Nebraska 18-19 Preview

If I'm Tim Miles, I'm answering every call from my agent. This started in the summer of 2016, when then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst opted not to extend Miles' deal for at least another season, which would have kept the balance at an industry-standard five years. The reason that's industry standard is that's a message that resonates with recruits—"I'll be the coach while you're in college, I've got a contract right here that says so."

Contracts can, and frequently are, terminated all of the time. The real number in a coach's contract is the amount of money the school owes the coach  (the "buyout") in the event he is terminated without cause, which is the reason most coaches are fired (also known as "losing too many games"). But I'm guessing that—in the context of winning the living room—explaining termination provisions and the leverage held by virtue of buyout provisions is not as clear cut as pointing to the number of years remaining. So, most coaches have five or more years.

But Eichorst opted not to do that. I guess that's understandable because Miles just finished his 4th season, wherein the team went 16-18. The Cornhuskers were two years removed from an NCAA Tournament appearance, however, which is a rare feat in Lincoln. The next season was a disappointing one, in no small part because of the surprising transfer of Andrew White to Syracuse. The Huskers finished 12-19, and in lieu of any contract extension, Eichorst offered a tweet.

Presumably because of football, Eichorst was fired in the fall of 2017. His replacement, Bill Moos, claimed to be consumed by football for those first few months, and declined to give any kind of endorsement to Miles during the 17-18 season.

It was a good season. For my part, I expected Nebraska to finish near the bottom of the conference, and instead the Huskers went 13-5. Unfortunately, it was the (rare) kind of 13-5 in that did not land them in the NCAA Tournament. Still, 22-win seasons do not grow on figurative trees in Lincoln, so one would expect that—at long last—a significant contract extension was incoming to at least put Miles back on the "standard 5 years" track.

Nope. To save you a click, Moos granted Miles a one-year extension, tantamount to declaring the 22-win season created no increase in confidence that Miles is the right coach at Nebraska than immediately prior to said 22-win season. By the way, here's the entire list of seasons in which Nebraska has won at least 22 games (since World War II, and that's probably the same as "ever"):

  • 2017-18
  • 1990-91 (26 wins)
  • 1982-83 (22)
  • 1977-78 (22)

That's it. I get that wins are not the be-all measure of success, but they definitely carry a lot of weight when it comes to evaluating coaching performance. Miles did something that only 3 prior coaches had done at his school. He also has an NCAA Tournament appearance on his resume in Lincoln, which had only happened 6 times prior to 2014. This is not an easy place to win. Nebraska has never won an NCAA Tournament game (only power conference school without a win). The team has not won a conference championship since 1950, when it was a part of the Big Seven.

For three seasons, Miles has been coaching with one hand behind his back, constantly having to answer questions about his job security, and offering excuses and explanations to recruits about the length of his deal. At Nebraska. He lost an assistant coach to Connecticut, which led to losing a point guard recruit in the 2018 class. The situation is almost surely having real impacts on the program. And yet,

Moos knows the lay of the land in recruiting and hiring, and how others might try to frame Nebraska’s situation.“But there should be a lot of talented people wanting to be at Nebraska, especially with how we have things moving now,’’ he said. “I’m confident in what lies ahead.’’
sorry for the language, kids

Here's the thing—it costs zero dollars for Moos to give Miles 5 seasons. As stated above, the buyout is the buyout. Under his current deal, Miles receives $105,000 per month for each month remaining. Further, there's a mitigation clause if Miles is hired by another school. So, at a maximum, we're talking about $3M or so, which is frankly peanuts by buyout standards. Miles could sign a 5-year deal with a flat buyout of $3M, and it would not cost Nebraska another dime to terminate him. But it would help Miles recruit players and assistants.

The only rationale I can come up with for these games with the term of the contract is that Bill Moos wants to fire Tim Miles, but understands that firing a coach fresh off a 22-win season at Nebraska is not great marketing to attract the next coach. Who wants to go into a situation like that? So instead, Moos is using tools at his disposal to try and undermine Miles. He wants to sink recruiting efforts and deplete the talent on his staff. Thankfully, due to expanded conference schedules, the Gavitt Games, and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, there isn't a lot of room for Moos to mess with the non-conference scheduling. I suspect Miles might have found himself playing in Tempe in December were that not the case.

I'm almost 1,000 words into this, and have barely talked about basketball at all, so I'll wrap this up quickly. My hope for this season is that Miles is wildly successful, signs a big contract somewhere else, and tweets out "bye felicia" before the ink is dry. He's too nice of a guy to do that last thing, and maybe likes Nebraska too much to leave it, but I do think they can be quite good this year.

Why? Well, for one, that endless cycle of "recruit impact transfer, watch him leave early" seems to have stopped. James Palmer Jr., a shortlist candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, is back for his senior season (if Palmer did not walk into Miles' office on April 1st to falsely inform coach of his intentions to transfer, he missed a real opportunity). Palmer can score from anywhere on the floor (though his outside shot was streaky), was the team's best distributor, and his defense was rated in the 88th percentile of Division I by Synergy Sports. Underestimate him at your own peril. He'll be joined by fellow seniors Isaac Copeland and Glynn Watson. Copeland—another transfer that stuck around—found the outside shot that had eluded him at Georgetown, connecting on 43 percent of his 3s in conference play. Watson is the rare 4-year player for Nebraska, and an excellent on-ball defender, but his offense took a concerning step back last year. He finished two pointers at just 32 percent, and made just 29 percent of his 3s. This is a guy that shot 86 percent from the free throw line, who had a better team around him than he did as a sophomore. It seems hard to fathom anything other than a bounceback season from him.

That brings us to Isaiah Roby, who enters the season with NBA draft buzz, and for good reason.  Last year he shot over 60 percent on 2s and over 40 percent on 3s, and got to the free throw line a ton (he led the Big Ten in free throw rate). Moreover, he played better in conference play. Defensively he's already a plus shotblocker, and his long arms and quickness allow him to disrupt passing lanes. Miles started using Roby at the 5 last year, and that means Nebraska has a 5-man that can create a turnover on one end and then run the fast break to a finish at the other. He's a hard matchup, for sure.

via Gfycat

If Roby does play well enough to go to the draft, he'll have to consume more possessions—4th options that don't play for the likes of Duke or Kentucky rarely get invited to the green room—but such a season would be welcome news for Nebraska. Frankly, this is the make-or-break season for Tim Miles. Palmer, Copeland, and Watson are all seniors, and Roby is a flight risk. Losing all four all but ensures a rebuilding season, which will undoubtedly be enough for Moos' hair trigger, absent a very large buyout penalty. Keep in mind, the AD was recently quoted that Miles needs "to come back and win 22 again this year," but softened that statement with a "that's not necessarily a mandate." Given the historical context for winning 22 games at Nebraska, that's rather icy.

Thus, expect all stops to be pulled out. Redshirts figure to be scarce, and I would not assume a very long leash for younger players that are prone to poor decisions. Miles is (again) coaching for his job this year, and maybe his next one as well. After all, if Miles guides this team to say, a second weekend NCAA Tournament game, he's going to be a popular name among coaching vacancies in power conferences. Were it me, and given the past 3 seasons, I'd be wearing out FlightAware.com.

So however the season turns out, it may be Miles' last in Lincoln. I hope it's a good one.