Welcome back hoops fans!
Don't look now, but ol' man winter is knocking on our doors here in the mid-west, Husker Football is at the mid-season mark, and the Big Red ballers are preparing for their inaugural season in the Big Ten conference.
For me, this is exciting. I've been a basketball player since I was a wee little guy, and have always respected and loved the game. College basketball is a special thing if you allow it to really infect your senses, and Nebraska suddenly has some great things going on for the very near future. As we enter the storied Big Ten Conference, ripe with basketball tradition, one might argue that the Huskers are poised to serve as the presumed sacrificial lamb. I think...maybe, maybe not. I'd guess that Coach Sadler has his own ideas on how he wants to make a splash in his new league, and the extreme youth and inexperience from a few years ago is now starting to yield some measurable results on the court.
After the jump, we'll begin our official preview of the 2011-12 Nebraska Basketball team with a two part series that will run into next week.
Week 1 - The Players
Week 2 - The Schedule (And everything else)
Whether you are a Husker hoops fan, a Husker fan in general, or simply need a break from all the Bo Pelini vs. media drama that has been circulating...we'd love you to take a few moments and get to know the guys representing the University of Nebraska in 2011-12.
Part One | The Players
For those who followed on CN in 2009-10, things hit an all-time low for the modern era of Nebraska Basketball. Despite valiant efforts by seniors Ryan Anderson (now an R+B artist) and Sek Henry, the Cornhuskers suffered through a dismal 2-14 conference season. We here at CN suffered as well. Leadership was lacking, and the roster was simply chock full of youth and uncertainty.
2010 proved to be what fans were hoping for, in a season that really made leaps and bounds thanks to that very same youth gaining much needed experience and playing time. Players worked hard during the off-season, and Doc made some changes to rid the lineup of toxic players. Then senior Lance Jeter stepped up and led the Huskers to a tie for 7th place in the Big XII. A nice result, yet surprisingly disappointing given the way they had been playing until the last three games. After being in position for an at-large bid..we missed the NCAAs by just a hair, and were promptly destroyed by Wichita State in the first round of the NIT. Many things too work on, yet many things that were finally going right.
After graduating just one senior impact player - Lance Jeter - the Huskers return 5 starting players and are now ready to see big results. With the new conference directly ahead of us, hopefully a fresh new attitude is emerging. Now I'm an optimist, but even I understand that we cannot expect to rattle the barns of Big Ten campuses. But my hope is that the days of Husker basketball being shoved into the corner, and relegated to the back page are over.
Below, are the players. I've generally stayed focused on those who will see action. Too many players in Doc's system have been weeded out, or left the program to spend a lot of time guessing on how they'll turn out. We've also added a bunch of freshmen, but unlike two years ago...we shouldn't have to use them much.Instead, let's take a look at the faces you'll be seeing all over the television (more specifically the Big Ten Network) this winter.
Brandon Richardson | Sr. Guard #3 - 6'0" 190lbs
I've led with Brandon for a reason. The senior guard is probably our best prospect at leading this team to a winning season. Yes, there are transfers coming in with both experience and skills, but Richardson has been a Husker since he was a freshman, and has played in at least 27 games in each of his three years. His entire stat-line has dropped off a bit from his sophomore to junior seasons, but was also dealing with some nagging injuries.Richardson has been a solid contributer, and could possibly be the next in line to step up and take charge of the floor for Nebraska. Richardson had his own signature game in the huge upset of #4 Texas last season, when he helped Jeter take the team on his back by hitting several big shots and scoring 15 points including the critical go-ahead free throws and defensive rebound in the final seconds.
After an outstanding sophomore year in which Richardson shot 45.6 pct from the field, his shooting overall seemed to trend downwards. Brandon's ppg dropped from 8.9 to 6.3, and his 3-pt field goal percentage dropped from 31% down to just 25%. However, his assists went up, which tells me that while he may have lost his rhythm a bit..a lot of the scoring was coming from Jeter and thus we didn't need as much from Richardson. He played his role. Overall, if he can regain some of that shooting groove from 2009-10, he should be once of Nebraska's biggest back-court scoring options this year.
Interesting factoid: Richardson attended the same high school in Los Angeles (Hawthrone High) as the Beach Boys.
Jorge Brian Diaz | Jr. Center #21 - 6'11" 245lbs
One of Doc's many international "ventures", Diaz has been a contributing factor since he stepped on campus. Playing in 33 games as a freshman, one has to admire what the kid has gone through. Hailing from Puerto Rico, Diaz was forced to adapt to not only American basketball...but one of the premier conferences in the country. I remember wincing as we watched him play in 2009-10. Under-weight and caught in the headlights...Diaz could've easily packed things in and left for a smaller school and easier competition. What he did, was stick things out and show that he has the heart to play major conference basketball.
Diaz improved in just about every statistical category in his sophomore campaign, helped in part by his off-season development. Diaz took advantage of the Husker lunchroom, as well as the weight training facility, and added a solid 15 lbs of muscle to his frame. After being pushed around the paint in 2009, Diaz started to stake his claim under the boards in 2010-11. But it wasn't just his new physical presence that was impressive. Diaz showed that he possesses a fire and spirit needed to compete. This was none more evident than in the game versus Kansas where he had to be brought back from the edge by assistant coaches on the bench. Not content to take any crap, I like Diaz's chances of becoming a force to be reckoned with down low in the Big Ten this season.
Interesting Factoid: Diaz was born in the Bronx, NY, and moved to his hometown of Caguas, P.R. when he was three years old.
Toney McCray | Sr. Guard #0 - 6'6" 210lbs
After playing in 30 games during his freshman season, Toney spent much of his time as a sophomore on the bench with injuries. A highly anticipated scoring threat when recruited, fans were anxiously awaiting his return to the lineup in 2010-11.
McCray started 22 of 32 games last year, and was third on the team in scoring with a respectable 8.5 ppg average. (Fans have to remember that Nebraska doesn't score much as a team in general.)
Called upon for the clutch outside shot, McCray made more 3-pt field goals than any other player last season (35), and was responsible for 1 of every 5 3pt shots made on the team. An achilles heel for McCray has been his ball handling skills and turnover ratio. At the guard spot, your assist to turnover ratio should be well above Toney's mark of 0.7 per game. In 20111-12, Toney will need to cut back on the giveaways, and possibly add some weight to combat the physical style of play in the Big Ten. Toney does have a distinct advantage with his huge wingspan, which allows him to both rise above defenders while shooting, and grab rebounds over the shorter perimeter players. While McCray didn't quite live up to his potential last year- in my opinion, he still has a lot of great things to build on at the 2 spot.
Interesting Factoid: In 2010-11, McCray accounted for almost 35% of Nebraska's total blocks. An amazing stat for a player at the guard position.
Brandon Ubel | Jr. Forward #13 - 6'10" 240lbs
My cutoff for listing "returning starters" was anyone who started at least 10 games last season. Ubel barely fits that category, with just 13 starts last season. More of a role player and solid 6th man with size, Brandon will be entering his junior season looking to improve his ppg average once again.
Ubel has one of the highest fg% on the team with 51.6% in 2010-11, and has bumped his scoring up by 2 points per game since his freshman season.
Brandon ranked 8th in the league last season in games fouled out, and led the team in total fouls. These stats prove my opinion that Ubel is more of an under-sized center with fouls to give, than a power forward as he is listed. At 6-10', Ubel is best suited to come in and plug up the opposing team's streaky players, and help grab some needed offensive rebounds. Although not a reliable scoring option on a regular basis, Ubel has come out and had some good games when we needed him. Case is point, a 9 point performance with several timely free throws in a close 1-point win over Oklahoma.
Interesting Factoid: Brandon's older sister Kayla was a middle distance runner for the Nebraska Track and Field program.
Caleb Walker | Sr. Guard #25 - 6'4" 205lbs
Probably one of the most athletically gifted players, if not the most, Walker was a solid starting guard for Doc Sadler.
Walker started 27 of 32 games last season, and provided more speed and quickness than a Toney McCray, but also a tough rebounding edge over his opponents. Walker gets aggressive around the rim, and had several poster-worthy dunks last season, somewhat of a rarity in the Husker lineup anymore.
Walker averaged over 6 ppg in 2010-11, and hauled in around 4.5 rebs per game. Caleb is one of those guys who won't stand out on the stat sheets, but is critical in terms of team energy and aggressiveness. When Nebraska needs a spark, you can count on Caleb to make a play. During what was surely the biggest win of the Sadler era, Walker got his only two points on an electrifying two handed slam over a Texas defender, keeping the Big Red groove alive for the upset.
Interesting factoid: Walker was a transfer from Butler Comm. College, where he was one of the top junior college players in the nation.
***New Faces / Transfers / 6th Men***
Ray Gallegos | Jr. Guard #15 - 6'2" 178 lbs
Gallegos made a great first impression when he first arrived as a freshman. All signs pointed to Ray emerging as one of the top guards and scoring options for Nebraska in the future. Since then, Gallegos has seen not only his playing time decrease, but his overall production as well.
After quitting the team for a scant few days due to home-sickness(Gallegos is originally from Utah) before changing his mind and coming back to Lincoln, Gallegos has been iffy in terms of performance and reliability. He will be a big wild-card this season in my opinion, and could stay on the bench..or play big minutes. Last season, Gallegos averaged just 2.8 ppg, but led the team with 15 points in a blowout win of Grambling State. The potential is still there, we'll just have to see if Doc gets him more than just the one start he made last year.
Interesting Factoid: Gallegos was the first recruit out of the state of Utah since Jaron Boone.
Bo Spencer | Sr. Guard #23 - 6'2" 193lbs
I've been waiting for this one since last spring. Spencer, who transferred from LSU and had to sit out last season for eligibility reasons, is probably the biggest incoming name in the Sadler era so far. For some reason, the pessimistic side of me keeps going back to the name Sam Keller. Huge expectations from an experience big-time player...and fizzles when he lands in Lincoln. But the optimist in me thinks that Spencer could be the piece that really puts us over the top and gets us into the NCAAs. A proven baller in the SEC Conference, Spencer will be an immediate scoring impact to a Husker offense that struggled at times to score in 2010-11. Spencer plays the point guard position, and will likely battle Brandon Richardson among others, for the role of Husker floor general this season.
In 2009-10, Spencer played 36 minutes per game and averaged almost 15 ppg. Not to damned shabby - in a major conference like the SEC. To compare, Nebraska hasn't had a player average that many points per game since Aleks Maric in 2007-08. Granted Doc Sadler's system isn't really designed to score loads of points, it's still got to be a shot in the arm and an exciting prospect to see Spencer go nuts on opposing Big Ten defenses.Come on Doc...let him loose!
Interesting Factoid: Bo was the starting point guard for the LSU team that went 27-8 in 2008-09, and lost to eventual National Champion - North Carolina - in the NCAA Tournament.
Andre Almeida | Sr. Center #32 - 6'11" 310+lbs
Almeida was a bit of a fun addition to the Husker roster last season. Another of Doc's international aquisitions, big Andre was almost a cartoon character in terms of appearances. Tipping the scales at over 310 lbs, the big man was put in the lineup primarily for defensive reasons, and to help take the load off a more "dainty" Jorge Diaz in the paint. Opposing centers that pushed Diaz around in 2009-10, had no such luck when Almeida buzzed into the game.
Andre started just 3 games in 2010-11, but averaged a solid 5.2 ppg. Blocks were Andre's specialty, and he led the team last year with 1.3 per game. Almeida was under-whelming last year as a scorer, and often times looked clumsy and rushed with the rock. However, he had arguably his best game against Texas scoring 10 points and shutting down the Longhorn middle. Look for Andre to perhaps shed a few lbs this season, and improve on his offensive production.
Interesting Factoid: Much like Husker football great Ndamukong Suh, Andre grew up playing soccer until he was ten years old, in his native country of Brazil.
Chris Niemann | Jr. Center #14 - 6'11" 275lbs
Niemann came in with Toney McCray as one of the bright prospects a few years ago. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to get on track. After suffering an ACL tear early on in his career at Nebraska, Niemann was poised for his return in 2009-10 when he tore the same ACL before the season started. Last year, he was on the court in very small bits, and played a few minutes in the final game of the year against WSU in the NIT tourney.
I'm not convinced that Niemann will ever return to full strength. Two blown ACLs in the same knee just doesn't sound like something that anyone can deal with. His reliability will never be there, and all signs point to an unceremonious final two seasons. However, we could use his size down low if he can stay healthy. He does have two seasons left thanks to medical redshirts. We'll be hoping..
Interesting Factoid: Niemann was one of two German-born players on Doc Sadlers team in 2010, along with former Husker forward -Christian Standhardinger.
Dylan Talley | Jr. Guard #24 - 6'5" 215lbs
The most recent of Nebraska's star transfer players, is Talley. Heavily sought by the LSU Tigers as well, Talley committed to Nebraska this last spring after piling up points for Blinn College in Texas. Dylan ranked 6th in scoring nationally, and averaged 23 ppg. Talley appears to be an all-around threat, and can hurt teams in various ways. With the Husker offense going anemic in the last few years, this could prove to be a huge pickup for Nebraska to compliment the addition of Bo Spencer.
I'm going to make a recruiting point here in favor of Nebraska. Whether you agree with scouting sites or not, Talley was the highest rated Big Ten recruit listed at JucoRecruiting.com, and was pulled from the grips of LSU at the last minute. In addition to LSU, Talley was courted by Gonzaga, Colorado, Tennessee, USC, and Seton Hall. That's a pretty impressive list of teams that, unlike Nebraska, have all won NCAA tournament games at some point.
Not too bad, considering most people don't think we can recruit.
Interesting Factoid:Talley is the second current player on the Husker roster to be heavily recruited by the LSU Tigers. (Bo Spencer was a starter there in 2008.)
***Check out part two of our season preview next week. We'll cover the Husker schedule, outlook on the season, progress on the new facilities.. and other tidbits.*** GBR!
-Injury report as of 10/19: Sophomore transfer Marshall Parker (back - career ending) - Senior Caleb Walker (foot - minor) - Senior Andre Almeida (knee - moderate) - Chris Niemann (knees - questionable)