I love Big Ten basketball, so I've enjoyed writing every single one of these things; truth be told, I'd enjoy writing them even if you told me nobody was going to read them (which, hey, you guys are out there, right?). With that said, as I've worked my way up from the bottom of the standings, waiting, waiting for the week that I'd get to, you guessed it...
Nobody really saw it coming, but Tim Miles and Co. blazed a trail into the top four of a strong Big Ten en route to a tournament appearance, a major turn of events for a Nebraska program that had been struggling in a big way. Not unlike Michigan pre-Beilein, Nebraska basketball was an afterthought with respect to its counterpart on the football field.
Who would have thought that fans in Lincoln in Ann Arbor would ever have as much to be excited about the events on the hardwood as they would the gridiron? But, such is the world in which we now live.
So, what happened this season?
What didn't happen? The Huskers finished 19-13 (11-7), with a fairly meh 8-4 run in nonconference play. Losses there came against UMass and UAB (both in South Carolina), at Creighton by 15 (in which Chicago draft pick Doug McDermott dropped 33 points) and at Cincinnati by 15.
Big Ten play began, and things didn't look much better there -- which makes the way they finished all the more remarkable. Nebraska started with four straight losses, albeit three were on the road (Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue) and the other was the 1-point loss against Michigan at Pinnacle Bank Arena, won by a Derrick Walton layup -- Huskers fans are still probably looking for a charge call on that one.
The rest of the way, however, Nebraska was right there with Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Huskers closed the conference slate winning 11 of 14, including a sweep of Indiana and a win in East Lansing.
Unfortunately for Nebraska fans, Nebrasketball ran out of steam in the end. The Buckeyes bounced them in the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament in Indianapolis. Then, playing in Big 12 country, Baylor's offense was too much for the Huskers, who fell 74-60 in the first round of the Big Dance. Terran Petteway, Nebraska's most dynamic scorer all year, scored 18 but had a rough day from the field, going 5-for-15 and 0-7 from beyond the arc.
Setting Michigan aside, Wisconsin was the most fun to watch from an execution standpoint; after all, they were basically Michigan with less pure dribble drive ability. Nebraska, on the other hand, was raw, reckless fun. You know how, as a kid, you took a Fruit Roll-Up and, taking all the rules of life as a casual suggestion, roll that sugary treat into a ball and eat it like it was a hush puppy? That was Nebraska basketball. Wild and free and fun.
After every sugar rush there is a crash, and so ended the 2013-14 season for Tim Miles and Co. Even so, it was fun while it lasted. Michigan basketball peels out the little imprinted designs on the aforementioned Fruit Roll-Up, carefully and meticulously. There's a place and a time for that, and maybe that is better in the long run; you enjoy it, savor it, don't overindulge.
But sometimes you just have to give the guy with the hot hand the rock and let the arena crank up to 11 and play ball.
- Despite the anecdotal and emotional evidence, the Huskers offense was not very fast (and certainly not efficient). NU finished 8th in possessions per game, one spot ahead of Wisconsin. They also only finished 10th in points per possession during Big Ten play, ahead of struggling offenses like Northwestern and Illinois.
- Speaking of inefficiency, they finished 8th in eFG% at 47.6 percent, ahead of just Purdue, Penn State, Northwestern and Illinois.
- They were pretty good at getting to the line, finishing 4th in the B1G in free throw rate.
- From beyond the arc, they were an unspectacular 32.8 percent as a team, good for 7th in the conference.
- On the glass, only Northwestern finished with a poorer offensive rebounding percentage. On the other end, however, Nebraska finished second, with a DRB% of 72.8 percent--only Michigan State was better in that department.
- The Huskers weren't particularly careful with the ball, as they finished 9th in turnover percentage (17.6 percent). They somewhat made up for it on defense, boasting the fourth-best defensive turnover percentage (17.8 percent).
The great news for Nebraska is that all of its main contributors are back (NB: Deverell Biggs, the team's third-leading scorer, was booted from the squad in January). Terran Petteway averaged 18.1 ppg last season, but will look to improve upon his outside shooting -- he shot 32.7 percent from downtown.
Petteway's partner in crime, Shavon Shields, is also back for his junior season. Shields and Petteway were often a lethal one-two punch, with the former pitching in 12.8 ppg. Like Petteway, he was not very effective from beyond the arc (31.6 percent).
Big man Walter Pitchford, arguably the most intriguing piece on the roster, brings back his 9.3 ppg and 4.7 rpg. Oddly enough, he shot much better from downtown than did either Petteway or Shields, 41 percent on 117 attempts (only Petteway and noted three-point enthusiast Ray Gallegos attempted more).
Rounding out the list of meaningful contributors, forwards Leslee Smith and David Rivers are back in the frontcourt, and G Tai Webster will take on his sophomore season running the point in Lincoln. He wasn't too productive in 2013-14 (3.9 ppg), and it's probably not a great thing that he led the team in assists per game...with 2.0 per game. The Huskers will need to see some steps forward in his game overall; it's one thing to be a spark plug, it's another to be a Big Ten point guard capable of consistently keeping the ship steady when the waters get rough.
As for losses, the aforementioned Gallegos, always happy to throw up a triple, is the only major loss (other than Biggs, who is essentially already accounted for given that he was booted in January). If you lead the team in three-point attempts, you probably need to connect at a better rate than he did (33.5 percent); that shot void will find its way to Petteway and Shields, which is probably a good thing, albeit not if they're shooting threes.
In the 2014 class, Miles reeled in a pair of three-stars in 6-foot-10 C Jacob Hammond and 6-foot-1 PG Tarin Smith out of New Jersey (who signed a LOI in mid-April).
Lastly, the Huskers added a Georgetown transfer, C Moses Abraham. From the sound of it, he won't add much in the way of offense, but will bring some shot-blocking to the Huskers' frontcourt.
Sports are filled with stories like that of the 2013-14 Nebraska basketball team. While their run to the top third of the conference was unexpected and pretty exciting to watch, the mark of a program with a solid infrastructure comes with, of course, sustained success. At no point is this more true than the season after the so called "breakthrough" year--then again, Michigan did slip and miss out on the tournament during John Beilein's third season, so maybe that's not entirely true.
Regardless, with Petteway and Shields returning and Pitchford stretching the floor, the Huskers should once again be an exciting team to watch. The lack of three-point shooting is concerning, especially from Petteway and Shields. Raw playmaking ability is certainly an asset but sometimes you just need to rise up and bury a three, whether off the dribble or with set feet.
It will be interesting to see what another solid season in Nebraska could do for recruiting; the Huskers will likely never be the most attractive destination for elite basketball recruits, but, as we all know, stars aren't everything (although they are something). Especially with respect to competition with in-state foe Creighton, you'd have to think that a rising Nebraska and the stature of the conference in which it plays would make some players who might've chosen Creighton in the past think otherwise.
In any case, I don't know if Nebraska will replicate their 2013-14 performance in terms of their top four finish, but they will be in the mix, for sure. Yes, this team had its flaws, but they beat every Big Ten team save Iowa (who they only played once) and Michigan (the only team to sweep the Huskers in 2013-14). We'll need to see a little more before Nebrasketball can transform from an exciting fad to an ongoing Big Ten reality, but my guess is Miles keeps this thing going in the right direction in 2014-15.