College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 11 Nebraska ended a 16-year NCAA Tournament drought last season, but the Cornhuskers return enough firepower to contend for more. Tim Miles has built a program ready to contend in the Big Ten — a league in which many of the usual contenders are in a state of transition.
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Never mind that Nebraska, led by co-Big Ten Coach of the Year Tim Miles, is coming off its most celebrated season in more than 20 years. Junior guard Terran Petteway, who averaged 18.1 points to lead the Big Ten in scoring, wants more after the Huskers fizzled with first-round losses in the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
“The way we finished last year, we don’t want that taste in our mouth,” says Petteway, one of four returning starters for a Nebraska team that finished 19–13. “This year, we’re trying to win the Big Ten. We’re not trying to come in fourth, we’re not trying to come in third. We want to win it.”
That’s with all due respect to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, teams Petteway says “are going to be pretty good.”
Unlike previous seasons, those teams won’t be looking past Nebraska. Not after the Huskers, picked to finish last in the Big Ten, pulled a few upsets, gained steam late and finished a surprising 11–7 — good for fourth place.
“The little stretch we went on last year, I think everybody took notice of that,” Petteway says. “This year, it’s not going to be, ‘Oh, Nebraska’s coming, whoopty-doo.’ People are going to be preparing for us. We can’t be no one-hit wonder. We got to make a name for ourselves. This second year is going to be big, because we’re not going to sneak up on nobody. Everybody’s going to be ready for us now.”
No. 11 Nebraska Cornhuskers Facts & Figures
Last season: 18-13 overall, 11-7 Big Ten
Postseason: Round of 64
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Coach: Tim Miles (34-32 overall at Nebraska, 16-20 Big Ten)
Big Ten Projection: Second
Postseason Projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Void of depth in the post last season, Nebraska signed fifth-year senior transfer Moses Abraham (who went by Moses Ayegba during his career at Georgetown). The 6-9, 247-pound Abraham is a physical veteran presence inside who may not add much offensively but can rebound, block shots and, in general, be that rim protector the Huskers have sorely missed.
Only now, Abraham, who averaged a mere 13.1 minutes last season, will need to prepare himself for a heavier workload as Nebraska deals with the loss of senior forward Leslee Smith, who suffered an ACL tear July 3 playing for his native British Virgin Islands team in the FIBA Caribbean Championships. It’s uncertain when or if Smith, the Huskers’ first post player off the bench, will return, but it could mean true freshman center Jake Hammond may have to nix plans to redshirt.
Nebraska does return 6-10 junior Walter Pitchford, who started inside last season but is anything but a traditional big man. More of a stretch-4, Pitchford shot a team-best 41 percent on 3-pointers last season. Redshirt freshman Nick Fuller, a 6-6 forward, is a left-handed shooter with range who could also crack the rotation.
Petteway figures to become Nebraska’s first NBA Draft pick since Venson Hamilton in 1999. Whether that happens this season or next isn’t of concern now to Petteway, who’s concentrating more on improving his game and helping the Huskers win their first NCAA Tournament game in school history. Petteway made a living getting to the rim and scoring in transition, but he needs to shore up his perimeter shooting and, most important, reverse a rather unsightly 52-to-88 assist-to-turnover stat line.
Junior Shavon Shields, with a game very similar to Petteway’s, gives Nebraska a strong one-two punch on the wing. Coaches are counting on a much-improved Tai Webster at guard after the sophomore lost confidence and tailed off down the stretch of a freshman season that didn’t meet lofty expectations. And don’t underestimate the importance of junior Benny Parker off the bench. The diminutive Parker, while not known for his offense, can spark his team with defensive intensity and his ability to move the ball in transition.
Nebraska ended its NCAA Tournament drought — which had dated to 1998 — when many least expected it. The Huskers lose only one main contributor, guard Ray Gallegos, and boast a headline player in Petteway. While these Huskers won’t sneak up on Big Ten teams like they did last season, they have enough scoring options, a salty enough defense and a savvy enough coach to continue their momentum in a league dotted with question marks after the first four or five teams. Anything less than an upper-half finish would be a disappointing step backward, with another top-four finish the ultimate goal in Miles’ third season.
Georgetown fifth-year transfer Moses Abraham and his 7-4 wing span should help improve Nebraska’s rim protection. True freshman Jake Hammond, a 6-10, 227-pound center, had planned on redshirting to increase his weight and strength, but the injury to Leslee Smith may change those plans. True freshman Tarin Smith could vie for a starting job at point guard, allowing Tai Webster to play more minutes at the off guard.