The Cornhuskers have not exactly been relevant in the basketball world for quite some time. Nebraska last made the NCAA Tournament in 1998 and have made the NIT just 5 times since 2000. When you have stats like that, people are going to forget about the team. The good news for Nebraska is that things could be different this year. The Cornhuskers are not dominating the nation or running teams off the court, but they have looked much better and do have a fancy new arena to play ball. The mood has shifted in Nebraska and this could be the year that Tim Miles finally starts to get things on track. Let's look at some of the takeaways from the non-conference season:
Nebraska Is Better, Much Better
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how we could potentially see Nebraska in the postseason this year (will talk about this in more detail below), but one of the things I highlighted was the massive improvement in the last few years for the Cornhuskers. In 2012, KenPom rated Nebraska as the #150 team in the nation. In 2013, Nebraska had moved up to #130. This year, Nebraska has jumped all the way up to #96. That may seem a little murky, but that is an incredible jump in just two seasons. Just think about this. Currently, teams surrounding Nebraska are Miami (FL), Temple, and Ohio. Not exactly Arizona or Kansas, but those are all at least decent teams. If Nebraska was still at #150, they would be surrounded by teams like South Florida, San Fransico, and Illinois State. That may not jump out on paper, but even being discussed with the prior group of teams is a major improvement.
Nebraska has shown a lot of improvement on the court as well. Not only are the Cornhuskers still undefeated at home, but 3 of the team's 4 losses have been against quality opponents and even the loss to UAB is not necessarily terrible as the Blazers are rated only one spot lower than Nebraska on KenPom. Losing on the road against Creighton and Cincinnati are certainly not bad losses and UMass is currently ranked in the Top 25. Nebraska is still not perfect and maybe they haven't reached that magic threshold yet, but the team is certainly better.
Petteway Can Be Something Special
Coming into the year, the hopes and expectations for Terran Petteway were mixed. It's difficult to predict exactly how transfers are going to perform, especially after sitting out a full season. Sometimes they click almost immediatley and other times, they do not really respond to the coaching and struggle to be productive. Considering that Petteway only put up 3.3 points and 2.1 rebounds at Texas Tech, Petteway was not exactly a slam dunk. Most would have assumed he would have improved in the year off, but he would have to improve pretty significantly to be a factor from 3.3 points a game.
The good news is that he has done enough to become a factor. In fact, he has become more than a factor. He is currently averaging over 30 minutes, 17.3 points, and 4.7 rebounds per game. It would be one thing to do this against bad competition, but Petteway put up 30 against UMass, 21 against Creighton, and 22 against Cincinnati. Maybe Petteway is not quite as good as his stats appear (leads the team in usage at 29.5%), but he still is a pretty darn good player that could develop into something very good for Nebraska if they can get the right pieces that can surround him.
The NIT Is Not Out of Reach
This is more or less an expansion on the first point, but the NIT is not out or reach for Nebraska. Some will argue that the NCAA Tournament is not out of reach either and technically speaking they are right, but the flaws that showed up against some of the top competition are going to reappear. Inconsistent shooting, some weak defense, and not enough quality rebounders are going to limit the top competition this team can beat, but they can still beat enough teams to make a serious run at the postseason.
Guys like Shields and Gallegos have to become consistent factors to go along with Petteway in order for this to happen, but look at that schedule. The Big Ten may be tough, but there are winnable games in there. Plus, it's not like you have to be perfect to make the NIT. Beating lower end teams like Northwestern and Penn State is a crucial step, but the most important area will be upsetting some teams like Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue at home. The middle group of the Big Ten is probably a tad weaker than last year and with an improved Nebraska who is playing very well at home, they could have enough to make the postseason.
Don't expect Nebraska to be a major factor in March Madness or to make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, but do not be surprised to see a lot of the teams in the Big Ten have trouble with the Cornhuskers. This team is a long way from being a major player in college hoops, but Tim Miles has them on the right path toward success and if things fall right in Big Ten play, perhaps to their first postseason tournament in years.