Huskers have improved but still have a way to go
This preview and more on Nebraska and the Big Ten are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
Nebraska Facts & Figures
Last season: 15-18 (5-13 Big Ten)
Coach: Tim Miles (15-18 at Nebraska)
Big Ten projection: 12th
Postseason projection: None
Selling out a new arena helps. So does the coach, Tim Miles, poaching an assistant coach from Georgetown and paying him $230,000 — the highest salary ever for a Nebraska assistant basketball coach.
Then there’s the Huskers’ schedule, which will include Florida Gulf Coast and Miami among five teams visiting Lincoln that advanced to last year’s Sweet 16.
Yes, folks are talking hoops in Lincoln, which usually isn’t the case when there’s a defensive line to fret about or a budding backup quarterback battle to dissect.
Miles, entering his second season, deserves much of the credit for injecting some life and hope into a program that’s never won an NCAA Tournament game and hasn’t earned an NCAA berth since 1998.
He’s had an assist in this surge of momentum, too, thanks to Nebraska’s move this season to Pinnacle Bank Arena, located in Lincoln’s West Haymarket district. Fans are ecstatic about the move — Nebraska sold out of season tickets in May — but are just as intrigued by a team that will play seven new faces.
There’s one on the bench, too; Miles hired Kenya Hunter, the longest-tenured assistant coach at Georgetown, to replace Ben Johnson, who left for the same job at his alma mater, Minnesota.
Let’s just put it this way: When Miles hit the recruiting trail in July, he made no bones about his biggest need. “We need size in our program,” Miles said. “We need size and athleticism.”
Nebraska’s frontcourt was lacking in depth and athleticism last season, and the two main players from that group — 6-10 Brandon Ubel and 6-11 Andre Almeida — graduated.
What’s a little perplexing is that Miles, who will enter this season with a vacant scholarship, had such a difficult time landing bigs during the late spring period. He did sign junior college forward Leslee Smith, but other recruits went elsewhere, bypassing what surely would’ve been immediate playing time in Lincoln.
Florida transfer Walter Pitchford, a 6-10 forward who sat out last season, greatly improves Nebraska’s athleticism and has decent shooting range. The same can be said of Smith, a 6-8, 250-pound forward and former SMU player. Miles likes Smith’s strength, poise and maturity, and Smith is quick and agile enough to play out of the high post.
Nebraska’s tallest player is 7-1 sophomore Sergej Vucetic, but at only 236 pounds, he still lacks strength.
Nebraska will have plenty more scoring options, which means Ray Gallegos shouldn’t have to carry as much of a scoring burden. He’s the leading returning scorer (12.5 ppg) and led the Big Ten last season in 3-point attempts (271) while shooting them at a mere 30.6-percent clip.
Among the newcomers is Terran Petteway, a 6-6 wing who sat out last season after transferring from Texas Tech. Petteway is athletic, can get to the rim and will be a factor on the boards. He can also play a variety of positions, including point guard.
True freshmen Nick Fuller and Nate Hawkins could provide a scoring punch off the bench. Fuller, in particular, is a 6-6 lefty with a smooth long-range shot. Another true freshman, New Zealand native Tai Webster, could fill Nebraska’s void at point guard.
Sophomore Shavon Shields, perhaps among only one or two locks in the starting lineup, blossomed over the second half of his freshman season.
Most of the hype has centered on Tai Webster, a true freshman point guard from New Zealand, although Terran Petteway, a 6-6 transfer from Texas Tech, could be the biggest difference-maker. Florida transfer Walter Pitchford and junior college transfer Leslee Smith are key frontcourt pieces, and true freshmen Nick Fuller and Nate Hawkins should provide a scoring boost. Redshirt Deverell Biggs will challenge for the starting job at point guard.
Factoid: 9.8. Nebraska averaged only 9.8 assists per game, ranking 332nd in the nation in the category. No NU player averaged more than 2.5 per game.
Nebraska will have vastly improved athleticism, increased depth and considerably more scoring options. That’s reason enough to believe that the Huskers, in their second season under Miles, can improve on last year’s 15–18 record. But can they make a run at postseason play? That depends on how well a group of new, young players can mesh. Miles may have a more athletic squad, but Nebraska still lacks the size and strength needed to compete day-in and day-out in the bruising Big Ten. That’s why the Huskers will finish in the lower half of the league again — although they’ll be a far cry from the pushover many Big Ten teams have come to expect.