INDIANAPOLIS — Nebraska coach Amy Williams has always looked forward to March.
The basketball is better; the stakes are higher; the emotions run deeper. But the ambiance loses its luster when Williams watches from her couch instead of the sidelines.
“It’s not quite as enjoyable,” Williams said at last week’s Big Ten media day. “March Madness has been a special time of year that I get excited for, but it’s so much more enjoyable to be a part of that and be experiencing that firsthand. So that’s something that we’re on a mission to make sure we’re there.”
Williams thinks the Huskers have the pieces to fulfill their mission this season. Nebraska returns 11 players from last season’s NIT quarterfinalist, which makes this the most experienced team she’s coached.
With that experience comes chemistry. Williams has facilitated togetherness by starting book clubs across the roster. Each class reads a different book, and each discussion group is overseen by a different coach. Williams leads the freshmen, who are reading “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon.
“I think that book sets the foundation,” Williams said. “We know how important it’s going to be that those guys bring energy for us every day. We’ve noticed they have a natural energy about them.”
Williams likes the energy in her locker room. She hears the Huskers’ mantra, “compete and connect,” from coaches and players, which she believes is the hallmark of a team turning the corner. Players see lots of “fight” in practice, which Williams deemed the Huskers’ most important attribute during last week’s press conference in Lincoln.
“When the going gets tough in a game,” Williams said Thursday, “it’s the tough really kind of elevate and rise to the occasion.”
Nebraska’s vigor could make the difference, especially considering how close the Huskers came last season. Junior guard Sam Haiby said the Huskers were “one or two more wins” from cracking the tournament field. Sophomore Isabelle Bourne cited Nebraska’s four wins over ranked opponents.
“But we didn’t win enough of the winnable games,” Bourne said. “I think that kind of hurt us.”
As a result, Nebraska watched the tournament from home. The Huskers knew they could compete in most of the games on their televisions, knowing that Haiby, the team’s MVP and a second-team All-Big Ten guard, could keep them close in any game.
“We were right there,” Haiby said. “You could watch it, and you’re like, ‘This could be us.’”
Now Haiby can see her time at Nebraska creeping to a close. She led the Huskers in points and assists last season, but the numbers lost meaning when they didn’t lead the Huskers onto the biggest stage.
As Haiby eclipses the halfway point in her career, that’s the standard. Awards and stats don’t stir her. If she can’t lead Nebraska back to the dance, Haiby can’t consider her time in Lincoln a success.
“No,” Haiby said. “Definitely not. I think everyone’s goal is to make the tournament. I mean, there’s been some pretty cool accomplishments and accolades, but to have the ultimate success, you want to make the NCAA tournament.”