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2014-15 Nebraska Preview: The Bigs

Why an injury that is completely ignored nationally could derail all of Big Red's rosy projections in the new season.

Andy Lyons

One trap that the college basketball media can fall into is overcompensation. This condition usually occurs when a team experiences success far beyond anyone's wildest projections one season, so the underrated outfit will often find itself greatly overrated the following year, especially if most of its talent returns.

This is where the Nebraska Cornhuskers find themselves this season. Many analysts have them in the top 25, with Athlon Sports slotting them in at a ludicrous No. 11. (As an aside, I know many of the guys at Athlon. I've worked with them both in their newsroom and in a radio studio many times. They do like to party, but they usually confine it to after work. I have to wonder, though, if the top 25 was assembled on Bring Your Adult Beverages to the Office Day.)

All of this sounds like I'm very down on the Huskers' returning talent, and that's not entirely true. Terran Petteway can certainly win a second straight Big Ten scoring title, and Shavon Shields may be the single most versatile player in the entire conferencealthough I'd personally plump for Sam Dekker or Denzel Valentine.

No, the biggest issue I have with Nebraska centers around who isn't there. For my money, the torn ACL that power forward Leslee Smith suffered at this summer's FIBA Caribbean Championships is the single most under-appreciated loss that any team in America has suffered as this season dawns. With Smith, coach Tim Miles had a proven interior presence who could free center Walter Pitchford to roam about the perimeter. Without him, Miles was sent scrambling for a graduate pickup. But more on him in a bit. As we begin this examination of Nebraska's bigs, we appropriately begin with...

The Starter

Walter Pitchford (6'10", 237 lbs., Jr.)

Pitchford was ranked No. 25 on BTP's countdown of the conference's top 25 players, a ranking begun before my arrival. While I would certainly place him among the league's elite shooters, top-25 overall seems a bit much. Pitchford perfectly defines the term "stretch-4," sinking 41% from deep last season and taking more than half his shots from that high-rent district. Attempting to chain him to the post largely negates his offensive impact, since he's not a good interior passer (16 assists all season) or shot blocker (18, six fewer than star wing Terran Petteway). On the glass, Pitchford only carded six games of seven or more rebounds, and only one of those (a New Year's Eve loss to Iowa) was against an eventual NCAA tournament team. As a point of comparison, Smith averaged 0.1 more boards per game in 6.4 fewer minutes.

Pitchford's best-case scenario could paint him as a poor man's Adreian Payne, but he needs a lot of help to be allowed to play his game. Unfortunately, he's surrounded by a supporting crew that's not only thin, but inexperienced and not terribly skilled.

The Bench

Moses Abraham (6'9", 252 lbs., Sr.)

If he can play substantial minutes, the artist formerly known as Moses Ayegba provides a dangerous rim protector and rebounder who can set Pitchford free from his personal low-post hell. The problem lies in Abraham proving that he can stay on the court. While he averaged 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes as a sophomore and 2.3 blocks/40 as a junior at Georgetown, he also recorded a combined 8.4 fouls/40 over those two seasons. Abraham will be tested nightly when Big Ten play begins, and he'll have a major task on his hands not landing himself in foul trouble against the likes of Frank Kaminsky, A.J. Hammons or Anthony Lee.

Jake Hammond (6'10", 230 lbs., Fr.)

Tim Miles originally intended to redshirt Hammond this season, seeking to allow him some weight room time. Smith's injury accelerated that timetable substantially. While Hammond isn't quite as muscular as some of his Big Ten rivals, he'll quickly endear himself to the Nebrasketball faithful by making hustle plays and outrunning those burly brutes that would push him around. He has the offensive skill that Abraham lacks, and the two could make a tremendous player if their abilities could somehow be stitched together. Still, Hammond has a lot to learn in a short period of time. Expect him to have a couple of nice games off the bench, but he'll occasionally look lost in conference play.

Kye Kurkowski (6'11", 221 lbs., Sr.)

I don't normally include walk-ons in these previews, but Kurkowski may see more than the 22 minutes he's amassed in his first three seasons. Foul trouble or injuries could press him into service for no other reason than he's a tall body in a conference that features several of them.