LINCOLN — Those who claim Nebraska doesn’t have many quality wins entering this week’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament likely have forgotten one of the season’s biggest victories.
It happened on Sept. 12, and that’s not a typo.
Two months before the season, the NCAA approved NU’s appeal for Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland to become immediately eligible for 2017-18, allowing the Huskers’ first five-star recruit to play in all games instead of sitting out 11 first-semester contests.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles on Tuesday didn’t even want to consider what this season would have been like if the 6-foot-9, 221-pound junior forward hadn’t been able to play until Dec. 16 against Kansas.
Miles preferred to focus on now.
“It’s been so much fun watching him get better,” the coach said. “Look at his numbers.”
Over the first 20 games, Copeland averaged 12.3 points while shooting 45.6 percent overall and 28.1 percent on 3-pointers. In the past 11 games, he has averaged 14.6 points while shooting 53.2 percent and 51.2 percent.
Copeland’s surge down the stretch earned him honorable mention All-Big Ten this week. He is 21st in scoring (13.2 points) and 14th in rebounding (6.3).
Before the season, Miles predicted Copeland would be first or second on the team in scoring and a top-three rebounder. He heads to New York and Friday’s 1:30 p.m. quarterfinal game second in scoring and first in rebounding for NU.
“Isaac just keeps getting better,” Miles said. “He’s playing freer and with more confidence and more aggressively.”
Two reasons stand out for why the granting of Copeland’s appeal was such a win.
First, it allowed Nebraska to play its preferred lineup from the first game. Second, Copeland needed all the playing time he could get to knock off the rust.
His final game at Georgetown was Dec. 4, 2016. He played a scoreless five minutes against Elon before shutting down for the season to deal with an injured back.
Copeland, who as a freshman made the Big East All-Rookie team, transferred to Nebraska in January 2017 and went on a core-strengthening regimen before he could have surgery for a herniated disk on Feb. 23, 2017.
What followed were months of rehab and very little court time.
“He did a lot of tedious work,” Miles said. “You see the kid over there doing bridges and side bridges for like half an hour.”
Copeland started the season slowly with games of eight, eight and five points, then he hung 30 on North Dakota. His production remained spotty through Christmas, though his potential was seen in games in which he totaled 20 points and 11 rebounds (Creighton) and 15 points and eight rebounds (Boston College).
“Just knowing Isaac’s reputation and seeing him when he was healthy, we knew he could make plays against high-level athletes if we could get him healthy again,” Miles said. “And in our system, he would flourish.”
As the back soreness has subsided, Copeland’s production and consistency have grown.
He has posted two 23-point games and three 17-pointers over the past 11, and has had seven or more rebounds five times.
Copeland’s attention to detail as a player has led Miles to coach a bit differently.
“Isaac is very particular and certain in learning, which is not my deal,” Miles said. “He wants things down to the smallest detail, which has been good for me. When he’s got it, he does it perfectly.
“Early in the year, there was an adjustment between him and I because I’m a little looser. But it has turned out great.”