When Isaiah Roby committed to Nebraska in 2015, he did so because of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s proximity to his hometown of Dixon, Illinois, along with the prestige of playing for a team in the Big Ten Conference.
Three dramatic years later, he has hopes of taking over the conference.
It’s been a long road for Roby to his junior year at Nebraska. He only received offers from three major conference programs, then struggled in his freshman season. He stayed with the program at a point when many left, and his gamble paid off with a breakout sophomore year that now has him in position to be one of the top players in the conference.
The 6-foot-8-inch forward requested feedback from NBA scouts over the summer and adopted a more serious workout regimen with tougher competition to try to fix some of his weaknesses. Before he officially takes that next step, Roby is hoping to enjoy the fruits of his labors both on and off the court in Lincoln.
Dixon is a small town of just over 15,000 people located in northern Illinois, right off I-88. It’s where Roby grew up along with his four brothers and developed a personality that has been infectious in his new home at Nebraska.
“It’s a smaller town,” Roby said about Dixon. “It instilled values of hard work, dedication and loyalty in me. Small town things.”
In the slightly larger city of Rockford, an hour north of Dixon, Roby and his two biological brothers would reunite with his two stepbrothers — who lived in a different city — at their grandmother’s house nearly every weekend. The five of them competed over nearly everything, and that competition only intensified once his step-brothers began playing sports at a nearby high school that rivaled his.
Despite their competitiveness, their bond helped shape Roby’s youth. He is the second oldest of the five and is the only sibling playing sports on scholarship.
“My brothers have had a huge impact on me,” Roby said. “My brothers were like my best friends.”
Roby had several drastically different options when it came time to choose a college. Along with Nebraska, Roby’s final four options were Creighton, Iowa and Georgia. But Nebraska was the only place he needed to visit.
Shortly before his junior year of high school, he committed to Tim Miles and the Huskers.
“The biggest thing for me was that I felt Nebraska was a place that I could develop well athletically and academically,” Roby said. “They had the most resources and tools for me to get to where I want to be.”
“When I visited Nebraska, I thought it would have more of a big city feel to it. Instead, it felt like a big Dixon to be honest. It was a good spot for me.”
Once Roby got to college, he faced plenty of challenges. In his opinion, the toughest battle to take on was discipline.
“The toughest adjustment, both on and off the court, was the time and demands to be a student-athlete,” Roby said. “You have to be really disciplined in what you choose to do with your time. I had to get in a routine where when I wasn’t on the court. I had to be doing things that help me.”
On the court, it was a slower adjustment. As a freshman, he played just 15 minutes per game and averaged only three shots. Despite his three-point, three-rebound average, there were promising signs from the young freshman.
He had a pair of eight-rebound games against Ohio State and No. 7 Wisconsin, as well as a season-high 10 points in a loss to Michigan. For Roby, his favorite moments came early in conference play, when the Huskers started 2-0 with upset wins at Indiana and Maryland. Roby filled the stat sheet in the latter matchup, finishing with four points, three assists, three steals and two rebounds.
Despite their early success, things fell apart down the road for the Huskers in 2017. They cooled off immediately after their 3-0 start in conference play, going 3-13 the rest of the way. Nebraska ended the season with five straight losses, which was only the beginning of the drama.
Shortly after the season, a mass exodus occurred from Lincoln. Four players left the program, and the ones who stuck around had more questions than answers about what was happening next for the team.
“It was difficult,” Roby said about the 2017 transfers. “You see from the outside that people are wondering what’s going on, and on the inside people are wondering what’s going on too. Nana [Akenten] was coming in that year and was asking me why everybody was leaving and if he should even come to Nebraska. I was thinking the same thing myself.”
“A lot of those guys were my closer friends on the team,” Roby continued. “That made it hard to me. I was pretty close with all of the guys that left that year. It was kind of like losing family members, in a sense.”
With an education in business, Roby equated it to a common occurrence in the professional workplace.
“If a company loses people that have close ties, it’s going to be tough for you to stay with that company. But I’m glad that I decided to stay, and I’m having a great time now.”
The loss of significant players like Ed Morrow Jr. and Michael Jacobson stung for Roby, but one key holdover, point guard Glynn Watson Jr., helped him through the turbulence. Miles and the team also had help from newcomers, including transfers James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland and Duby Okeke, along with freshman Thomas Allen.
“Glynn and I were pretty close before, but both of us staying here brought that together even more,” Roby said. “All the guys that came in after that were really instrumental in turning Nebraska into something we want it to turn into, which is putting Nebraska on the map as a good basketball school.”
The turnaround happened faster than expected. After a slow start with a pair of mid-November losses, the Huskers upset No. 14 Minnesota in December. It set the tone for a historic season in conference play, one in which they tied the program record for conference wins with 13.
While Palmer, Watson and Copeland led the way in scoring, Roby developed into an X-factor that completely flipped the switch for the team once he entered the starting lineup in January. In his first week of starting, he scored 14 points on six-of-seven shooting to help Nebraska upset the future national runner-up Michigan.
As he made more starts, his game continued to grow. After a setback in a win at Wisconsin where he finished with zero points and fouled out, he responded with a career-high 21 points in a win at Minnesota. It was the start of a streak, leading to him finishing with 10 or more points in the final eight games of the season.
Other coaches around the conference also began to take note of the sophomore’s potential.
“With them playing with Roby as a five-man, it is a nightmare for a lot of teams,” Michigan coach John Beilein said about the lineup. “You can do a lot of things. It’s a great way to play when you have a big guy that can play on both the perimeter and inside.”
During his sophomore year, Roby averaged just under nine points and six rebounds per game and helped the Huskers go 22-11. Despite improvements, the season still ended on a sour note. Nebraska lost by 19 to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, and, after being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, the Huskers lost in the first round of the NIT to Mississippi State.
“Last year was kind of weird,” Roby said. “We didn’t start out the way we wanted to, and lost some big games early. Out of nowhere we just started playing really well, we started winning a lot of games in a row, and by the end of the year, we felt we were good enough to be in the tournament.”
Shortly after last season, Roby underwent the NBA Draft’s initial evaluation process, where the league’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee gave him feedback on his skills and weaknesses without him having to formally declare for the draft.
“It was encouraging,” Roby said about the process. “Teams liked the stuff that I have. Especially height, length and athleticism. It was also encouraging because the stuff they want me to work on is all teachable, like cleaning up my offense, shot, ball-handling and strength.”
After he finished his spring semester, Roby went home to Dixon for part of the summer. Unlike previous breaks, he was all business this time. For five weeks he drove 90 minutes to Chicago to work out with trainers and other college basketball players. He had a similar regimen last summer, but it was far less frequent and several weeks shorter.
With his encouraging feedback and a strong summer of training under his belt, Roby is hoping to reach the potential many coaches and analysts have said he can achieve. Along with that goal, he understands he has a different role this season as a team leader.
“I’ve definitely always seen myself as a leader,” Roby said. “The more respect you get, the better they listen to you. That’s when your leadership skills tend to work a little better.”
After seeing how a lack of leadership doomed Nebraska’s 2016-17 season, Roby knows how important it is to be successful. After all, he is a management major, and after his basketball career, he is hoping to enter a field in which he can hold a leadership position.
With the current team, he feels confident that he and the three returning seniors will be strong leaders. According to Roby, Miles has also grown to be more comfortable with the foursome’s role. Since Roby’s freshman year, he said Miles has been more responsive to what they have to say and more open to suggestions.
An impact outside of basketball
In the drama-filled world of college basketball, it can be challenging for some players to focus on other vocations. For Roby, as well as the rest of the team, it comes naturally.
“We don’t have many guys from Lincoln on the team, so it’s cool to reach out to the community and meet some new people,” Roby said.
Roby has spent time getting to know more people in the Lincoln community in his spare time. The junior recently spoke at a local Kiwanis Club meeting and enjoys interacting with kids in the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
In Make-A-Wish, Roby met someone who has profoundly impacted his life, Avery Johnson. Johnson is a young girl from Nebraska who was diagnosed with leukemia, and through the program, Roby learned he was her favorite athlete.
Shortly after, he sent her a video saying her wish to go on a Disney Cruise had been granted. She was invited to a practice last year and shot hoops with him.
“When I met her, her smile and her attitude was contagious,” Roby said. “Even though she was going through such hard times, but they love watching you do what you do, it’s cool to see what kind of impact you have on people’s lives.”
The last time Roby talked with Johnson’s family, her mom informed him that she is cancer-free. He is excited about that news, and hopes to host them at a game this season.
Roby is on the cusp of a potential breakout season for a Nebraska team that has the ability to reach heights never seen before in Lincoln. The Huskers are the only team in a major conference to never win a game in the NCAA Tournament, and everyone on the team wants that to change this year.
A large portion of the offseason spotlight in Lincoln has been pointed at the team’s three seniors, but it just might be the junior from Dixon who makes the difference in what could be a program-changing year for the Huskers.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 edition of The DN.