LINCOLN, Neb. — There’s no way to sugarcoat this, so here goes.
Nebraska isn’t winning the Big Ten this season. In fact, it’ll be lucky to finish in the top half of the conference.
But that’s not a fair measure by which to gauge Tim Miles’ fifth season.
With last season’s leading scorer Shavon Shields now playing overseas and leading rebounder Andrew White III playing at Syracuse, Nebraska is left with a young, raw team with lots of potential and little experience.
So what would classify this season as successful in Lincoln? Here are five things the Huskers can do:
Develop a solid rotation for the future
Going into Nebraska’s exhibition game against Chadron State on Monday, Miles said he wasn’t sure who is starting five would be.
He ended up with this:
|Shooting guard||Tai Webster||Senior|
|Point guard||Glynn Watson Jr.||Sophomore|
The two-guard, three-forward set seemed to work, and during the game a steady rotation seemed to form with junior Anton Gill replacing Watson at the point, freshman Jeriah Horne replacing Webster at the 2-guard, and freshmen Isaiah Roby and Jordy Tshimanga the first off the bench in the frontcourt.
Nebraska is so young, and chock-full of freshman and sophomores, developing a solid starting five and a solid bench this year to lay the foundation for upcoming seasons would be a giant win for the season.
If Nebraska can go nine deep and mix and match a roster, that’d be a huge step for the program — especially considering Miles’ struggles to find a bench the past few years.
Beat Clemson or Dayton, compete with Creighton and Kansas
Nebraska’ nonconference schedule is pretty rough.
The Huskers will face Dayton on Thanksgiving (and potentially No. 16 UCLA the next day) in Southern California as part of the Wooden Legacy, then in an 11-day span travel to Clemson, host No. 22 Creighton and go to No. 3 Kansas.
Miles said at his preseason news conference that when he set up this nonconference schedule years ago, he thought his team would be able to compete with some national heavies. But with the transfer of White and the reliance on youth this season, that hasn’t really panned out.
Dayton was a No. 7 seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament and lost to No. 10 Syracuse in the first round. The Flyers return their leading scorer, Charles Cooke, leading assist man Scoochie Smith, and look like they’ll compete the A-10 title.
Clemson would be a solid win, as well, for the Huskers. Clemson was 17-14 last season and just missed the NIT. The Tigers return most of their starting five, including leading scorer Jaron Blossomgame (18.7 ppg last season).
A win over either of those teams shows maturity, particularly a road win over a Power Five foe.
Nebraska will be a massive underdog against Creighton and Kansas. A win is the ultimate goal, but the more realistic goal for the Huskers should be to compete with these two squads. Make it a competitive game with 10 minutes left in the second half, give themselves a chance to steal a huge game.
A 20- or 30-point loss would hurt the program. A 10-point loss at least would show Nebraska can compete with some of the best.
Find a star player
Without White, Nebraska is now a faceless team.
The Huskers need a go-to guy this season, and there are some potential prospects. One obvious choice would be Webster, the team’s leading returning scorer. The best bet, though, is Roby.
The freshman was impressive off the bench against Chadron State, scoring a game-high 16 points on 5-of-5 shooting in 23 minutes. He also added seven rebounds, two blocks, two steals and an assist. Roby could be a do-everything guy for the Huskers. Miles has already called him the best freshman he’s ever had at any school.
Win 17 games
It’s a little disingenuous to call for Nebraska to be above .500, something Miles has only done once in his four seasons at Nebraska.
But getting above .500 and winning 17 games would nonetheless be a good bar for this Nebraska team. More wins than that and it’s a wildly successful season.
Even if Nebraska loses to Kansas, Clemson, Creighton, Dayton and potentially UCLA, the Huskers could still get to at least 18 wins if they beat all the teams on their schedule that aren’t currently ranked in the Top 25.
Because college basketball is college basketball, Nebraska likely won’t win all 18 of those games. But, because college basketball is college basketball, Nebraska could win a couple of those games against a ranked team.
Regardless, a 17-win season is out there and doable.
Make an NIT push
If Nebraska does win 17 games or more, its schedule could be strong enough for an NIT bid.
The bad thing about being in the Big Ten is having to play ranked teams often. The good thing about being in the Big Ten is having to play ranked teams often — it makes the strength of schedule stronger, and gives a team more opportunities to build a résumé.
Five Big Ten teams are currently ranked: No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 11 Indiana, No. 12 Michigan State, No. 15 Purdue and No. 25 Maryland. Beat one or more of those and Nebraska could have a decent-enough resume to make the postseason.
An NIT bid would be a building block for the coming years, and would prove this team could be special in a few years.