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Surveying the Challengers: No. 21 Nebraska

Taking another brief look around the Big Ten basketball scene, this time with an eye to Lincoln, home of quite possibly the most exciting team to watch in the league.

Tom Pennington

With the football season nearing its end, it's time to get back to thinking about the basketball court, the only place where good things seem to happen for the Wolverines these days.

Part of that focus, of course, comes with taking a look at the challengers around the conference. Wisconsin heads into the season as the overwhelming favorite to take the Big Ten crown, a year after a run to the Final Four. With that said, the conference appears to be loaded once again, with other consistent powers (Michigan State and Ohio State, for example) looking to keep things rolling, programs like Illinois and Minnesota looking to take the next step, and Northwestern looking to jump from plucky underdog to a consistently tough out.

Then there's Nebraska.

The Rundown

I previewed the Big Ten earlier this year, taking a look at Nebraska back in July, so I'll try to keep these sections short to avoid redundancies.

Almost a year ago, the Huskers played their first game in the new Pinnacle Bank Arena, in Lincoln's West Haymarket district; from the opening tip, it was clear that was going to be a difficult venue for visitors.

Tim Miles's squad finished the regular season 19-11 (11-7), good for fourth in the league and a bye in the conference tournament. For a team that finished the 2012-13 regular season with a 14-17 (5-13) record, that is truly a remarkable turnaround, a turnaround that netted Miles the Big Ten Coach of the Year and Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year awards.

Now, heading into his third season in Lincoln, Miles and Co. will look to navigate the sometimes tricky transition from surprise team to one faced with serious expectations. The Huskers check in at No. 21 in the AP and coaches poll, behind only Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State (at No. 20) as far as league teams go.

In short: no surprises this time around. The Big Ten and the nation took notice last season, and now the Huskers are rightfully on everyone's radar.

Playmakers

This begins and ends with, of course, Terran Petteway. Petteway is the guy who makes Nebraska go, he of 18.1 ppg in 2013-14, a league high. By far Nebraska's leading shot-taker with 427 attempts, he is the classic college high usage pure scorer. The 6-foot-6 junior from Galveston, Texas, was Nebraska's first unanimous all-conference selection since 1999. In case you forgot about him, well, start rememberin'.

On sidekick duty was Shavon Shields, who averaged 12.8 ppg and 5.8 rpg last season. Now a junior, the 6-foot-7 guard will once again pair well with Petteway, providing a 1-2 punch that, in terms or raw scoring ability, is among the best in the conference (it's definitely in the conversation, along with the Kaminsky-Dekker duo in Madison).

The 6-foot-10 junior Walter Pitchford is back, giving the Huskers a legitimate three-point threat from the 5 spot. He was actually their most effective player from long range last season (41 percent on 117 attempts), making him a serious matchup problem for opposing bigs. From 2-point range, she shot 54 percent, too. When all was said and done, he finished third in the Big Ten in effective field goal percentage. That's pretty darn good.

Storylines

  • Efficiency. With another year of college experience under their belts, Petteway and Shields have one major thing to work on this season: efficiency. Now for guys like Petteway -- and Penn State's D.J. Newbill -- efficiency is a secondary concern when you're the guy taking most of the shots. You've got to take 'em to make 'em, right? With that said, they were relatively uninspiring three-point shooters (33 percent for Petteway, 32 percent for Shields). With Ray Gallegos gone (notorious for never seeing a three-point attempt he didn't like), that shot vacuum has to go somewhere. Gallegos took a whopping 161 threes last season, converting on 33.5 percent of them. That likely means more three for Petteway and Shields, which might not be the best thing, which is a nice segue into...
  • A pitch for Pitchford. Yes, Petteway gets all the headlines, and rightfully so, but for this offense and this team to take the next step, I think Pitchford has got to take on an increased role. It's not often that you have someone with that size paired with an ability to stroke it from outside. True, maybe his rebounding needs a little work -- he was 38th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, and 14th in defensive rebounding percentage. Still, as counterintuitive as it may seem, I think a tad less Petteway and a little more Pitchford might, in the end, be a good thing for this offense. I mean, everyone knows who's getting the ball at the end of the game or the end of the shot clock, but in standard situations, there's no reason not to draw up a few more plays for the big man.
  • The element of surprise. Okay, of course this was going to be here, but still. After Wisconsin, everyone has Nebraska right there in the mix with the second tier of Big Ten squads heading into this season. They aren't sneaking up on anybody, and while this is 2014 and I don't believe in voodoo like the theory of momentum in sports, this is a fair thing to consider, I think. Nebraska has the following 5-game stretch in January: at Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State, at Michigan, at Minnesota. What happens if they go 2-3 there, or worse? The weight of expectation is heavy, and expectations unmet can quickly derail a promising enterprise.

The Road to Chicago

In the non-conference, Nebraska heads to Rhode Island Nov. 22, then to Florida State Dec. 1 for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. They'll then stay in Lincoln through the rest of 2014, with home tilts against in-state foe Creighton and Cincinnati Dec. 13, Hawaii on Dec. 22, then Indiana on New Year's Eve to open the conference schedule.

As for Big Ten one-offs, the Huskers face Michigan only once (in Ann Arbor), Penn State (road), Northwestern (home), Rutgers (home), Michigan State (home) and Ohio State (road). That's a pretty nice draw, facing three of the Big Ten's preseason top 5 squads only once, albeit with two coming on the road.

In any case, the Huskers get three of their first four conference games at Pinnacle Bank Arena, with a trip to Iowa City for the second league contest of the season. When the Huskers head into the Kohl Center Jan. 15, they should at least be 3-1, possibly even 4-0 depending on which Iowa team shows up.

Stretch to Watch

After that, though, things get tougher, with that aforementioned 5-game stretch including trips to Madison, Ann Arbor and Minneapolis, plus home tilts against the Gophers and Spartans.

Things ease up a bit in February, but "easing up" is a relative thing in the Big Ten, especially when February includes trips to Penn State, Purdue, Maryland and Ohio State. As we all know, winning on the road is tough come Big Ten season, no matter the opponent. Tell last year's Michigan team that with respect to their thriller in West Lafayette, or the loss a couple of years ago at Penn State (in what was Penn State's first Big Ten win of the season, coming on Feb. 27).

Song of the Season

For a little levity, I though it might be nice to throw in a song for each of these teams that I'll preview, so here it is (yes, lazy, I know, but oh well):