The dress rehearsals are over. For the first time this fall, Tim Miles and the new Husker roster will step on the court for real as Nebraska hosts Eastern Illinois at Pinnacle Bank Arena at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re excited to finally get going and let these games count for real,” Miles said. “We’ve been undefeated long enough; hopefully we can keep it going obviously for as long as we can. I think the guys are itching for a game, they’re itching to compete and I know that I am too.”
With Nebraska wrapping up the preseason 3-0 – including two exhibition wins over Mississippi State and Division II Northwood (Mich.), and a closed scrimmage win over Iowa State – the Huskers bring momentum into their first contest.
“It’s crazy because I feel like we’re undefeated, 3-0,” senior captain Evan Taylor said. “But now it’s really for real. None of that really matters anymore. That was just kind of a pump up/warm up. As long as you prepare the same and keep the same mentality, I think the rest will take care of itself.”
Eastern Illinois, coached by former Husker assistant’s (Charlie Spoonhour) son, Jay Spoonhour, showed promise in its preseason, as well, beating Illinois 80-67 in an exhibition on November 3rd.
“I found out the night it happened,” Taylor said. “Somebody on our team put it in the group chat and they were like ‘That’s our first game.’ That kind of just sparked it for me, personally. Every game obviously you have to respect your opponent, but they come in here with some confidence already beating a Big Ten school. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Despite the impressive win over Illinois, Eastern Illinois fell 95-92 this Monday against Southern Indiana. However, averaging 86 points per game in the preseason proves that the Panthers can put points on the board.
Eastern Illinois is led by a strong backcourt of Jujuan Starks and Montell Goodwin. In their two preseason games, Starks leads the team with 18 ppg, followed by Goodwin at 15.5 ppg.
“I think Eastern Illinois has got a team that’s got a chance to do well in the Ohio Valley. When I say well, I mean very well, and that’s an excellent league. The Ohio Valley has teams that win in the NCAA on a regular basis.” Miles said. “This is the type of opponent we love when scheduling. We’re playing at home and they’re a good team, they’ve got a chance to beat you. Now, that scares the crap out of you, which is good if you don’t mind not sleeping.”
The Huskers will have a full roster for their home opener as Miles expects Glynn Watson Jr. (knee), Isaiah Roby (finger) and Anton Gill (knee/groin) are all expected to be healthy. The three all sat out Tuesday’s exhibition against Northwood.
“I would expect that Glynn and Isaiah Roby have injuries that will go away in time,” Miles said. “We’re going to have to manage Anton, there’s no doubt about it. The injury [last December] was just too severe. It’s not one of those things you just expect to disappear.”
After losing Tai Webster as a graduate and Ed Morrow, Michael Jacobson, Jeriah Horne and Nick Fuller to transfer, the Huskers will feature several new faces this season.
This preseason, Miami transfer and junior James Palmer Jr. has led the Huskers with 22.0 ppg on 60 percent shooting, including a 27-point performance in Tuesday’s win over Northwood.
Junior Isaac Copeland and senior Duby Okeke join Palmer as transfers looking to make their debut Saturday night. Copeland, Nebraska’s first five-star recruit, is approaching his 50th career start after spending two seasons at Georgetown. Okeke, Winthrop’s all-time blocks leader, has come off the bench behind sophomore Jordy Tshimanga.
Freshman Thomas Allen, Nana Akenten and Thorir Thorbjarnarson are also all available Saturday to make their Husker debuts. Allen, who started in place of the injured Watson on Tuesday, tallied 18 points on 5-of-7 shooting and four assists in 31 minutes against Northwood.
During the preseason, Akenten and Thorbjarnarson have been given limited minutes, which led to redshirt discussions for the two freshmen.
“I have talked to both young guys and they’ve indicated to me that they want to play, so we’re going to let them play,” Miles said. “I’ve had it work all kinds of ways. I’ve had kids say ‘I want to redshirt’ and four games into it they haven’t played and they’re like ‘I’ve got to play,’ and so we play them. I’ve had kids that started out ‘I’m not going to redshirt,’ didn’t play for four games and said ‘How about if I redshirt?’ So it’s a decision we don’t have to make immediately but at this point everybody’s available to play.”
In addition to the newcomers, Watson headlines the players returning as the leading returning scorer for NU, averaging 13.0 ppg – a five-point improvement on his freshman season. The two-year starter also finished third in the Big Ten in steals last season to round out a complete player that Miles considers “All-Big Ten-caliber.”
Nebraska looks to build on its current 16-game winning streak in season openers when Eastern Illinois comes to Lincoln Saturday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Fans can watch the game on BTN Plus or on radio via the IMG Husker Sports Network.
— Pinnacle Bank Arena will be hosting Toys for Tots day prior to Saturday’s game. U.S. Marines will be collecting toys for children at the game so fans can bring toys to the game for the cause. In addition, cash donations will be accepted.