Year three of the Tim Miles era is upon us and interest in the program has never been higher. With expectations sky high for this year's team, let's take a look at the top five questions Tim Miles and company will have to address in order to make the season a success.
Can Tim Miles get consistent offensive production from the point guard position?
Defensively, the combination of Tai Webster's physicality and Benny Parker's tenacity makes it a tall order for any opposing point guard. It's on the other side of the floor where Tim Miles no doubt wants to see improvement from his two returning point guards.
The team averaged approximately 67 points a game last season and Webster and Parker only combined for 6.3 points of that total, with most of those scores coming inside the paint. To be fair, All-America candidate Terran Petteway had the ball in his hands most of the time he was on the floor, but even a marginal improvement in Webster and Parker's outside shooting would do wonders for spacing in Coach Miles' motion offense.
Webster spent most of the offseason playing with the New Zealand national team, even competing against elite NBA talent in the FIBA World Cup. There's buzz coming out of camp that Webster has found his confidence again and is starting to show flashes of the player he was hyped up to be coming into last fall. That's saying a lot considering he shot a paltry 30.4% from the field last year and 17.1% from beyond the arc (YIKES). Parker started to show more and more confidence in his mid-range game towards the end of last season and if he continues shooting around his 47.8% clip from the field, defenses will have to stay with him for a split second longer instead of automatically crashing down on drives from Petteway, Shavon Shields, and Walter Pitchford.
The wildcard here is freshman guard Tarin Smith. Smith adds another aggressive on-ball defender for Miles to play with, but it might be a bit much to ask for much from him this early in his career.
How does the team handle expectations?
With so much talent coming back, this might be THE question of the season.
The team starts the season ranked 21st in the AP, returns all five starters from an NCAA Tournament team, and has one of the top 15 players in the nation. Oh, and the preseason ranking marks the first time since 1995 the program has been ranked in the Associated Press poll. No pressure, right?
The team seems to be embracing the lofty expectations that have been bestowed upon them and most of that stems from how their season ended a season ago. The last time we saw the team, they blew a sizable lead to Ohio State in the B1G tourney and struggled mightily to find their shot in their NCAA Tournament showdown with the Baylor Bears so the motivation is clear - finish the job. Here's what Tim Miles had to say recently regarding his team handling expectations and how they are motivated to avenge their postseason flamout:
"Expectations are what they are, but nobody should have higher expectations for us than ourselves. The one thing I'll tell you about this group is I think they remember blowing an 18 point lead to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. They lost their mojo, did not practice the next week going into the NCAA Tournament, did not play well against Baylor, at least for the portion that I was there, and then - don't ask me about that. I'll get fined."
That doesn't sound like a team that is resting on their laurels, but we'll see how the team handles themselves when they go into games as the hunted rather than the hunter.
Does "The Vault" stay locked up?
Anyway you look at it, Pinnacle Bank Arena instantly becoming one of the nation's most feared home court advantages was nothing short of a revelation.
The team went a B1G-best 15-1 in the building last season and set a school record for average attendance at 15,419 fans per game. "PBA Magic" was no doubt instrumental to not only their incredible regular season finish a year ago (the team won 10 of their last 12 games, seven of which were at home), but to the often overlooked middle portion of their schedule. As the team floundered with an 8-8 overall record and an 0-4 start to their conference schedule, the team was able to take solace that they were 7-1 at home, including a tightly contested loss to a highly skilled Michigan Wolverines team.
Plus, let's not forget this...
With the 2014-15 conference schedule sending the team on the road for seven of their final 11 games, it's imperative they hold serve at home and the PBA crowd continues to bring the "juice". The fanbase can't allow itself to assume the team's dominance at home is a given. An easy way for them to do that is to remember how much of a gauntlet the B1G slate is...and to remember what the program was like for about the last two decades.
How will Leslee Smith's injury affect the team?
For as strong as Nebraska's group of perimeter players appears to be, the 4 and 5 positions look to be areas of concern for the first part of the season and beyond.
Power forward Leslee Smith tore his ACL in July and isn't expected to be back in the lineup until around January or February. The team returns starters Walter Pitchford and David Rivers, but the former is a stretch 4 forced to play down low more than he wants to and the latter is a hard-working player with a thin frame that gets overpowered by traditional big men in the conference. Georgetown transfer Moses Abraham brings with him a ton of experience, freakish athleticism, and rebounding prowess, but is limited offensively and is foul prone. Newcomer Jacob Hammond comes in as a highly-ranked recruit, but one has to assume Coach Miles would have probably preferred to redshirt the promising big man.
With Smith healthy and the addition of Abraham, Miles would've had the luxury of playing Pitchford off of aggressive offensive big men to prevent him from getting into foul trouble. That luxury is now gone. On a positive note, the playing time Abraham and Hammond will experience in the first part of the season should pay dividends later in the season. It never hurts to have too many bigs vying for playing time.
Where will the bench scoring come from?
With the graduation of on-again, off-again sharpshooter Ray Gallegos, the Huskers lost their leading scorer off the bench and their only reliable scoring option outside of the Big 3 of Petteway/Shields/Pitchford. Due to Nathan Hawkins transfer, the leading candidate to replace Gallegos' production is redshirt freshman Nick Fuller.
The 6-foot-6 Fuller is expected to be one of the best shooters on the team and the Nebraska coaching staff hasn't been shy in saying they want him to mimic former Creighton Bluejay sharpshooter Ethan Wragge's game. Assistant coach Chris Harriman reportedly provided Fuller video clips throughout last season of Wragge for him to study his shooting stroke and quick release.
Outside of Fuller, Miles will have to hope the sum of Tarin Smith, Moses Abraham, Jacob Hammond, and Benny Parker is greater than its parts. It'd be nice if Andrew White III was eligible right away.
BONUS QUESTION: Will Trevor Menke be able to live up to the expectations of being the "next Mike Peltz"?