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Expectations have changed for Nebraska after surprise run to 2014 NCAA tournament

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LONG BEACH, California — In each of Tim Miles’ first two seasons at Nebraska the program has shown signs of progress, with their biggest strides being made from year one to year two. Buoyed by the opening of a sparkling new arena and the addition of transfers Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchford, Nebraska won 19 games, finished fourth in the Big Ten and earned the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1998.

Among the 11 games won in conference play by Miles’ Huskers were victories over Michigan State — in East Lansing — and Wisconsin, and while an 11-7 mark may not look like much to some it was a notable achievement for the Nebraska program when considering their recent history. Since that last NCAA tournament appearance Nebraska has finished above .500 in conference play just once, when they went 10-6 during the 1998-99 season as a member of the Big 12.

If there was one game last season that convinced Nebraska that not only could they make a run at an NCAA tournament bid but also make a run at earning a first round bye in the Big Ten tournament, according to both Petteway and rising junior guard Shavon Shields, it was their win at Michigan State. That game fell in the middle of a five-game win streak for the Huskers, but, more importantly, it was their first significant win on the road.

“The win at Michigan State was when we started to think, ‘we can do this,'” Shields told NBCSports.com at the adidas Nations camp earlier this month. ”

RELATED: How does Wichita State build on the best two-year run in program history?

“Most definitely the Michigan State win,” Petteway added. “And when we started our 11-3 run [11 wins in 14 games], we definitely felt that we would be an NCAA [tournament] team.”

Petteway and Shields led the way offensively for the Huskers last season, with the former taking full advantage of the year he was forced to sit out after transferring in from Texas Tech. Listed at 185 during his lone season at Texas Tech, Petteway entered the 2013-14 season weighing 209, the hard work done in the weight room and in practices translated onto the floor.

“I put on about 20 pounds in the weight room, and that got me quicker, stronger, faster and more explosive,” Petteway said. “That was the area where I [made the greatest strides], and it changed my game.”

Petteway finished the season averaging 18.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest, shooting 42.6% from the field and reaching double figures in 30 of the Huskers’ 32 games. For his efforts Petteway was a first team All-Big Ten selection, and the question now is what he can do to follow up on his sparkling debut season.

As for Shields he improved his production in his sophomore season by just over four points per game, going from scoring 8.6 points per game as a freshman to 12.8 per contest in 2013-14. Shields shot better than 44 percent from the field last season, and his ability to get to the foul line resulted in Shields being ranked fourth in the Big Ten in free throw rate. For Shields and his teammates who played on Miles’ first team in 2012-13, the lessons learned during that season proved beneficial in 2013-14.

“My freshman year we really didn’t have the players [needed] to do what Coach Miles really wanted to do,” Shields noted. “But last year we had Walt [Pitchford], Terran and Tai coming in and me, Dave [Rivers] and Benny returning, and that really helped us get over the hump talent-wise.

“We learned from [the losses],” Shield added. “Me, Dave and Benny gained experience and we had a better idea of what it took to play in the Big Ten, and Terran and Walt were able to see what it took to play in the Big Ten. That year really helped us [last season].”

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While Petteway and Shields were Nebraska’s most productive offensive players last season and will be expected to fill similar roles in 2014-15, it took more than just two players to end the Huskers’ NCAA tournament dry spell. Pitchford accounted for 9.2 points and 4.7 rebounds, and players such as Ray Gallegos, Benny Parker, Leslee Smith and Tai Webster were also solid members of the rotation. With Gallegos out of eligibility and Smith expected to miss the entire season after suffering a torn ACL, others will need to step forward if Nebraska is to return to the NCAA tournament.

“Leslee was a big piece to what we did defensively, and he’s a good voice in the locker room,” Shields said. “The injury hurts us because he can do a lot of things, especially defensively. Losing him really hurts, and I hope he has a speedy recovery.”

Georgetown graduate transfer Moses Abraham is expected to help Nebraska in the front court and the same can be said for junior David Rivers and freshman Jacob Hammond, who became an even more important figure once Smith was lost. Last season Nebraska was one of the best teams in the Big Ten when it came to protecting the defensive glass, as their defensive rebounding percentage (72.8%) ranked second in the conference in league games.

That occurred as a result of Nebraska getting the job done collectively, with Shields (5.8 rpg) being the team’s best rebounder and four players averaging at least 4.7 caroms per contest. With Smith (4.8 rpg) possibly out of the equation, that will once again need to be the case.

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With the goal heading into the 2014-15 season being to not only return to the NCAA tournament but also make sure their stay in the 68-team event is longer that it was last season, Nebraska will also have to deal with increased expectations. Prior to last season, Big Ten media members who participated in a poll put together by Bob Baptist of the Columbus Dispatch picked the Huskers to finish last in the conference, only for Nebraska to prove everyone wrong and finish in fourth place.

And making sure a program is strong enough to deal with increased expectations is part of the process in building a program. After making improvements in each of Miles’ first two seasons in Lincoln, Nebraska will look to take another step forward against competition that will show them a greater amount of respect. That can be a difficult situation for some programs to deal with, and remaining consistent will be a key for Nebraska if they’re build on last year’s success according to Shields.

“Just staying consistent and staying together,” Shields said. “Those are probably the most important things, and if we can do that we’ll be alright.”

Nebraska hasn’t made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances since the early 1990’s, when they made four straight trips under then-head coach Danny Nee with Eric Piatkowski and Erick Strickland among the standouts on those teams. If this current group of Huskers has their way, the group that’s also responsible for the program’s lone conference tournament title (1994) could have some company at the end of the 2014-15 season.

Kansas players make weight room gains – and losses – this summer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - JUNE 18: Udoka Azubuike #105 in red runs back for defense the NBPA Top 100 Camp on June 18, 2015 at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Kelly Kline/Getty Images)
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Summer is the time to refine not only players’ skill sets, but also their bodies. Kansas’ highly-touted freshman duo of Josh Jackson and Udoka Azubuike have fulfilled the latter thanks to the Jayhawks’ strength and conditioning program.

Azubuike has dropped 27 pounds from his 7-foot frame while the wiry Jackson has added 17 pounds, according to the Kansas City Star.

“These guys have goals,” Adrea Hurdy, Kansas’ long-time assistant director for sports information, told The Star. “They come here in part because we have the resources to help them attain their goals.

“They want the challenge and want to become better people, better basketball players and better athletes.”

Only 16 years old, Azubuike arrived in Lawrence having been consistently listed as weighing around 270 pounds throughout his prep career. Getting leaner while still maintaining – and increasing – strength is a significant development for such a young player, who was a consensus top-50 player in the 2016 class.

Jackson, the country’s top rated incoming freshman, now weighs in at slightly over 200 pounds at 6-foot-8. Six-foot-10 forward Carlton Bragg,a sophomore, also got in on the body-changing as he’s put on 26 pounds to head into the fall at 247 pounds.

Kansas is a likely top-five preseason team with returners like Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk, and having newcomers like Jackson and Azubuike along with sparsely-used but talented returnees like Bragg making gains in the weight room will only make them more formidable as they look to capture an astounding 13th-straight Big 12 title.

 

Texas bolsters 2017 frontcourt

Texas head coach Shaka Smart calls a play during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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Shaka Smart has added another four-star forward to his 2017 recruiting class.

Texas picked up a commitment Tuesday from 6-foot-8 Jericho Sims of Minnesota, according to multiple reports.

Sims, who visited Texas this past weekend, is ranked in the top-50 by Scout and in the top-75 by ESPN and 247Sports. He joins Royce Hamm, a top-100 forward from Houston, as members Smart’s second recruiting class at Texas.

“Jericho Sims is a late-blooming big man who has a lot of room to grow in terms of upside,” NBCSports.com recruiting analyst Scott Phillips said. “A good athlete with a good frame to work with, Sims should help immediately on the glass and defensively but his offense will be a work in progress.

“Texas has a large recruiting class and targeted Sims later than many, so this is a nice commitment for the Longhorns.”

The commitment represents a significant get for the Longhorns, who beat out the likes of Kansas, Iowa State, Ohio State, Connecticut and Sims’ hometown Gophers, whom his father played basketball for in the 1970s and his brother football more recently.

Sims and Hamm both are players that could help Smart and his staff transition more back to the Havoc style of play Smart employed at VCU as both have the length, speed and athleticism to help the Longhorns dial up the pressure and push tempo.

Five-star 2017 point guard Trevon Duval down to 10 schools

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 9: Trevon Duval during the 2015  Under Armour All-America Basketball Camp on July 9, 2015 at Queens College in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Under Armour)
(Photo by Ned Dishman/Under Armour)
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Five-star point guard Trevon Duval is the most electrifying lead guard in the Class of 2017. The native of Delaware dominated the Under Armour circuit this spring and is currently regarded by many as a top-five player in the class by most recruiting services.

Now he’s down to 10 schools as his recruiting is starting to become more of a focus. The 6-foot-2 Duval is down to Arizona, Cal, Kansas, Maryland, Oregon, St. John’s, Seton Hall, UCLA, USC and Villanova.

Things are still early in the process for Duval and it will be interesting to see if he schedules any official visits soon.

Ohio State gaining recruiting momentum with two 2018 commitments

DAYTON, OH - MARCH 24: Head coach Thad Matta of the Ohio State Buckeyes claps on the sideline in the first half against the Iowa State Cyclones during the third round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on March 24, 2013 in Dayton, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Ohio State has lost quite a few transfers and hasn’t had a lot go their way with regards to recent recruiting, but things could be changing after a good weekend.

The Class of 2018 is starting to look really good for the Buckeyes as they landed commitments from wings Darius Bazley and Justin Ahrens this weekend. The two in-state products are grassroots teammates together on King James and they give Ohio State three commitments in that class.

Bazley is considered a four-star prospect on Rivals while Ahrens checks in as a three-star. They join another Ohio native, guard Dane Goodwin, in the class as this could be the group that helps bring Ohio State back in regular Big Ten contention.

Butler lands commitment from four-star 2017 forward Kyle Young

Atlanta, GA - SUNDAY, MAY 29: Nike EYBL. Kyle Young #34 of King James Session 4. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
(Photo by Jon Lopez)
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Butler picked up an important commitment on Monday as four-star forward Kyle Young committed to the Bulldogs.

A Class of 2017 stretch forward who can hit jumpers and has an improving skill set, the 6-foot-7 Young comes from Massillon, Ohio and he’s regarded as the No. 109 overall prospect.

Young was impressive in the Nike EYBL this spring and summer with King James as he averaged 15.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game as he shot 48 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range.

This is a nice grab for Butler as Young is the type of versatile perimeter shooter that they like to utilize and he should be able to help a bit on the glass as well.

Young joins a class that includes guards Cooper Neese and Jerald Butler.