Barfknecht: Glynn Watson's commitment to Husker basketball nearly brings coach Tim Miles to tears

Glynn Watson told his coach Tim Miles last month that he's ready to take ownership of Nebraska basketball. "That really fired me up about this team," Miles said.

LINCOLN — Glynn Watson’s stern demeanor on the court and quiet nature overall may have created a false impression about the importance of Nebraska basketball to the senior from suburban Chicago.

The grimace that masks his fiery passion for NU also contributed to false information a year ago that he was transferring. It’s true that other schools through back channels wanted the 6-foot, 175-pound guard to consider going elsewhere.

“People were trying to recruit him out from under us," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “It was ruthless, but Glynn hung in there. He’s all in."

Watson said he would have laughed at the message-board hooey spread about him except it wasn’t funny because of the stress the unchecked lies created.

“I never had any thought of leaving. None," he said. “Other players left. Change was happening. But I wasn’t leaving.

“I want to put Nebraska on the map, and I think we’ve got the team to do it. Last year, we know we had a great season and made history for having one of the best records. But none of that matters if you don’t make the NCAA tournament."

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Two offseason interactions with Watson proved his buy-in to Miles, including one that nearly brought the coach to tears.

After spring break ended in late March, the first player in Miles’ office was Watson, who had recently become Nebraska’s 29th 1,000-point scorer.

“He said, ‘Coach, I had an awful year,’" Miles said. “I had to talk him out of that. I had to show him that, yeah, he missed some shots, but his assists were up, his turnovers were down and his steals were right there."

Watson’s dismay stemmed from a 2½-month shooting slump. He finished the season at 34.7 percent overall and 29.1 percent on 3-pointers. Those were down from his sophomore numbers of 41.7 percent and 39.7 percent.

But Nebraska wouldn’t have finished 22-11 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten without Watson, who was third on the team in scoring (10.5 points) and first in assists and steals. Some examples:

» He sparked victories over No. 14 Minnesota and Long Beach State with high-scoring games of 29 and 26 points.

» In a key win over Maryland, he limited Terrapin star guard Anthony Cowan to half his 14-point average on 3 of 13 shooting, and blocked a potential go-ahead shot from Cowan in the final minute.

» Twice in Big Ten road victories, Watson contributed mightily. He had 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals at Northwestern and added 15 points, five assists and strong defense at Wisconsin against guard Brad Davison.

» Don’t forget the final play at home against Illinois. With Nebraska down by two points in the final 10 seconds, Watson singlehandedly broke the Illini full-court press and got the ball to James Palmer for the winning buzzer-beater.

Miles’ other memorable offseason contact with Watson came the day the senior guard, returned to Lincoln for summer school in June.

“He texted me he was back on campus," Miles said. “I said, 'Great. Glad you’re here,' and I sent him a picture of us hugging after a big win. I said, ‘Glynn, this is what it’s all about,’ and he gave me the thumbs up."

About 24 hours later, another text from Watson popped up on Miles’ phone.

“Out of the blue he said, ‘Coach, I’m ready to take ownership of this team and lead us to the NCAA tournament, and farther,’” Miles said. “It almost made me cry because that’s really what all this is about.

“With that mentality — and spontaneously reaching out to express his bone-deep belief in all of us — means everything. That really fired me up about this team."

Miles paused before adding: “The fans don’t know how much Nebraska basketball means to Glynn."

They do now.

Nebraska basketball could mean more to far more people than usual, for a handful of reasons.

Palmer, a first-team All-Big Ten guard, and Copeland, an honorable mention all-conference forward, filed for the NBA draft then decided to return for their senior seasons at Nebraska. Using last season’s stats, that’s 30.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 9.5 free-throw attempts per game back in the fold.

Look for those totals to grow. Palmer is a legitimate Big Ten player of the year candidate. With the work he has put in on shooting 3-pointers, his success rate is bound to go up from 31 percent. Copeland rarely could go through strength and conditioning training last season while recovering from back surgery. His ceiling is intriguing after having a full spring, summer and fall to get in shape.

2. High motivation after an NIT bid

Nebraska matched the second-most victories in school history (22) and broke the school mark for conference wins at 13 while tying for fourth in the 14-team Big Ten. But it wasn’t enough to get an NCAA tournament bid.

The four returning starters — Palmer, Copeland, Watson and junior forward Isaiah Roby — don’t need any reminders in the practice gym to keep them working for far more than another NIT trip.

“We remember, and we all were mad about the situation," Watson said. “But you can’t hang your head too long."

3. The “death" lineup.

That’s how Northwestern coach Chris Collins referred to Nebraska’s “small" lineup — with the 6-foot-6 Palmer at wing, the 6-9 Copeland at forward and the 6-8, 220-pound Roby at center. The length and athleticism of that lineup caused opponents problems in guarding Nebraska and helped the Huskers improve from 345th nationally in 3-point defense to 32nd.

Expect that rangier group to play together a lot again. Under Miles, Nebraska has had its most success in the two seasons it played an open-post offense with a stretch-5 instead of a big-bodied center with his back to the basket, going 19-13 in 2013-14 and 22-11 in 2017-18.

Lee covers Big Ten and Nebraska football, Nebraska basketball and college athletic financial and administrative issues for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @leebeeowh. Phone: 402-444-1024.

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