LAST SEASON – Heading into last year, Nebraska basketball was at something close to peak optimism. The program was coming off its first NCAA appearance in several years. It returned most of its key components, including All Big Ten choice Terran Petteway. Coach Time Miles seemed to be a breath of fresh air, injecting Nebraska’s program with a sense of newness and optimism. They had a new facility to play in and enthusiastic fans to play in front of. However they were also dealing with something else new…expectations. I said in the preseason that I thought the projections of them as a top 25 team and even darkhorse Big Ten title contender was a bit much, and for a very good reason. For all their success in 13-14, Nebraska really didn’t do any one thing particularly well save perhaps control pace. I thought that might catch up with them to some extent, though admittedly I did think they were probably still an NCAA caliber team, just more along the lines of what they’d been the year prior…sort of a bubble-ish group instead of top 25 fixture.

It turned out to be much worse than even a skeptic like myself anticipated. An 8-4 non conference should have been something of an indicator. Yes, there was the headline grabbing loss to Incarnate Word but Nebraska also lost to Creighton (in a down year for that program), Rhode Island and Hawaii…not exactly, Kansas, Duke and Notre Dame, you know? Yet, in BIg Ten play the Huskers were at least decent for awhile. When they beat Northwestern at home by 16, they were 5-5 in the league and at least couldn’t be completely ruled out from making an NCAA run. After all, that was about the same point the previous year in which they started to figure out ways to win games. Instead, it all went south in Lincoln. Nebraska didn’t win another game the rest of the season, finishing 5-13 in the league and with a first round BTT loss to Penn State by 13. As it turned out, the Huskers were way too dependent upon Petteway and Shavon Shields for offense, never developing a reliable third scorer. They were outrebounded on the season, barely had a TO advantage and didn’t shoot well. It all added up to a rough year when expectations were for something much brighter. To make it worse, Miles’ program has undergone significant attrition in the offseason. Walter Pitchford elected to not return for a final year of eligibility, making a thin post group even thinner. Promising freshman point guard Taran Smith elected to transfer. Then Petteway decided to turn pro, leaving the team without its most accomplished player in recent seasons. A final blow was the departure of assistant coach Chris Harriman for an associate head coach’s job at New Mexico, thus depriving NU of it’s most accomplished international recruiter, something they’ve made extensive use of in recent years. Any of these things taken individually wouldn’t be a big deal. Collectively, though, they suggest that perhaps things aren’t altogether well with this program. I think this coming season is a big one for Miles…can he prove that last year was just a bump in the road?

RETURNING PLAYERS

Shavon Shields has been Robin to Petteway’s Batman over the past two season but is ready to become the primary option as a senior. The 6’7″ senior forward scored 15.4 ppg and grabbed a team high 6 rpg. He needs to become more versatile offensively, hitting sub 20% on threes last season. Still, even with an inconsistent jumper, Shields is a tough cover. He can get to the rim and finish and he’s got a knack for drawing contact as well (and hits 80% plus once he gets to the line). He gives this team a viable go-to scorer.

Tai Webster is a 6’3″ guard from whom great things were expected but other than some flashes, he hasn’t shown a great deal. He struggles shooting the ball and is only OK as a creator for others, not having shown himself to be a capable floor leader to date. He does have experience now and also has some physical tools to work with, but NU needs more from him this season.

Benny Parker is a 5’9″ junior point guard who emerged as a starter last season. He is extremely quick and that gives him value on this team. He too struggles with his shot at times but is a pesky defender and solid playmaker. If he can add some consistency with the jumper, he could become a real plus.

Nick Fuller is a 6’7″ sophomore forward who played sparingly last season. They think in time he can be a versatile offensive player but to date, he hasn’t proven reliable enough to earn steady minutes. I imagine he’ll get a shot at earning a rotation spot this season

Jake Hammond is a 6’10” sophomore center who seems likely to get every chance to earn a major role this season, given NU”s lack of size. Hammond didn’t play a lot last year but showed flashes. He’ll have to get stronger and tougher in a hurry to help this team.

Andrew White is a 6’7″ transfer wing from Kansas whom NU will look to for help in replacing at least some of Petteway’s production. He struggled to earn a steady rotation spot at KU but seems likely to get serious minutes for the Huskers. I would expect White to likely start for this team and to be a significant part of their offense, as he has shown jumpshooting ability in the past.