A former high school teammate of Jessica Shepard, Rylie was originally committed to play for Coach Williams at the University of South Dakota before seeking her release to go to Nebraska. Jensen was originally prepared to make the roster as a walk-on if necessary, but transfers/attrition did open a scholarship spot for her. Rylie’s best chance at playing time may be in using her versatility to play multiple roles around the perimeter.
Also joining the Huskers will be two transfer players that will sit out (redshirt) the 2016-17 season.
Janay Morton - 5’10” senior guard coming to Nebraska from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota by way of Eastern Michigan University. She was an All-MAC defender and is especially adept at stealing the ball. Her ability to create transition opportunities will likely bode well in Williams’ style of play. Morton is a veteran presence in practices that will be full of young guards and a good insurance policy for 2017-18 in case some of them do not develop as quickly as expected.
Bria Stallworth - 5’6” sophomore guard coming to Nebraska from Chicago, Illinois via University of Massachusetts. Bria is the potential replacement for Natalie Romeo in the scoring column, unfortunately Husker fans will have to wait a year to see her play. Stallworth averaged 13.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 0.9 steals per game as a true freshman at UMass.
It’s first place or bust.. No but in all seriousness the Huskers don’t have an easy road ahead of them. All things considered a season above .500 would probably be considered a win by all parties, and I’m predicting just that. 23-19 should be enough to put the ladies into 4th place in the B1G. The tournament though, is a different story. Expect a deep run helped out by unlikely heroes. Hopefully (fingers crossed).
This quote from Coach Williams is very telling for me.
“Our team sometimes takes itself way too serious,” Williams said. “So we’re trying to get them to lighten up a little bit and have fun.”
Last season started off in a promising way, but things started to unravel noticeably in conference play. At the time, it seemed like injuries were catching up to the Huskers. In hindsight, it felt deeper than that. Strong leadership could have probably halted the downward spiral, but it was not obvious until after the season how dysfunctional things were.
Bottom line: This team lost too much talent to expect them to be a contender in the B1G. Amy Williams has been noted for her ability to get more out of a team than the sum of its parts and she has probably never had as much talent to work with as she has now, so I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Coach Williams also brought her entire coaching staff from USD. While I originally worried about that decision, it may be a good move this season as there won’t be the double whammy of coaches and players getting to know each other at the same time as a coaching staff is getting acquainted.
I will predict a 20-22 win season, a 5th place finish in the B1G and a second-round exit in the NCAA tournament. Shepard will get a nod for All-American and another Husker will be named to the all-conference team (but I have no idea who that will be yet).