Northern Kentucky-Nebraska Preview
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - These are heady days for Nebraska basketball.
The Cornhuskers are coming off their best conference finish and first NCAA tournament since 1998, and played to sellout crowds in their first year at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Now they've earned a preseason ranking for only the second time. The first was 22 years ago.
Shavon Shields said when he and his teammates went out 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. "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."
A season of greatly heightened expectations begins Sunday when the No. 21 Huskers take on Northern Kentucky.
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 to finish fourth in the conference. Along the way they knocked off two top-10 opponents, beating 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 that while he appreciates the excitement, the Huskers aren't satisfied after falling short of their goals last season: winning a Big Ten regular-season title or a game in the NCAAs. They lost their tournament opener 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.
A few promising newcomers will look to help the returning players get over that hump, including graduate transfer Moses Abraham and freshmen Tarin Smith and Jake Hammond, who are all in line for significant playing time.
Abraham, at 6-foot-9 and 252 pounds, will provide bulk when Miles wants to go with a big lineup. He blocked 23 shots while averaging 13 minutes for Georgetown last season.
Smith was a two-year starter at point guard for coach Bob Hurley's famed program at St. Anthony High School 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.
Miles wants 6-foot-10 Walter Pitchford to get to the free throw line more than his average last season of 3.3 per game. Pitchford is a matchup nightmare as a 41 percent 3-point shooter, but Miles said he needs the forward to attack the rim and get fouled.
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 is drawing the attention of NBA scouts, and if he has another big year, he could be the fourth first-round draft pick in school history. The junior forward 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."
This game marks the second in a row against a Big Ten opponent for Northern Kentucky (0-1), which was trounced 62-31 by No. 3 Wisconsin on Friday. Reserve Daniel Camps scored a team-high eight points for the Norse, whose starters combined for the same amount.