Huskers Set to Open Season vs. FGCU

USA TODAY Sports

All the expectations, all the hype, all the glitz and glamor, all of that comes to a head tonight as the Husker men's basketball team takes the court for their first regular season game tonight vs. Florida Gulf-Coast.

The new era of Nebraska basketball is here. You don’t have to wait anymore as you drive past the shiny spaceship looking building to the northwest of the other monolith of a building on the edge of the University of Nebraska’s campus. There have been few moments and seasons that have has as much excitement leading up to this in the history of the program. Tim Miles, in his second season, is looking to build on that excitement and bring Nebraska that elusive NCAA tournament bid and NCAA tournament victory.

Miles will try and do that this year with a new cast of characters. Gone are stalwarts Brandon Ubel and Dylan Talley who comprised nearly 43% the Huskers scoring and 35% of their rebounds last season. In come a heralded group of newcomers that many are expecting to help take NU to the next level. Tai Webster, Terran Pettaway, Walter Pitchford, Leslee Smith, Deverell Biggs, Nick Fuller and Nate Hawkins enter the program at a time where they have the opportunity to do and experience things that few have been a part of at Nebraska.

Pitchford and Smith will be asked to hold down the paint as the Huskers look to replace all of their post experience from last year. Pitchford, a transfer from the University of Florida, will pressure defenses with his ability to consistently hit the three point shot. He plays more like a forward who can get to the rim and could pose matchup problems for teams who try and match up a traditional center on him.

Smith, while only 6’ 8" has a body more suited to banging on the blocks with the big men the Huskers will face in the Big Ten. He should help take some of that burden off Pitchford and allow Miles to not have to use Rivers and Shields on the post as often as he did and free them up to play their more natural forward positions.

Pettaway and Fuller will join the mix with Shields and Rivers at the forward positions. Both players will have the flexibility to handle the guard positions as well. Pettaway, a transfer from Texas Tech, is an athletic, versatile player who will likely see time anywhere from point guard to power forward. He’s known for his work ethic and intensity which has earned him the recognition of captain before he stepped on the floor for his first game as a Husker.

Fuller comes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison. Known as a sharpshooter, he is expected to see immediate action in that role for the Huskers.

Webster, Biggs and Hawkins make for a dynamic mix at the guard positions that will be difficult to defend and bring a surge of athleticism that Nebraska hasn’t seen in a group in quite some time. Biggs is the first native Nebraskan to be awarded a scholarship at NU since Jason Dourisseau and Wes Wilkinson scorched the nets for the Huskers. Biggs will be serving a three game suspension to start the season stemming from a DUI last December. When he does join the line-up his quickness and ability to get to the rim will be a welcome addition, especially with the emphasis on contact at the rim. If he can do that with any level of consistency, he’ll have the chance to be an impact player. Hawkins has battled injuries early in his time here and recently was diagnosed with a fracture in his foot. There is likely a redshirt in his future if he can not get back into action in short order.

Webster is the headliner of the group. The do-it-all guard from New Zealand will be expected to be an immediate significant contributor. With his experience on the international stage should serve him well and shouldn’t come in overwhelmed by the atmospheres and talent he’ll face at this level. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a learning curve and some bumps along the road as he adjusts to the speed and style of play at the collegiate level, but the talent is apparent.

Of the players returning from last year’s squad, Ray Gallegos, Shavon Shields and David Rivers are expected to be the most significant contributors. Gallegos, who will serve a two game suspension of his own to start the season, had a break out season last year racking up big number, primarily as a three point shooter. He improved into a very good perimeter defender as well by the end of the season.

Shields also broke out last season as one of the Huskers most complete players, showing the ability to score in a variety of ways. He’ll be looked on as a cornerstone of the team, especially as they try and figure things out as the season gets under way.

Rivers was a solid contributor last season after only playing sparsly his freshman year. He’ll look to build on that success despite the presence of a significant increase in competition at his position.

It was widely accepted last year that the Big Ten was the best conference in the country by a relatively wide margin. Many are projecting a similar result this season, though with as much talent that left the league last year, it’s unlikely to be as strong as it was. That doesn’t mean, however that despite all that the increased talent level in Lincoln will automatically result in an improved standing or win total. There are a lot of factors that will play into that equation. The top teams, despite losing some incredible talents, will still be more talented than Nebraska and added better talent than NU. Also, the teams that are perceived to be at the same or lower level as the Huskers will also be seeing talented players coming in or like Northwestern and Penn St. will be seeing some All-conference level players return from injury. This will be a very difficult climb for the Huskers.

Miles has gone on record saying he wants his team to score quickly and be aggressive. His recruiting efforts would indicate that he is serious about that claim. The recruits he’s brought in are much more athletic as a whole than those that have been brought in in previous years. Time will tell if it all comes together in a manner that can produce wins for the program. If it doesn’t the luster will wear off this shiny toy in a hurry. It’s still unlikely that it happens this season. But this is certainly a season in which the Huskers can take a step forward and make a statement that the old Nebraska team you’re used to seeing isn’t going to be around much longer. But first, they have to win some games, and that venture starts tonight when they face Florida Gulf-Coast. You can find the game on BTN, tipping off at 8pm.

Predictions:
Scoring Leader: Walter Pitchford
Newcomer of the year: Tai Webster
Upset of the year: Jan 9, Conference home opener vs. Michigan
Final record: 17-15 (7-11), 1-1 in Big Ten Tourney, NIT

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