What the hell, it was just the NIT...right?
The sting is gone, and to be honest...I don't think many people were all that surprised that the Big Red turned in a "Big Brown" performance in the NIT versus Wichita State. The same ol' problems seemed to surface, in fact..probably more so than at any other time this season.
2010-11 Final Record: 19-11 (7-9). Not bad, as we more than doubled our win total from last season!
As those more worthiest of teams keep playing in both post-season tournaments, Nebraska fans are forced once again to set their sights on Football, and the Husker Spring Game. Maybe a bit earlier than we'd like? Perhaps for some. For others, the final buzzer just meant we were one step closer to kickoff.
2010-11 was Nebraska Basketball's last season as a member of the Big XII, and so we'll take a few moments to reflect on the last 5 months or so. Highlights, low-points, and what lies ahead for Doc Sadler's boys as they travel eastward, in search of more victories on the court.
(I'll try to keep this brief....honest!)
First off, I've been on a bit of a hiatus. It's been an anxious few weeks for me an my family. Anyone who has waited for a biopsy to come back for a loved one, knows that most things become secondary until you finally know something. I'm happy to say that the tests came back, and the big "C" didn't turn up. Woohoo! Time to have a quick drink, and then get back to life. That's why I love writing for CN. Great team, and great readers.
So let's put a stamp on this basketball season, shall we?
Pre-season analysts had Nebraska finishing somewhere between the gutter they occupied last season, and eighth place in the Big XII. I was okay with that, and based on how Doc Sadler traded respectable losses for experience last season(not that he had much of a choice) I truly thought we'd have a shot at the middle of the pack.
I don't recall seeing anyone predict an NCAA Tournament berth, and again..I was on board with that. After all, we didn't really earn the right to think we had a shot after last years performance, right? So in Nebraska's last season as a member of the Big XII, we returned just one senior starter and had a slew of experienced underclassmen. In addition to those we saw in 2009-10, Chris Niemann and Toney McCray were slated to return to the staring lineup after injuries kept them away most of last season.
So my feeling is that most of us really had no idea what to expect out of this team. It was safe to say the bar wasn't raised much, and there were just too many unknown guys coming in with too little senior leadership to really make much of a judgment. We did have a beefed up Jorge-Brian Diaz, a pretty good Loper transfer from Kearney, and an ex-football player with a famous last name leading the charge.
The funny thing about Nebraska, is that we've grown to have high expectations thanks to the football program. No matter how little sense it makes, or how much people predict a poor result....there always seems to exist a sense of disappointment when/if the basketball team doesn't succeed.
Fair? Not really. But that's the way it is for the most part, and in 2010-11... it was really no different.
Square Pegs, Square-er Holes |
Many fans are currently behind Doc Sadler, granted, this season's record really helped his cause. Last season, Doc had made great defense and a robotic offense the hallmark of his team. It's weird, because when your dealing with something like Nebraska Basketball, you'd almost prefer something like that over a run-and-gun setup. That's Nebraska. Give us predictable and steady over a flighty up and down game that throws caution to the wind. Nothing wrong with that.
The problem comes when talent and athleticism finally shows up. I'm not talking about 7ft ogres, but the guys on the team who showed a glimpse of something special. It was there at times, it's just that you rarely saw it based on Doc's system. Sadler's approach can hog-tie a player by forcing him into certain spots , but doesn't have a whole lot of flexibility. And in basketball, you really should have some flexibility.
But Brian, that's called running an offense! True, but the offensive structure should always be loose enough to allow for improvising. Players who posses the ability to create plays on their own should always have an 80-20 mentality. 80% of the time they are running the plan as it's drawn up, but if the opportunity presents itself...they have the remaining 20% to do what they need to in order to win.
We had a few guys who could fill that role. Jeter. Richardson. Walker. Even Beranek at times. But that brings me to the square pegs.
Watching each game, I couldn't help but notice that Lance Jeter was really the only guy who looked fluid and comfortable on the court, game in and game out. The rest of the guys, well...it just seemed like they were following a line on the floor. The already goofy Diaz found a way to play even more awkward come game time, Almeida never used that massive frame to bully the rest of the league, and there was simply too much Ubel at times. It was like someone found a way to force square pegs into even square-er holes, and maybe that was unavoidable. Perhaps Doc was continuing to build his team towards something better down the road, and the installation of a system continues to be priority number one for him. That would explain all the transfers..
While I understand that philosophy to a degree, I don't think that a major D1 team should still be learning how to run an offense. I repeatedly use Kansas as a perfect example, although I hate doing so. Kansas has been known for being fundamentally sound, and using great motion and spacing to allow for good shots. They get guys open, and consequently they make more shots than the other teams. While we did see that against Texas, the Huskers really never showed that kind of confidence and flow. My question is: why not? It's not like Kansas is known for flooring Big East type lineups, and they have just as many mid-western farm boys in their starting rosters as anyone else. In fact, they really seem to be good at stealing guys from Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska. So what gives? My opinion, is that we spend way to much time learning the offense during the season, and not enough time learning it beforehand. Make the offense part of who you are, and then allow for some flexibility when the games start.
I do think Doc did well this year, especially with getting his guys in shape and squeezing every bit of effort from them. But if you look back, the games where Nebraska was at it's best showed a deviation from the norm. Whether it was a huge game from a 325 lb center named Almeida, or a breakout game by McCray, if it wasn't the standard "pass the ball around until there is 5 seconds left on the shot clock, and then force Jeter to put up a prayer from 28 feet", then we were in pretty good shape. The Texas game proved exactly that.
Maybe the flexibility will come out little by little, after Doc feels that his players are all on the same page, and we have some guys capable of changing the game on their own.
Peace and Chicken Grease |
Turnovers. I think this was probably the most frustrating part of the 2010-11 season. There were games where one could only laugh, as the Huskers did their best impression of the Bad News Bears. I'd claim that someone greased up the balls (that's what she said), but the rest of the league didn't seem to have much of an issue holding the pill.
There were times when a standard bounce pass, or simply catching a chest pass seemed to be too much for the Huskers to take. I just don't get that. Are we not running drills? No fundamentals? Although everyone on this team had his moments, some more critical than others, the players that stand out to me are Toney McCray and Brian Diaz. These two guys made far too many mistakes handling the rock, and need to sleep with a basketball during the off-season.
Again, this may have been partly due to the rigid structure of the offense Doc's running, but there is no excuse for losing the ball when not a soul is near. This probably lost us at least two games. And in retrospect, these two games would've made all the difference in early March.
Eastward Bound |
So another season of Nebraska Basketball goes into the books. Ending the season the way we did, losing 3 of the last 4 games, was hard to swallow. If there was a script that we didn't want to follow in order to go dancing, we followed it. Ending the conference season with a .500 record and a win over Oklahoma State in the B12 tourney would have likely gotten us in. That didn't happen, and the
NOT, er...NIT Tournament was about as forgettable a performance as I can remember.
That brings us to the future then. No more attempts to slay the Kansas dragon. No more...wait a minute, there is nothing to really get sentimental about is there? It's not football, and changing conferences from a basketball perspective is like me changing ping-pong paddles. Nothing will change the fact that I still suck at that game.
I tried to watch as much basketball this year as my 3 kids and wonderful wife would allow. Turns out it was much more than I thought, and I really tried to get as much B1G exposure as I could. I thought maybe I would notice something that gave us hope. Perhaps the B1G was a better fit? Maybe we'd stand a chance at winning the league?
The Big Ten was as impressive, if not more so, than our
beloved Big XII was this season. Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin led the charge, as 7 of the 11 teams in the league made it to the big dance. That's 63% of the conference making it to the tournament, compared with just 41% from the Big XII. I would also add to that fact, that Missouri was about as un-deserving of an NCAA spot as any of the teams who made it this year. Although with Colorado as a team that probably should have made it, that still leaves the Big XII with just 5 teams in.
What's the conference like? Well, do yourselves a favor and rid your brain of any thought that resembles the "big and slow" stereotype that honestly, doesn't belong in the football world anymore...and certainly doesn't belong in the basketball discussion. Granted, Iowa was in that league...but there are plenty of athletes and talent in this league to hang with anyone. Keep in mind, the schools in the B1G are a whole lot closer to the east coast, and what many regard as the best pool of basketball talent anywhere in the world. The better your chances of pulling a kid from the playgrounds of Harlem, the better your shot at getting a superstar.
The B1G has a proud history of sending great teams and great players through it's schools. From Magic Johnson, to Steve Alford, to Michigan's "Fab Five". (By the way, if you haven't seen the documentary airing on ESPN regarding the Fab Five, you should take the time to do so. Great film.) Since 1960, there have been four teams that have been able to claim a National Championship in basketball, compared to just one from the Big 12. (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State - Kansas).
Overall, with the recruiting base and the history of quality basketball coaches, teams, and players...I don't think it's out of bounds to say that if anything, Nebraska will find it more difficult to compete in it's new conference. In 2011-12, the Huskers should be primed for yet another hopeful season, despite the loss of point guard Lance Jeter. Nebraska will finally be sending a majority of upper-classmen onto the floor, and bringing in some new and exciting faces as well. Guard Bo Spencer, and transfer from LSU, will add much needed experience and scoring capability to the Husker backcourt. This should help, as the interior lineup will be even more experienced and hopefully a lot more productive than the last 2 seasons.
We'll see however, as we are all witnessing a phenomenon during this year's NCAA Championship: You just can't predict games like you used to.
Corn Nation Awards |
MVP: Lance Jeter - This is a no brainer. The only senior with real experience, as well as our floor general. Lance showed us why OSU coach Travis Ford called him "the best guard in the conference". Lance put together a great season, and led the Huskers back from one of the worst performances in recent years. The 6'3" - 225lb guard led the Huskers in scoring, steals, assists, and came in second to Caleb Walker in rebounds. IF that's not doing just about everything, I don't know what is. Lance earned second team All-Big XII in 2011.
Sixth Man Award: Drake Beranek - When talking about Husker Hoops, it's tough to narrow down a solid starting five. Towards the end of the year, we saw a bit more consistency...and then Brandon Ubel started a game. Anyhow, from start to finish, I'd say that the one guy who has played with the true spirit of the "sixth man" is guard Drake Beranek. The transfer from UNK played in all 32 games, but started just 5. While Beraneks numbers aren't spectacular, his contributions came in terms of hustle, and moving the ball around quickly within the offense. Drake did average about 17 minutes a game this year, and added over 4 ppg. Again, this isn't much, but with the offense we ran...that's okay. The senior made some big shots, and had a season high 10 points in a tough loss to Baylor.
Defensive coMVPs: Jorge-Brian Diaz and Andre Almeida - Averaging over 1.0 blocks per game, this award has to go to the much improved presence of the big men. Diaz (1.2 bpg) and Almeida (1.3 bpg) turned what was the smallest lineup in the conference last season, to one of the biggest. As we saw in the win over Texas, many teams had trouble handling the guys down low. Not a scoring threat just yet, Almeida was inserted mainly for defensive purposes, and rebounding. Diaz, on the other hand, started 30 of 32 games this year. Although his offensive game still needs work, Diaz bulked up and made his presence felt this season in the paint. While averaging slightly less in terms of blocks per game compared to last season, the sophomore center made improvements to his defensive rebounding...something that he was lacking in last season.
Newcomer of the Year: Caleb Walker - The JUCO transfer out of Butler Comm. College added a much needed spark to the Husker lineup this year. The best word to describe Walker is "hustle". The 6'4" junior guard started in 27 of 32 games this season, and had his best scoring performance (13) in the close win over Iowa State in Lincoln. Walker did more than just score however, as he led the team in rebounds. Watching Walker play, this would come as no surprise however, as he always seemed to be around the ball, and fought for his position on the glass. With some work on his jump shot, Walker could be one of the biggest contributers on the 2011-12 Husker team.
Overall, I'd say that Doc Sadler has some great things going on in Lincoln, and he also has some things that need to get fixed pretty damned quickly. Recruiting and offensive game plans need work. I'd like to see Sadler play less man-to-man defense, and switch to some zone at times. I think he'd be better off saving his guys energy for the offensive side of the floor. And while down on that end, maybe get a little crazy. Let the guys play, and show us what they can do. We're going to have to start believing that we can play with the best in the land, if we ever want to actually beat some of them. No more playing to stay in games, and get some of that swagger back that we had with the better teams in Nebraska history.
2011-12 should be a fun season to watch. We'll see some of the Big Ten teams come into Lincoln for the first time, and get a chance to play in arenas we've never seen. With talent leaving for the NBA so soon these days, it's hard to tell who the big dog will be next year. My guess is that OSU or Wisconsin will be at the top, maybe Purdue or Michigan State as well. Nebraska can count on sharing the lower tier with Iowa, Northwestern, and Indiana for a while. But who knows, as I said earlier....anything can happen these days in college basketball.
For those who stuck around and followed the team this year, thanks a bunch. You are appreciated. Here's to next season...
Go Big Red.