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2015-16 Nebraska Cornhuskers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and what fans should expect for the program heading into the 2015-16 season.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.

During the tenure of head coach Tim Miles, Nebraska has seen resounding success and internal program momentum, but has also seen several underwhelming years and periods of completely unwatchable offensive play. Depending on what one values and where one set expectations, Miles has either done an outstanding job getting back to the NCAA Tournament, or an underwhelming job that relies almost entirely on one season.

A more analytical approach implies that the true nature of Nebraska's program is somewhere in between. Miles did break Nebraska's streak of 15 years without an NCAA Tournament, but also boasts just a 47-49 (.489) record during his three year tenure with the program. The 2013-14 season was a resounding success, but at the same time, the fact that Nebraska missed the NCAA Tournament and NIT in 2013 and 2015 should also be noted.

Most are certainly optimistic about Nebraska's future under Miles, but his mixed results put a lot of importance on the upcoming season for the program. If the Cornhuskers can show progress, it will not only help to legitimize Miles' tenure, but also help to continue the program's recent upswing in recruiting.

The good news is that there is talent on this Nebraska team. The losses of Terran Petteway, Walter PItchford, and David Rivers will not be easy to overcome, but with the return of Shavon Shields and Tai Webster and the additions of Glynn Watson and Andrew White to the lineup, Nebraska could field a pretty good lineup this season.

It's difficult to anticipate the Huskers jumping from missing the NIT last season to the top of the Big Ten, but if Miles and his staff can get production from some of the newcomers, there is a lot of upside for Nebraska this year. A lot will depend upon the incoming recruiting class, but if these prospects can be productive, this team might look a lot more like Nebraska's 2013-14 than the other two years of Miles' tenure in Lincoln.

With that, let's take a look at the Huskers.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Cornhuskers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and BTPowerhouse Contributor Joshua Stern breaking down Nebraska's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

Check Out Basketball Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with BTPowerhouse Podcast on BlogTalkRadio

1. 2014-15 Season Performance

  • Record: 13-18 (5-13)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #133
  • RPI Rating: #158
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season was a complete and utter disappointment for the Huskers. Maybe the preseason hype for Nebraska was unjustified - it certainly turned out that way - but this was a roster coming off a fourth place finish in the Big Ten that returned virtually everyone. This wasn't a team that was just expected to make the NCAA Tournament, but was also one expected to contend behind Wisconsin for second place in the Big Ten.

Of course, things didn't turn out that way. Nebraska suffered several upsets in non-conference play - including a shocking home loss to Incarnate Word - and limped to just a 5-13 conference record that included no road wins and just one win over a team that finished in the top 100 on KenPom. It was a downright bad season for a team that had massive preseason hopes and expectations.

In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Nebraska:

Preseason expectations were high for Nebraska and for good reason. This was a team that was returning just about everyone significant from a good team that finished the season well outside of Ray Gallegos. Nebraska was never a legitimate Big Ten title threat in 2013-14, but they were a quality unit that won some big games and was very consistent during the second half of the season.

Unfortunately, the inability to develop a third scoring threat and the massive regression offensively took what otherwise might have been a decent team and pushed Nebraska to finish 12th in the Big Ten and #133 overall in KenPom rating. The Huskers had virtually the same defense as they did the year before, but without the offense to get them by against some of the middling Big Ten teams, there was no second half comeback to save the season.

In some cases, a team's record may not be representative of the team's actual performance, but unfortunately, that was not the case with Nebraska. This was simply not a good team. The roster was probably more talented than its 13-18 record indicated, but this was not a team simply blowing big games or losing to good teams in tough environments. Nebraska lost most of its games because the opponents were simply better and unfortunately, that happened far too often last season.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over Cincinnati and Florida State and an upset over Michigan State at home. Both Cincinnati and Michigan State ended up making the NCAA Tournament and Florida State finished in the top 100 on KenPom. Low points of the season included losses to Hawaii and Incarnate Word in non-conference play, a blowout loss to Iowa at home, and nine losses to end the season.

Individual statistical leaders were Benny Parker, Terran Petteway, and Shavon Shields. Parker led the team in steals. Petteway led the team in points, assists, blocks, and usage. Shields led the team in minutes, rebounds, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

2015-16 braska departures

Since the start of last season, Nebraska has lost a total of eight players for a variety of reasons. These players were Moses Ayegba, Kye Kurkowski, Trevor Menke, Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford, David Rivers, Leslee Smith, and Tarin Smith. Five of these players graduated, two declared for the NBA Draft (sort of), and one transferred. Of these eight players, the most significant losses come from Petteway and Pitchford. Both Rivers and the Smiths did see some legitimate time last year, but Petteway and Pitchford certainly contributed the most.

Petteway and Pitchford have a mixed perception among many, but the fact is that both played and contributed significantly for Nebraska over the last few years. Even if Petteway hogged the ball and Pitchford saw a massive regression in his perimeter shooting last year, these two accounted for 40.9% of Nebraska's scoring last season by themselves. Again, both had their flaws, but these were two of the better players on the roster and Petteway was easily the team's most used offensive weapon.

1415 nebraska usage

Along with the losses of Petteway and Pitchford, Nebraska is also losing some legitimate options in Rivers and the two Smiths. The most talented of this group was probably Leslee Smith, but he missed most of last season with an ACL injury and as such, his contributions were relatively limited. Rivers and Tarin Smith were not great players, but both were solid defensively and combined to average 8.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game. None of these are massive losses by themselves, but together, these are a hit to the team's depth.

The final departures are Ayegba, Kurkowski, and Trevor Menke. All together, these players combined to average less than four minutes per game. Outside of a potential hit to team leadership, it's hard to call any of these three departures anywhere close to significant.

Unfortunately, the tough thing about these losses is that many of the replacements who would normally be in line to replace departures like Petteway and Pitchford are also out the door. For instance, the team's primary backup on the wing (Tarin Smith) is departing and the team's primary backup big man (Leslee Smith) is also gone. It's not like anyone thought players like the Smiths would turn into a star for the Huskers, but they did provide valuable minutes and could have helped ease the transition this season without Pitchford.

Overall, Nebraska has watched a lot of contributions walk out the door this offseason. The Huskers still have some really talented players and are adding even more thanks to some solid recruiting, but these are still massive losses. Three of the team's top five minute leaders, three of the top four scorers and rebounders, and the team's assist leader are all out the door. Whether these players were overrated or not, the numbers speak for themselves.

3. New Additions

2015 247Sports Recruiting Team Rankings

This season, the Huskers will be adding five new recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Bakari Evelyn, Michael Jacobson, Jack McVeigh, Ed Morrow, and Glynn Watson. Morrow and Watson are rated as 4-star prospects, Jacobson and McVeigh are rated as 3-star prospects, and Evelyn is unrated by 247Sports. Evelyn and Watson are point guards, McVeigh is a small forward, and both Jacobson and Morrow are power forwards.

The incoming recruit receiving the most attention is Watson. Not only is he receiving the highest grades from the various scouting services, but he has the potential to solidify Nebraska's backcourt next season. Benny Parker and Tai Webster have been relatively inconsistent the last few years and having a productive point guard in Watson would be a huge addition. He is a point guard with great passing skills, has a natural feel for an offense, and has a great change of pace style of play.

It's hard to see Evelyn getting too many minutes this season with Watson and the other backcourt depth, but there should be plenty of opportunities for the remainder of the recruiting class. With Terran Petteway, David Rivers, and Tarin Smith departing, there are a lot of minutes available on the wing this year. Look specifically for McVeigh and Morrow to battle for at least bench minutes this season.

Along with the recruiting additions, Nebraska will be adding three transfers in Anton Gill from Louisville, Malcolm Laws from Florida Atlantic, and Andrew White III from Kansas. Though Gill and Laws will be ineligible this year due to NCAA transfer rules, White is expected to make some major contributions. He is an absolute sharpshooter from long-range, which should be a welcome addition considering that Nebraska was #340 nationally in 3PT percentage last year.

There is going to be a lot of pressure on the newcomers to produce, but given the fact that there are some proven returners like Shavon Shields and some decent backcourt depth, the hope is that players won't be forced into too much playing time, too early. The one exception is in the frontcourt, where at least one of Jacobsen or Morrow will likely see major minutes. There is very little depth there and Nebraska needs anyone it can get at this point.

There is a lot to like about Nebraska's newcomers long-term. Not only does this group have prospects that should be starting soon enough, but there are also potential stars in Morrow, Watson, and White. If this group can hit the ground running, Nebraska could have a much better season than many expect.

4. Team Strengths

With some of the team's top contributors from last season out the door, the lock of the team is certainly going to change, but given the roster layout, this should still be a team that prides itself on defense. The Huskers could pressure the ball last year and were one of the stronger defenses in the country. Another area where Nebraska should improve is the team's outsider shooting.

Here's what I wrote in last year's team retrospective for Nebraska:

Overall, the Huskers ranked #25 in defensive efficiency last season, which actually led the entire conference.  Within conference play, Nebraska only ranked 9th in efficiency, but their performance over the season was actually quite impressive.  They forced turnovers (76th nationally) and prevented interior looks (63rd nationally).  It was the type of defense that got pressure on opponents and simply smothered them.

The unique thing about Nebraska's defense is that it did so well over the course of the season without a great rim protector.  In fact, Terran Petteway was the only Nebraska player to finish in the Top 20 in the conference in block rate, which was was behind 10 other Big Ten teams.  It's not often a team can finish with a Top 25 defense and also be without a legitimate rim protector.

The Huskers probably won't find the rim protector the team lacked last season, which is a bit concerning. After all, Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford, and Leslee Smith were some of the team's best shot blockers and all three left this offseason. Still, with some key returners, this should still be a pretty good defense.

To start, Benny Parker and Tai Webster were both solid at pressuring the ball in the backcourt last season and Nebraska was really solid at defending inside. Again, a bit concerning given the frontcourt losses, but one would think that there's enough to at least remain a good defensive team.

One offensive area that is expected to improve this year is the team's outside shooting. Nebraska was pretty much a mess from three point range last season. In fact, the Huskers ranked #340 nationally in three point percentage. That beyond just bad.

The good news is that with Andrew White in the lineup and several newcomers like Glynn Watson, this could be an area that gets better this year. The loss of Terran Petteway could be a tad of a hit, but considering that he took a lot of long range looks last season and it was still a struggle, it's not exactly a massive concern.

Another area where Nebraska could be solid next year is in free throw shooting. Shields was pretty easily the team's best player at getting to and converting at the free throw line last year. With his return, Nebraska should at least be decent from the charity stripe. A player like White could also give a boost here.

Even if Nebraska's defense does regress a bit this year, it should still be the strength of the team. Along with solid defense, the Huskers should also be able to look forward to improved three point shooting and solid shooting from the free throw line overall.

5. Team Weaknesses

Looking for the weakness on Nebraska's team last season was pretty easy. The Huskers were a very bad offensive team last season. In fact, if Nebraska had been even mediocre offensively, the team might have ended up back in the NCAA Tournament at the end of last year.

Of course, that's not what happened.

The really frustrating thing was that Nebraska really wasn't even that bad before last year offensively. The Huskers weren't an elite offensive team by any means, but it wasn't the wreck that it was last year. The regression really was significant and happened across the board.

2014-15 Nebraska Offensive Regression:

1415 nebraska offensive regression

As mentioned, it's not hard to think that the perimeter shooting should improve this year, but the Huskers are really going to need across the board improvement to get back on track. Perhaps Glynn Watson can help reduce the turnovers and White can help the efficiency, but this is probably still going to be a struggle this year.

Two other areas that are going to be major concerns for Nebraska this year are in rebounding and in protecting the rim. With so many departures upfront, this is a team that could have major issues down low. Walter Pitchford and Leslee Smith were arguably the team's best players in these areas and both are now gone.

Perhaps White can be a better rebounder than many expect or some of the newcomers can make a dent in these areas, but in all likelihood, these are probably going to be weaker areas for the Huskers. When a team has this many question marks upfront, it's just kind of a given that rebounding and shot blocking are going to be concerns.

Although Nebraska still has plenty of optimism for the upcoming season, finding answers for some of these question marks is going to be imperative for the upcoming year. If Nebraska can't get back to being at least a mediocre offense, find some quality rebounders, and get rim protection, it could be a long year.

6. Top Player

Last year, the title of Nebraska's best player was a debate between Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. However, with Petteway off to the NBA, that debate gets much simpler. There certainly could be a scenario where one of the newcomers emerge to grab this title, but all told, it seems like Shields' role to lose. After all, he did come in at #18 in BTPowerhouse's top 25 Big Ten player countdown. Just look at the production that Shields had last season.

1415 nebrask win sharezzzzz

The great thing about Shields' skillset is that it's extremely diverse. Not only is he a really solid offensive player that can consistently get inside, but he is also a solid rebounder and a decent passer. It's not that often to see a team's leading rebounder also be second on the team in assists. He certainly needs to improve his shot selection and work to develop his shooting, but overall, he should do a lot for Nebraska this year.

Though none of the returners appear in line to seriously challenge Shields in this category, newcomers Glynn Watson and Andrew White III could also make some noise for the title as Nebraska's best player. Watson is probably going to get major minutes and his ability to dictate the offense should make him really productive. Along with this, White's shooting and length on defense should allow him to start immediately for the Huskers. Both are question marks, but both have a lot of potential.

Nonetheless, given that neither Watson nor White have actually played a minute at Nebraska and the fact that Shields has consistently been a big contributor during his time in Lincoln, he deserves the nod here. Maybe it's a closer debate toward the end of the season, but right now, Shields looks like Nebraska's best player.

7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/9 - Northern State (Exhibition)
  • 11/14 - Mississippi Valley State
  • 11/17 - at Villanova
  • 11/19 - Delaware State
  • 11/22 - Southeastern Louisiana
  • 11/24 - Arkansas-Pine Bluff
  • 11/27 - Cincinnati (Brooklyn, New York)
  • 11/28 - George Washington/Tennessee (Brooklyn, New York)
  • 12/1 - Miami (Fl)
  • 12/5 - Abilene Christian
  • 12/9 - at Creighton
  • 12/13 - Rhode Island
  • 12/20 - Samford
  • 12/22 - Prairie View
  • 12/30 - Northwestern
  • 1/2 - indiana
  • 1/5 - at Iowa
  • 1/9 - at Rutgers
  • 1/12 - Minnesota
  • 1/16 - at Illinois
  • 1/20 - at Michigan State
  • 1/23 - Michigan
  • 1/30 - at Purdue
  • 2/3 - Maryland
  • 2/6 - Rutgers
  • 2/10 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/13 - Penn State
  • 2/17 - at Indiana
  • 2/(20/21) - Ohio State
  • 2/25 - at Penn State
  • 3/1 - Purdue
  • 3/6 - at Northwestern

Nebraska has actually set itself up to have a pretty challenging non-conference slate this year. Even if the Huskers do end up being better than the team projects on paper, there are probably at least six games that look to be pretty challenging. Considering that's about half the non-conference schedule, things are going to be difficult.

The significant games on this non-conference schedule include the road games at Creighton and Villanova, the neutral site matchups with Cincinnati and either George Washington or Tennessee, and the home games against Miami (Fl) and Rhode Island. Unless Nebraska ends up being substantially better than preseason projections, not a single one of these games look like a guaranteed win.

To start, Cincinnati, Miami (Fl), Rhode Island, and Villanova are all teams getting top 25 consideration. Even with the Miami (Fl) and Rhode Island games coming at home, those could be losses. After all, Nebraska didn't even make the NIT last season and lost several of its best players last season. Along with these games, George Washington and Tennessee should be in NCAA Tournament contention and the Creighton game will be on the road.

Considering these opponents, having even a winning record in these six games might be asking too much. After all, Nebraska does not project to be a major national contender next season. The remaining seven games look quite manageable, but an 8-5 or 9-4 record probably isn't that unrealistic. Nebraska should get at least a win of the group above, but it's hard to see too many without substantial improvement.

Unfortunately, things won't get a whole lot easier in conference play. The Big Ten looks to be very deep this year and Nebraska's schedule reflects that. In total, Nebraska will play 14 of its 18 conference games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, are in top 25 consideration this season, or are on the road. Virtually every game is going to be a challenge this year.

Of course, there are a few things to be optimistic about on this schedule. For one, there are four pretty winnable games at home against Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, and Rutgers. The Huskers only had five conference wins last year, so just by winning those games, the team could nearly match that. Additionally, road games at Illinois, Northwestern, Penn State, and Rutgers are certainly not guaranteed losses. Finally, Nebraska has traditionally been very good at home, so knocking off a team like Indiana, Ohio State, or Purdue is certainly possible.

With how much Nebraska is expected to rely on newcomers this season, projecting conference play is relatively difficult, but this does look like a performance in the three to seven win range. Realistically, it's probably going to settle around four to five wins given the opponent strength and potential upsets.

Overall, this is a very challenging schedule for Nebraska. Not only do nearly half the non-conference games look very difficult, but more than likely wins in conference play will be few and far between. If Nebraska's newcomers hit the ground running, the schedule is manageable, but otherwise, it's going to be very difficult.

8. Projected Startling Lineup

  • PG: Glynn Watson (Fr.) - 60%

  • SG: Andrew White III - 80%

  • SF: Shavon Shields (Sr.) - 95%

  • PF: Ed Morrow (Fr.) - 55%

  • C: Jake Hammon (So.) - 60%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

The backcourt is set to have a lot of competition for the starting roles. Not only do Benny Parker and Tai Webster return, but the Huskers are also adding Bakari Evelyn and Glynn Watson this offseason. There's no doubt that Parker and Webster's experience should help them early, but given their mixed production, it seems reasonable to believe that Watson's skillset ultimately wins out and grabs the starting gig.

At shooting guard, the clear frontrunner is Andrew White. Though players like Parker and Webster could potentially get some minutes here as well, White's shooting should earn him minutes early and often next season. Perhaps some of the wings like Nick Fuller and Jack McVeigh can see some time here as well, but it's just hard to see anyone being a better option than White this season, especially since White has received plenty of offseason hype.

There is virtually no debate that Shavon Shields will be starting on the wing this year. The only real question for the position will be who gets the backup minutes. Fuller and McVeigh are the primary candidates here. McVeigh probably has the higher ceiling long-term, but unless he can offer a big boost, Fuller probably gets the edge. He has already redshirted and the minutes are going to be few and far between for whoever wins the battle.

Finally, the battles upfront are going to be particularly important for Nebraska this season. The only positional options here are Jaconb Hammond, Michael Jacobsen, and Ed Morrow. Hammond is the only natural center on the roster and as such, he is likely going to be the primary option upfront. Jacobsen and Morrow are both players with plenty of upside, but neither is a great positional fit at center. Look for both to rotate between power forward and center as needed this season.

The tough thing for Nebraska this season is that due to the incredibly thin frontcourt, there's a decent chance that Miles has to push Hammond, Jacobson, and Morrow all over to center and slide Shields down to power forward. Shields is a much better fit at small forward, so Miles will certainly try to minimize this, especially if Hammond and Morrow can be productive. Still, if there's any foul trouble, Miles is not going to have much of a choice. Luckily, with the team's backcourt and wing depth, playing small ball isn't that unrealistic.

If Nebraska can find a rotation that works in the frontcourt, the Huskers should actually have a decent lineup. There is a good mix of returners and incoming talent in the backcourt and a proven star in the wing to carry the team. The issue will just be whether the frontcourt can be productive enough to allow Shields to play on the wing in his quasi point forward role and pose a mismatch for opponents. If so, Nebraska could have a nice season.

9. Team Perspective From Patrick Gerhart of Corn Nation

"Expectations were high for the team going into last year. Tim Miles second season was a big success for the program, going 19-13 and making our first NCAA tournament game since 1998. Returning a majority of the team didn't help to damper the excitement going into the season either. It was so good that some of the folks who do the rankings thought that starting us at #21 in the nation was a good idea. Things kind of went out the window after that and the Huskers ended last season at 13-18 (5-13 conference).

While the team had 8 departures from last years team which included third team all Big Ten forward Terran Petteway and forward Walter Pitchford, Nebraska does have a couple returning guys who can help lead this young team. Right now, guards Shavon Shields and Tai Webster are the two guys that bring the most talent and experience from the last
couple of years. Both of which need to bring their leadership to the next level if we want to see improvement on the floor.

A big name to watch is Andrew White III. He is an experienced guard who we picked up from the University of Kansas and should be getting plenty of playing time. He was highly recruited out of high school but was stuck behind Andrew Wiggins at KU and decided to transfer. Hopefully he also brings some much needed leadership to a team that seemed to have very little during last season. At least something good came out of the Big 12 for us.

Another player to watch out for is sophomore guard Nick Fuller what had some decent playing time last year and should be in a position this year to make a major contribution.

With that said, the youngsters should help this year, if not the next. The recruiting class last year was really good, especially when you consider how lackluster Nebraska's past classes have been. Point guard Glynn Watson and power forward Ed Morrow Jr. should help out at some point and it would't surprise me if we see either one of these
two play this year.

In terms of play, Nebraska has had a fairly strong defense. Something that has carried over from the Doc Sadler days. What is needed is a pickup in our shooting game. If you did some basic scouting of the team last year you could easily see that if you shut down the paint, Nebraska could not drive and score. Coach Miles has stressed this in the off season and the 3 point line seems to be a major focal point during practices so far. Which leads me into the one are that will still most likely be Nebraska's weak point, we still do not have a big man we can rely upon. Right now our tallest guy is 6'10" sophomore Jake Hammond and we will see how he has adapted to the game this year. Hopefully he has put on some muscle to deal with the intensity of conference play. If not, it may be a long season.

Overall, I see an improvement in this years team. Last year was a letdown but you could see that there was talent. Maybe not to the extent of being in the top of the Big Ten, but I can see this team playing their way into the middle of the group and picking up some wins that Nebraska would not always beat." - Patrick Gerhart.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Nebraska has had an up and down performance under head coach Tim Miles and are trying to get back on track after a down year in 2013-14. This team probably has a lot more talent and depth than many believe, but the frontcourt questions and offseason departures leave some major question marks.

Although Shavon Shields looks to be the key piece on this team, with Glynn Watson and Andrew White, there's a decent chance that the Huskers can have a pretty talented backcourt and wing group. Add in a talented recruiting class and several other young returners and there is plenty of potential on the roster. The question is just whether that talent will mesh enough this season to be successful.

Unfortunately, most of the roster's talent unproven and not very well balanced in the lineup. Despite great projections, the truth of the matter is that Shields is the only player on the team who is legitimately proven. Watson and White and others have potential, but are not known commodities. Along with that, most of these options are in the backcourt. In fact, the frontcourt is a massive, massive question mark that will likely have depth issues all year.

Undoubtedly, there is a scenario where everything falls in place for Nebraska this year and the Huskers seriously contend for an NCAA Tournament berth. However, from a more realistic viewpoint, this is likely going to be a team that will live and die with the newcomers and one that will pull off some upsets, but lack the consistency and depth to seriously contend.

Big Ten Prediction: 11th Place