Widely an afterthought in Big Ten basketball circles before last season began, Nebraska shocked more than a few around the conference on its way to a fourth-place finish and its first NCAA tournament berth since 1998. With a young core that will be returning to Lincoln more experienced, and a head coach seen by many to be a rising star in college basketball, the Huskers have every right to be optimistic that they can improve on last year's 19-13 record.
As we pointed out when we looked ahead to 2014-15 for Nebraska, the Huskers are losing just over 17 percent of their scoring from a season ago. Two of the team's top three scorers return, including first-team All-Big Ten performer Terran Petteway. After earning a first round bye in the conference tournament last season, the Huskers look dynamic enough on paper to contend in the Big Ten, a big reason they checked in at No. 5 in our latest B1G Power Rankings.
With the nucleus coming back hungry after dropping its first NCAA tourney game to Baylor, let's take a look at how Tim Miles, the Big Ten's Coach of the Year last year according to his peers, will dole out the minutes.
Nebraska will take the court in the fall missing only one backcourt piece from a season ago, as Ray Gallegos has graduated. The two returning starters are big, physical combo guards who will create matchup problems for opponents. Building off a solid freshman season, New Zealander Tai Webster will get the first crack at running the point. Webster appeared in all 32 games for the Huskers last season, making 30 starts. The 6'4" combo guard's numbers in his first collegiate season won't blow too many minds, as he averaged just 3.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 2 assists per contest, but he showed an ability to get into the lane and knock down shots from the perimeter. A member of the New Zealand national team, Webster is experienced beyond his years.
Joining Webster will be junior Shavon Shields. After starting 18 games and averaging 8.6 points per game as a freshman during the 2012-13 season, Shields was named a co-captain for the Huskers. The 6'7" son of an offensive lineman responded by increasing his production across the board. The team's second-leading scorer at 12.8 per game, Shields paced Nebraska with a 5.8 rebounding average from his guard spot.
Competing for time behind the starting backcourt for Miles will be junior Benny Parker (2.4/1.0/0.9), who led the team in steals as a sophomore despite playing limited minutes and incoming recruit Tarin Smith.
Any conversation about Nebraska's frontcourt, and really about Nebrasketball in general, must begin with Petteway. The Texas Tech transfer became a team leader from the moment he set foot on campus, being named a co-captain, and put together the best individual statistical season the school had seen in quite some time. En route to his first-team All-Big Ten selection, Petteway led the conference with 18.1 points per game, displaying creativity and versatility from all over the floor. The rising junior also added 4.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, nearly a block and a steal a game, and shot 82 percent from the foul line. With a full season under his belt in Lincoln, Miles and Big Red Nation are expecting even bigger things from Petteway in 2014-15.
Lining up next to Petteway in the frontcourt is another transfer success story in Walter Pitchford. A former Florida Gator, Pitchford stepped right into a starting role, providing length, toughness, and surprising shooting touch for the Huskers. The 6'10" Grand Rapids, MI native averaged 9.3 points and 4.7 boards a game, and shot a team-high 41 percent from the three point line.
The final piece of the Nebraska front line will come down to a pair of players in their final seasons of eligibility. After transferring to Lincoln from junior college, Leslee Smith was a solid, tough-nosed contributor for Miles. The 6'8" Smith appeared in every game, averaging 5.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in just a shade under 17 minutes per game. Another option is Georgetown transfer Moses Ayegba. A former four-star recruit of the Hoyas, Ayegba is seen as a defensive specialist, and should bring a physicality that will translate well to the Big Ten. The 6'9" native of Nigeria averaged 1.9 points and 2.8 rebounds a game last season.
The Huskers have a good amount of depth in the frontcourt, but it is largely inexperienced. The lone senior up front off the bench is David Rivers, a three-year letter winner and one-time starter. Rivers showed a solid midrange game and tenacity on the glass in 20 minutes a game as a junior. Also looking for minutes will be redshirt freshman sharpshooter Nick Fuller, and incoming freshman center Jacob Hammond.
Miles has Nebraska's program trending in the right direction for the first time in a long time. With a solid core returning from last season's surprise team, the Huskers' rotation should help them compete with the Big Ten's best in 2014-15. Let's take a look at how the minutes may be spread around.
PG: Webster, Parker, Smith
SG: Shields, Parker
SF: Petteway, Rivers, Fuller
PF: Pitchford, Smith
Thanks to the skills and versatility of players like Petteway, Shields, and Webster who can play multiple positions, the Huskers have the luxury of tinkering with their rotation. If the young team can come of age next season and build on this year's success, Nebrasketball could go dancing once again.