*Update: The original dek said something about losing the “best player in program history” in reference to Jess Shepard transferring to Notre Dame. It has been edited to reflect a more realistic take on her place in the program. An explanation on how that crazy statement made it to ‘publish’ and a mea culpa to come with the fall season preview article.
The 2016-17 Husker women’s basketball team suffered through one of the worst seasons in program history, finishing 7-22 and 3-13 in the Big Ten. It was a perfect storm as a new coaching staff, young team, most difficult schedule in school history, and a lack of chemistry/cohesion with the star player all combined for epic suckage. I constantly complained in the CN chat room about the fact that “This team should not be this bad.”
There are signs of hope as the late-season Huskers looked nothing like the early-season team that thrashed around on offense and relied on defense to keep games from getting too ugly (not always successfully). By the end of the season this squad was scaring, and sometimes upsetting, ranked teams as the confidence grew and the Williams culture took hold. They played with urgency, made better reads/passes, and got themselves into position for the shot. They also played some tenacious team defense (the Jackrabbit fan in me adores that part).
So, what happened over the summer? Here is your rundown:
- Esther Ramacieri - started at point guard early in the 16-17 season until an injury opened the door for Whitish
- Allie Havers - 6’5” center - started every game in 16-17
Both women were decent players for Nebraska but when you look at the incoming freshmen center and guard, well, I’d take the two youngsters in a heartbeat.
- Riley Cascio-Jensen - 5’10” guard. To South Dakota State (looking for more playing time and a scholarship).
- Jessica Shepard - 6’4” forward. To Notre Dame (better visibility for WNBA draft). She was the Huskers leading scorer and rebounder the past two seasons.
There’s no question that Cascio-Jensen made the right call to transfer. She was a walk-on at Nebraska and, while a decent player, she was going to be buried behind a glut of guard talent. At SDSU, she earns a scholarship and gets to play for a mid-major that consistently makes some noise.
I’m not as worried as most about Shepard’s departure. Yes, she is probably the most talented player Nebraska had, but there was clearly a mismatch. The team began to develop an identity toward the end of the season that just didn’t mesh with her style of play. If Notre Dame can get her to take strength and conditioning seriously, she will terrorize ACC defenses and probably have a nice WNBA career. She might do both anyway.
- Bria Stallworth - 5’6” guard, sophomore. Transferred from UMass where she was a talented scorer as a freshman.
- Janay Morton - 5’10” guard, senior. Transferred from Eastern Michigan. She was a 3rd team all MAC selection and made the all-MAC defensive team in 2016.
Both were on campus last season but had to sit out 16-17. Stallworth will challenge Whitish for the starting point guard position. Morton has started over 90 games and is a well-rounded player. Her experience also makes her a mentor to all the young guards on the Husker roster. She is likely to push Nicea Eliely for the role of lockdown defender in the rotation, or even starting lineup.
Amy Williams hit the recruiting trail hard and brought some top flight talent to the front- and back-court. She likely answered the “Who will fill Shepard’s shoes?” question in the process.
- Kate Cain - 6’5” center. She originally signed with Delaware, but a coaching change at the end of the season caused her to re-open her recruiting. She was rated a top-100 player by most recruiting services and a top-10 post.
- Taylor Kissinger - 6’1” guard/forward. The Minden, NE native and 5-star recruit had a lot of options but chose to become a Cornhusker. She has two older sisters playing college basketball, one at San Diego and one at Creighton. Although listed as a combo player, I expect to see her at guard.
Both Cain and Kissinger averaged 25 points a game for their high school teams during their senior seasons. Offensive production was a glaring weakness for the 16-17 Cornhuskers and both players look like immediate contributors.
Rachel Blackburn - 6’3” forward (starter as a freshman in 2015-16 until illness and injury opened the door for Havers; redshirted 2016-17 after preseason knee surgery). Her game is to make life difficult on defense. She is not a consistent scoring threat, but is an emotional leader on the floor. If she stays healthy, she will be on the floor a lot.
Hannah Whitish - 5’9” point guard. She claimed a starting role after an injury to Ramacieri and proceeded to morph into a legit Big Ten point guard right before our eyes. By the end of the season, she was not only running the offense effectively, but also starting to contribute in the scoring column. She’ll be pushed by Bria Stallworth for the PG spot.
Nicea Eliely - 6’1” guard. Eliely was the only true freshman out of a talented incoming class to claim a starting role from day one. She regularly shut down the other team’s best scorer. She showed an ability to drive and score at times, but her playing time came largely because of lockdown defense. She led the Huskers in steals (46) and blocks (21) last season.
Grace Mitchell - 6’2” forward/guard. While listed as a combo player, all of Mitchell’s playing time last season came at the post. She looks to be a Blackburn clone as a defensive stalwart with limited scoring ability. Coming out of high school, she was noted for her ball-handling and three-point scoring, so perhaps she will develop that side of her game as well.
Maddie Simon - 6’2” guard. The Nebraska native was a highly rated recruit with tantalizing physical tools who has never developed any one part of her game to the point of making me say “Wow”. She doesn’t use her length effectively on perimeter defense, has been turnover-prone on offense, and hasn’t consistently used her three-point shooting ability. That said, she is the player selected to give speeches at various athletic department events and has had two different coaching staffs put her in the early-season starting lineup. She is a leader. Simon played inside a few times last season and showed a knack for being in the right spot for rebounds and being able to make a move with the ball before other players could adjust. When she finds her role on the floor she could really open some eyes.
Darrien Washington - 6’2” forward. Washington has battled injuries throughout most of her time at Nebraska. That could be why she never really stood out to me as more than a body who can be put into the lineup when someone needs a rest. Nebraska is not overflowing with post depth, especially if an injury occurs, so let’s hope she has a healthy season and is able to focus on playing rather than healing.
Jasmine Cincore - 5’10” guard. Cincore had been granted permission to seek a transfer after Connie Yori resigned but Amy Williams convinced her to come back and “Jazz” started most of last season. She probably leads the team in career flagrant fouls (and not just because she’s a senior). She has a hard-driving style that doesn’t translate into many points, but she displays hustle and never-give-up qualities; something that was lacking team-wide for a good chunk of 2016-17.
Emily Wood - 5’5” guard. Wood started her career as a walk-on but has since earned a scholarship. She is versatile and can play most of the perimeter positions, but not likely to push for a starting job. She strikes me as a future head basketball coach somewhere.
Starting lineup. At least one (Cincore) and possibly more (Whitish?) of last year’s starters could lose their spot to a talented group of newcomers.
If Nebraska plays two posts, I see Blackburn and Cain in those spots with Whitish/Stallworth at point and then Eliely/Kissinger at the shooting guard/wing spots. Stallworth could enter the fray for shooting guard if Amy Williams wants both her and Hannah Whitish on the floor. Morton and Cincore could also make a push, especially if senior leadership is a deciding factor. Simon is a wildcard as she could realistically play any position from the two to the four.
Until Cain joined the fold, I fully expected a four-guard lineup for Nebraska in 17-18. Given the number of 6 foot-plus guards Nebraska features, that option is probably still on the table. In that scenario, I see Cain as the starting post over Blackburn with Whitish, Stallworth, Eliely, and Kissinger at guard.
Season preview. I picked this team for a 20-win season last year, totally ignoring obvious signs of the impending trainwreck. The offensive production that was lacking in 16-17 should not be an issue this year and I expect this team to return to .500+. They’ll still probably be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, but Kissinger has the potential to be an immediate star. If this team continues the trajectory they showed at the end of last season, I expect to see better cohesion and defensive effort from the start. The offensive fireworks, if they materialize, will be a welcome sight after watching so many recent Husker teams (all sports - men and women) struggle to put up points.