s-womensbballpreview

Amy Williams walks off the court with the Husker women's basketball team after winning over Illinois on Feb. 1, 2018, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Two years ago, Nebraska women’s basketball had one of their worst seasons ever. Now, the Huskers are Big Ten contenders and poised to make an NCAA Tournament run.

Nebraska finished with a 21-11 overall record, went 11-5 in conference play and made its fifth NCAA tournament appearance under then second-year head coach Amy Williams.

Though they were bounced early, Williams continues to lead the turnaround for the Huskers. Williams has done well so far in filling the shoes left by longtime Nebraska head coach Connie Yori.

After a lackluster first season, Williams won Big Ten Coach of the Year in her second season with a massive 14-win improvement.

This season, the Huskers return five of six players who played over 20 minutes a game. The Huskers are led by 5-foot-9 junior guard Hannah Whitish, who led the backcourt in assists and points last year. Whitish already made the preseason All-Big team and knows how to run Williams’ offense to its full potential.

“It’s obvious that Hannah Whitish has been someone that stepped up as our 2nd team all conference player,” Williams said at Big Ten Media Days. “I can’t say what those two (Maddie Simon and Whitish) have done enough of to show great leadership.”

The only four-year Husker, senior power forward Maddie Simon, has been able to adapt like the program has. Simon averaged 10 points per game while adjusting to her new position at power forward last season. Other improvements include rebounding well, being reliable at the free-throw line and at times shooting from three.

“This offseason was a lot better for me, just being adjusted to playing power forward,” Simon said at Big Ten Media Days. “I have a lot of great coaches that were able to just have self-confidence in me and really be able to work.“

Other players returning in the backcourt include juniors Nicea Eliely and Grace Mitchell and sophomore Taylor Kissinger. Eliely is a three-year starter and won the Nebraska Defensive MVP award last season. Eliely averaged eight points a game, but free throws remained a problem as she only shot 59 percent from the free-throw line.

Mitchell and Kissinger bring depth to the Huskers, as both can play guard and forward positions. Though Mitchell didn’t play much, the youth on the bench will launch her into a bigger role this year. Kissinger, who played 21 minutes a game, was a spark off the bench last year, as she averaged 10 points per game. This year, Kissinger should be in this same role, as her efficient shooting can lead a rally when the Huskers face a deficit.

In the frontcourt, Nebraska returns senior Maddie Simon and sophomore Kate Cain. Cain will be the only center again this year for the Huskers. The Middleton, New York native played well last season and was named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team by dominating the paint with 100 blocks. Standing at 6-foot-5, her defense has been good, but the offense isn’t all there yet. This is seen with Cain’s free throw struggles, shooting only 42.9 percent, which could reduce her playing time at the end of close games.

"Kate has made visible strides this offseason and is playing with much more confidence," Coach Williams said on Huskers.com. "We are so excited to watch as Kate continues to tap into her abilities. We believe she can be a real weapon at both ends of the court in our program."

Nebraska’s 2018 recruiting class hopes to supplement the Huskers’ strong returning lineup.

The Huskers’ highest-ranked recruit was Ashtyn Veerbeek, ranked No. 69 on ESPN’s Top 100 women basketball recruits. A 4-star recruit from Iowa, Veerbeek is expected to be a day one contributor. Though Veerbeek may not start right away, she will be an important bench presence for the Huskers as her strength and agility allow her to play multiple positions.

Other incoming freshman include Leigha Brown, Sam Haiby and Kayla Mershon. All were three-star recruits but should see some minutes every night, as the three provide more depth at the guard and forward spots.

“The best thing about our incoming players is just that they are extremely hard workers,” Williams said. “They certainly kind of understand the culture we’re trying to build.”

Though the freshmen will be providing depth, the Huskers’ biggest acquisition was graduate transfer Kristian Hudson from Florida International University. She is expected to play in the spot left by Jasmine Cincore’s graduation.

At FIU, Hudson was able to shine on a struggling team, averaging 14.5 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.

Nebraska finished third in Big Ten play last season, but other top Big Ten teams bring back similar amounts of production. Nebraska’s first four conference games could determine how well they do in conference play. From Dec. 28 to Jan. 8, Nebraska will play Michigan and Maryland at home and Ohio State and Iowa on the road. All four teams made the NCAA tournament last year and return key players.

In out-of-conference play, the Huskers toughest matchup will be against the Louisville Cardinals in Louisville, Kentucky. Last year, the Cardinals made the Final Four and would be a marquee win for the Huskers.

“We certainly don’t want that turnaround from one year ago to be the end of our story,” Williams said. “We certainly are ready to take further steps forward, and we certainly know that it’ll be harder and people are going to be marking us on the calendar.”

sports@dailynebraskan.com