When you think of Nebraska, a few things come to mind: corn, cattle-grazing, and Cornhusker football. For many decades, the sea of red that's filled Memorial Stadium in Lincoln has been blessed to see a powerhouse program dominate the landscape of college football. Names like Tommie Frazier, Ndamukong Suh, Eric Crouch and Mike Rozier illuminate some of the Huskers' most memorable moments on the gridiron.
Things change quite a bit on the hardwood however. In fact, it's a total 180.
Nebraska basketball, or "Nebrasketball" as some affectionately call it, has left the cupboard relatively empty over the years. Not since 1950 has Nebraska won at least a share of a regular season conference championship. If you want to find the last time that the Cornhuskers won a conference championship outright you would have to delve even further into the history books. Big Red has not won an outright conference championship in their conference since the year 1916.
Putting that into perspective for a moment, there have been two World Wars, 16 presidents, and the admissions of Hawaii and Alaska since Nebraska has obtained sole possession of a regular season conference championship.
When Nebraska made the jump into the Big Ten from the Big XII, a conference whose stranglehold arguably resided in Austin and Norman, its presence in the sport of basketball was not on the radar. This was a move that would assist on the football field. So far, the results are there as the Huskers made the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game and have been consistently in the thick of things in the division race.
But last year, something stirred in the state of Nebraska that caught the attention of many eyes in the college basketball world. And under the direction of second-year head coach Tim Miles, and in the confines of a brand new arena, Nebraska took a gigantic leap back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in sixteen years.
With any luck, this could be the launching pad the program needs to be in the mix in the Big Ten.
A Change of Pace
Once the Big East Conference was unfortunately diminished, the two top dogs in the land were the Big Ten and Big XII Conferences. And for the past few years, these two titans have clashed in a back-and-forth affair. For Nebraska, they have been on both sides of the coin in this duel, and as they have come to realize, it's an entirely different ball game in their new conference.
For starters, let's look at tempo. Ken Pomeroy (who runs quite a great website, I might add) has a tempo measurement for conferences since 2002. In Nebraska's old home, the games were rarely slow. From 2002-2010, the Big XII's tempo never was worse than 21st in the country, and its median average amongst the rest of their fellow conferences was 13th. The highest place the conference's tempo as at was 4th in Nebraska's final year when it was recorded at 69.1. Despite this high-tempo play, the Cornhuskers rarely were able to adjust as their tempos were amongst the conference's -- and the country's -- worst, as the table below shows.
As we can see, Nebraska was getting blindsided year after year in one of the fastest and most uptempo conferences in the country. It's one thing to play a slow style and to wear down your opponents. It's another thing entirely to be getting outpaced by a couple furlongs every time you step onto the court.
In the Big Ten however, the Cornhuskers have been able to find some more comfort. Although their tempo was ranked in the high 300s in their first two years in the conference, Tim Miles' bunch was 171st in the country a season ago in tempo, coming in right at the D-1 average of 66.4. But unlike Nebraska's old home, the change of pace instilled in the Big Ten allowed for this average mark to be above the conference's average in tempo.
Boy, what a difference one conference makes to another. The Big Ten Conference has been amongst the slowest in the nation, and in one case the absolute slowest in the 2009-10 season. It's a completely different brand of basketball in the Big Ten and so far, it's worked out nicely for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Keeping the Core Intact
Going into the 2014 season, the Cornhuskers are lucky to only have a couple of departures from the team that made it to the NCAA Tournament a season ago.
The departures of Mike Peltz, Ray Gallegos, Deverell Biggs and Jordan Tyrance means Nebraska is losing only 17.2 percent of the 2,137 points accumulated a season ago. Biggs' dismissal and Gallegos' graduation levied the biggest of hits as the two combined for 368 points in 2013, with the redshirt senior guard in Gallegos collecting 219 of those 368. But leading scorers Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford all are returning, as this terrific triad will be looking to shoulder the load in Lincoln.
The sophomore Petteway was stellar a season ago as one of Nebraska's main go-to guys. He led the team in points per game (18.1) and in FT% (.819) and was one of the biggest reasons that Nebraska was able to make as much headway as they did last year. Shields and PItchford meanwhile were both versatile on the scoring and rebounding ends. They accumulated an average of 12.8 and 9.3 points respectively and on the rebounding side of things, 5.8 and 4.7 boards per game respectively.
Tim Miles will also be looking for more contributions from the likes of two international Huskers this coming year. Tai Webster and Leslee Smith, natives of New Zealand and the British Virgin Islands respectively, both showed flashes of brilliance last year in their times on the floor. Smith was a significant contributor a year ago, accounting for 21.8 percent of possessions used, while the freshman in Webster was more of a role player, collecting just 16.8 percent of possessions.
If each stays true to their game though, the Cornhuskers can benefit greatly. Webster certainly could use some work on his efficiency, as his eFG% and TS% were both egregiously low a year ago but he was very solid as a distributor, racking up an assist rate of 16.8 and a steal% of 2.0 percent. Smith meanwhile was more than serviceable on the boards, racking up an OR% of 13.0 percent and a 2PT FG% of 52.3 percent.
The 2014 Cornhuskers shouldn't necessarily be expected to compete for the Big Ten throne. Bucky Badger will, in all likelihood, be flexing for a majority of the season but that isn't to say that another NCAA Tournament appearance is out of the cards. And such a return would do wonders for a program that was in need of an injection of life. With Tim Miles at the helm, a sense of comfort, and several returning pla