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GameThread: Huskers Host Northern Kentucky At Pinnacle Bank Arena

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Nebrasketball kicks off their season this afternoon against the Norse!

David McGee

Game info:

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2013-14 Record: 19-13, 11-7 Big Ten
Head coach: Tim Miles

Record at Nebraska: 34-31 (Third year)

Career Record: 317-251 (20th year)

Northern Kentucky Norse

2013-14 Record: 9-21, 5-13 Atlantic Sun
Head coach: Dave Bezold

Record at NKU: 181-116 (11th year)

Career Record: Same

Broadcast Information

Television: None

Online Watching: BTN Plus (subscription required) - available online and on the BTN2Go app

Announcers: Hunter Cave and Michael Dixon

Radio: IMG Husker Sports Radio Network, including

KLIN (1400 AM) in Lincoln, KFAB (1110 AM) in Omaha

and KRVN (880 AM) in Lexington. Also available online

at Huskers.com, on the Huskers App and on TuneIn

Radio and the TuneIn Radio App.

Satellite Radio: Ch. 98 (Sirius) Ch. 196 (XM)

Play-by-play: Kent Pavelka

Expert Analysis: Matt Davison

Live Stats: Huskers.com

THE PLAYERS:

Next year was last year. For Nebrasketball, how do they now turn it into every year?

Success is a fickle beast. With it comes an increase in attention and expectations. And to Coach Miles and the teams credit, they haven’t shied away from either. Handling expectations is a new challenge for the Huskers. The pundits aren’t being shy about what they think of Nebraska hoops. Nearly everyone has the Huskers in their preseason top 25, a place only one other team has ever been. Some have picked NU to finish as high as second in the conference. No pressure, right?

In an era where roster turnover seems to happen frequently and teams make a deep tournament run on the backs of a star player, or perhaps two, the Nebraska Basketball team will bear the great fortune of returning a roster almost completely intact from last season.

When you turn on the television, fire up the computer or walk into Pinnacle Bank Arena, the players that take the floor will look a lot like the same ones that did last year. The big three, Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford all return for their junior seasons. The Huskers rode their backs on their 11-3 stretch to finish conference play last season and will look to them again to lead the way. If the Huskers want to take a step forward and rise to the level of the expectations placed on them to start the year, they will need help from other players on the roster.

That being said, any success the Huskers will have, the big three will be heavily involved.

Petteway comes into the season with the biggest expectations. The preseason first team All Big Ten player is looked at as the main force in the Husker lineup, and with good reason. He is looking to build on his 18 points per game average. Many, including himself, were critical at times of his decision making and inability to leave mistakes and frustrations in the past, often carrying them with him for a play or two, picking up an unnecessary foul or turnover in the process. The mental game is where he needs to improve if he wants to make the jump to the NBA. The league lacks not for talented 6’ 6" wing players. He’ll need to be exceptional if he wants the team to take him in next summer's draft. Age is not on his side. If you see his turnovers go down, and his field goal and assists go up this season, the jump could very well be in his near future. If not, then his journey there might be a little longer and include a senior season in Lincoln. Either option is good for Nebraska.

Shields will play in Petteway’s shadow as long they play together. Miles and Husker fans are just fine with that as the do-everything Shields continues to carve the interior of Big Ten defenses. The junior, arguably the Huskers most complete player, would be a star on most teams, averaged more than 14 points the last 16 games of the season and will be asked to be one of the main scoring options for the Huskers this season as well. His ability to rebound and get to the line will keep him on the floor for 35 minutes a game, but probably still in Petteway’s shadow.

The third player in the Husker big three, Pitchford, will continue to cause matchup problems for Big Ten post players with his ability to shoot the outside jumper. The team leader in 3-point percentage last season, he has focused on developing his post game this offseason. If he can do so in a game setting, he has the potential to have a breakout season in 14-15. He was noticeably broader in the shoulders, which is good, because he will be called on to carry much of the burden in the post. He will need to improve defensively if the Huskers well publicized depth issue on the post doesn’t become a major weakness as they enter conference play, but his scoring prowess will continue to make him a key fixture in the Huskers success this season.

Tai Webster will be the first player most will look towards to be the next player in that mix. Webster spent much a significant portion of the offseason playing for the New Zealand national team in the FIBA Basketball World Cup, starting and playing a significant role in their surprise emergence out of the group stage before falling in the round of 16. All reports out of camp indicate a player who found his confidence and is much stronger. If Webster can make a step closer to being the player he was expected to be when he stepped on campus last fall, it will be a big factor in whether or not the Huskers can take that next step.

The Huskers also need to see more production out of their point guards. Webster started at the PG spot most of last season, but his struggles to produce led to an increase in minutes from fan favorite Benny Parker who emerged as a spark plug and defensive stalwart the last half of the season. Look for Parker and incoming freshman Tarin Smith to handle the bulk of the point guard duties, even if they do it coming off the bench as Webster is expected to still hold onto the starting spot to start the season.

Post depth will continue to be an issue for the Huskers. The Huskers will welcome Georgetown transfer Moses Abraham to the fold. He will bolster the Huskers post defense and rebounding, but the loss of Leslee Smith will be a big loss for the Huskers during non-conference play. If he can return to action in January, it could be a huge boost for this team down the stretch, when the grind hits and post depth will be paramount. In the meantime, David Rivers will likely start alongside Pitchford with Abraham likely one of the first players off the bench. Freshman Jake Hammond will also see some minutes in the post.

The only other expected newcomer of note will be Nick Fuller. The Wisconsin native redshirted last season and is considered one of the best shooters on the team. He would be the likely candidate to fill the role vacated by Ray Gallegos as the sharpshooter off the bench. He will need to prove he can contribute on the defensive end before he becomes a major contributor, but his scoring ability could help the Huskers, especially as teams look to make it difficult for the Huskers to get to the rim as well as they did last season.

Another addition to the program was in assistant coach Jim Molinari. Along with him came his 20 years of head coaching experience, most recently with Western Illinois where he led the Leathernecks to their first ever Division 1 post-season appearance, as well as 12 more seasons as an assistant, he has been a part of 10 coaching staffs that have made it to the NCAA tournament. He also brings a reputation as one of the best defensive coaches in college basketball. For a team that prided itself on its defensive ability and is cited as a big reason for their turnaround, Molinari should bring that defensive reputation and strengthen a strength for the Huskers.

Head coach Tim Miles has said he has six players he is ready to play in any situation. Who steps up to fill those roles in the seventh and eight players in the rotation will largely determine whether or not the Huskers can meet the lofty expectations in front of them. Tomorrow is the first opportunity to see who steps up when the lights get bright. Once we get through the tournament in Hawaii, we should largely know who will fill what role, but as we saw last year, things can change, even in conference play. Who will emerge? Who will struggle to meet expectations or play at this level?

The schedule sets up pretty well for the Huskers to start quickly. NU should be favored in every game it plays, with perhaps the exception of it’s trip to Tallahassee to take on Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on December 1, leading up to their trip to Hawaii where they could possibly face top 10 Wichita State in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve if they can get by the host Hawaii Rainbows. The Huskers also have a chance to exact a measure of revenge on Creighton and Cincinnati after they both knocked off the Huskers last winter. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this team could be undefeated or sit with just one loss by the time Indiana visits PBA on New Years Eve.

Conference play will most likely be more of a challenge for the Huskers than what they faced last season, especially down the stretch. NU gets five of their first seven games at home. Included in that bunch is a tilt vs. Michigan State which has the possibility of being the game of the week and is a candidate for a Gameday visit from the ESPN folks (just let that sink in for a moment…)

That it is considered is a testament to how far the program has come in less than three years. It is also the annual Coaches vs. Cancer weekend. With both Michigan St. and Nebraska being torch bearers in the fight against pediatric cancer and Dick Vitale’s efforts to raise awareness for the cause, there is potential some pretty remarkable scenarios for that day, on top of it being a massive game. Just something to keep in the back of your mind as that weekend approaches.

After the front loaded home slate, the Huskers will turn into road warriors with seven of their final 11 on the road. Included in there will be trips to Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota and Maryland. If the Huskers are going to make another 11-2, "championship" style run, it’s more likely to come on the front end of their conference slate, not the back half.

That being said, that schedule looks a lot different when you are perceived to be on top than if you’re trying to make the climb. Trips to Maryland, Illinois and Minnesota don’t look as daunting as they did in years past. Games at Purdue and Penn State aren’t toss-ups, they’re almost assumed victories. This is dangerous territory for a team whose margin for error is still fairly small.

Despite that, the ceiling for this team is still pretty high. Dream with me for a minute: if they reach their full potential, they could challenge for the highest seeding in the history of the program (3 seed in 1991). That puts them as a borderline top ten team, in contention for the conference regular season title and an opportunity for a deep run in the conference tournament. If they do that, those teams often get to stay close to home and this year, Omaha is a host site for the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament. The ultimate scenario for the Huskers is just that. Contend for the conference crown, both regular and post-season, and then stay home, and play before a home crowd with an opportunity to win that elusive NCAA tournament win, in their home state, in the building of their biggest rival. That’s the ultimate dream for Nebrasketball fans.

What if the expectations are too much? What if a more difficult conference slate wears them down? What if Webster hasn’t made the progress we all hope he has and the young kids aren’t ready play in the Big Ten? What if an injury or two deals the Huskers a blow they aren’t able to compensate for? All of these are just as likely, perhaps even more so, than the ultimate dream. The Huskers were pretty fortunate last year in terms of health and catching teams in a down year. Was last season a fluke, just lightning in a bottle? Probably not. There a lot of talent on this roster, but expectations are a new thing for this program. How will they respond now that coaches will have had an offseason to prepare for them? Lesser talented teams, on all levels, have failed to handle expectations, but that is the next step for a growing program. Win when everyone expects you to. If not, this season will be viewed as a disappointment and rightfully so.

What will happen? Probably something in between the two scenarios, but the mystery of it all is what makes us love sports so much. The storylines will hold the attention of hoops fans all across the state and the pundits, too. As the drama of the season takes shape, will it be #OperationOmaha or #MissedOpportunity?

We’re about to find out.