Huskers looking for more after breakthrough season
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) These are heady days for the Nebraska basketball program.
The Cornhuskers are coming off their highest conference finish and first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998, and played to sellout crowds in their first year at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Shavon Shields said when he and his teammates went out to lunch or to the movies during the offseason, well-wishers were quick to slap them on the back and urge them to keep the wins coming.
There's even a waiting list for season-tickets now - almost unimaginable for a program that hasn't won a conference championship since 1950.
''I've had a blast. That's what it's supposed to be like,'' third-year coach Tim Miles said of the vibe around his program. ''I think it's earned with these guys. But now staying there and continuing to elevate is sometimes more difficult than the innocent climb to get where they are now.''
All five starters, including Big Ten scoring leader Terran Petteway, return from the team that went 19-13 and won eight of its last nine regular-season games to finish fourth in the conference. Along the way they knocked off two top-10 opponents, Michigan State on the road and Final Four participant Wisconsin at home.
''Preseason hype is always based on the year-before's performance, and I think our guys finished so strong that naturally they're going to get attention because we return a large part of our team,'' Miles said. ''But every year's different. Last year we got hot. I don't know that means you're exactly a good team.
''This year we're out to prove we can be a good team.''
Shields said he appreciates the excitement surrounding the Huskers. Still, he and his teammates weren't satisfied with how last season ended because they fell short of their goals - winning a Big Ten regular-season title or a game in the NCAA tournament (they lost 74-60 to Baylor).
''Everybody is kind of hungry to build on some of the good things we did, but we need to push that farther,'' Shields said.
Here are some things to watch for the coming season, which begins Nov. 16 against Northern Kentucky:
The 6-foot-9, 252-pound Abraham will provide some bulk when Miles wants to go with a big lineup. Abraham blocked 23 shots while averaging 13 minutes a game for Georgetown last season.
Smith was a two-year starter at point guard in coach Bob Hurley's famed St. Anthony High program in Jersey City, New Jersey, while the 6-foot-10, 230-pound Hammond averaged 26 points and 15 rebounds at Comanche (Okla.) High last season.
PRESEASON RANKING? The Huskers are poised to be ranked in The Associated Press' preseason Top 25 for the second time, and first since 1992-93. Miles said he would welcome a ranking because it would show prospective recruits his program is recognized nationally.
CHANGING HIS GAME: Miles wants the 6-foot-10 Walter Pitchford to get to the free-throw line more than his average last season of 3.3 times a game. Pitchford is a matchup nightmare because he's a 41 percent 3-point shooter, but Miles said he also needs the forward to attack the rim and get fouled.
ALL ABOUT DEFENSE: Nebraska became one of the Big Ten's better defensive teams during conference play, and Miles said that needs to continue. The Huskers were second in field-goal defense and third in scoring defense in Big Ten games.
PETTEWAY THE PRO? Petteway already has drawn the attention of pro scouts and if he has another big year, he could be Nebraska's first NBA first-round draft pick since Venson Hamilton in 1999.
Petteway, a junior, is scheduled to graduate in May.
''If he's got a chance to secure his future, I would advise him to do that,'' Miles said. ''Would I love to keep him here and see what he can do? Absolutely. At the same time, you only get those cracks so many times in life.''