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.

Martin brothers lead No. 24 Nevada past Utah State, 93-87

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LOGAN, Utah — Cody Martin scored 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting and twin brother Caleb Martin added 23 points to lead No. 24 Nevada to a 93-87 win over Utah State on Saturday.

Jordan Caroline chipped in with 20 points for the Wolf Pack. Nevada (23-5, 11-2 Mountain West) shot 59.3 percent from the field — including 11-of-21 from 3-point range — to pull away from the Aggies.

Koby McEwen scored 32 points and Sam Merrill added 16 to lead Utah State. The Aggies (14-14, 7-8 MW) have lost 14 straight to ranked opponents and fell to the Wolf Pack at home for the second time in five games.

Utah State was the hotter team from the field early, going 13 of 19 (68.4 percent) in the first 12 minutes. Nevada used a 17-0 run late in the first half to take its first double-digit lead at 47-37. Cody Martin converted a four-point play to ignite the run, and Hallice Cooke and Kendall Stephens put the Wolf Pack in front with back-to-back 3-poitners.

Nevada ultimately took a 52-40 halftime lead as Utah State missed 12 of 13 shots over the final 7:19 of the first half.

The Aggies trimmed the lead to 72-66 on a dunk from DeAngelo Isby with 8:32 left. Nevada kept Utah State from getting any closer by hitting six straight baskets over a five-minute stretch. Caroline finished the string with a 3-pointer that put the Wolf Pack up 87-75 with 3:10 remaining.

McEwen ran off eight points in a minute, capped by a hammer dunk, to cut Nevada’s lead to 91-87 with 14.6 seconds left. Caleb Martin sealed the win by making a pair of free throws with 7.6 seconds to go.

BIG PICTURE

Nevada: The Wolf Pack opened up a 1 1/2 -game lead over Boise State atop the Mountain West standings and avoided a loss that could have damaged their NCAA Tournament hopes. With three of its four remaining games coming against the lower half of the league, Nevada can clinch at least a share of the regular season title in the week ahead.

Utah State: The Aggies feasted on a steady diet 3-pointers from the opening tip and it ultimately cost them. Utah State hit 6 of 10 from beyond the arc through the first 12 minutes, but went 1 of 10 over the next eight minutes. The Aggies finished 10 of 33 (30.3 percent) from the perimeter.

UP NEXT

Nevada: The Wolf Pack host San Jose State on Wednesday.

Utah State: The Aggies visit Air Force on Saturday.

Yante Maten leads Georgia to upset of No. 18 Tennessee

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ATHENS, Ga. — Yante Maten scored 19 points and Georgia held off No. 18 Tennessee for a 73-62 victory Saturday that denied the Volunteers an opportunity to pull within a game of the SEC lead.

Derek Ogbeide had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Georgia (15-11, 6-8 Southeastern Conference) won its second straight in a late attempt to return to NCAA Tournament consideration.

Tennessee (19-7, 9-5) remained two games behind No. 10 Auburn, the SEC leader, which lost to South Carolina 84-75 on Saturday. The Vols have lost two of their last three.

Lamonte Turner led Tennessee with 14 points. Jordan Bowden had 13, and Admiral Schofield 11.

Foul trouble helped to limit Tennessee’s Grant Williams to five points, 11 below his average. Williams made only one of eight shots from the field.

Tennessee’s last lead was 6-5. Georgia briefly led by double figures at 38-28 before a 3-pointer by Schofield started the Vols’ comeback.

A tip-in by Kyle Alexander cut the Georgia lead to 51-49, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage of repeated opportunities to pull even.

A three-point play by Ogbeide and a 3-pointer by Tyree Crump gave the Bulldogs a 57-51 lead. Ogbeide’s tip-in of a Maten miss pushed the lead to eight points. Crump added another 3 for a 62-54 lead with 1:54 remaining.

Maten scored 11 of Georgia’s first 13 points but left the game after collecting his second foul with about five minutes remaining in the half. He sat out all but a few seconds of the final five minutes as the Bulldogs saw their big lead of 21-12 shrink.

Turner and Bowden made 3-pointers to help the Vols cut into the deficit before halftime.

Schofield briefly left the game midway through the first half when he landed hard on the court after battling for a rebound.

There were delays at the start of each half, each lasting several minutes, due to shot-clock malfunctions.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Vols trailed by only two points at halftime, 28-26, despite offensive struggles most of the half. Tennessee showed good composure in trimming Georgia’s lead after Williams went to the bench with four fouls and only four points with 11:21 remaining.

Georgia: The Bulldogs continue to struggle with their backcourt play. Tennessee’s man-to-man pressure had an immediate effect on Georgia’s half-court offense as Georgia struggled to run plays. The Bulldogs’ best success came when the guards were able to quickly pass to Maten, even if he wasn’t near the basket.

TAKE A BOW

Two former Georgia standout guards were featured in promotions. J.J. Frazier bobblehead toys were given to fans, and Frazier was on hand to lead a pregame cheer. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, now with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, attended the game and given a tribute during a timeout.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: Hosts Florida on Wednesday night.

Georgia: Visits South Carolina on Wednesday night.

Does Kansas have enough in the tank after rallying to beat West Virginia?

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For the second time this season, Kansas overcame a double-digit deficit to knock off Big 12 rival West Virginia. This time, the No. 13 Jayhawks might have saved their chances of winning another Big 12 regular-season title with a critical 77-69 home win over the No. 20 Mountaineers on Saturday evening.

After trailing by as many as 12 points during the second half, the Jayhawks finished the game on a 19-3 run to close things out as West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins was ejected towards the end of the contest.

Struggling to a slow start once again against West Virginia, the Jayhawks grinded out offense at the free-throw line before finally figuring things out down the stretch. Playing with a thin rotation that looked exhausted by the end of the game, Kansas is lucky to come out of this one with a win. The free-throw disparity certainly played a huge part as Kansas had a 35-2 advantage in that department. The discrepancy helped lead to Huggins’ ejection as he had to be frustrated by those numbers. Even though West Virginia is a pressing team that commits a lot of fouls, and shoots a ton of threes, 35-to-2 is a pretty staggering difference.

Big man Udoka Azubuike had a strong second half for the Jayhawks, as he took advantage of additional touches on the interior to finish with a team-high 21 points and five rebounds. Dominant whenever he was able to get a post touch within five feet, Azubuike was 7-for-8 from the floor on Saturday as he’s now 20-for-22 from the floor over his last three games. Also coming up with a few key blocks down the stretch, Azubuike made momentum-shifting plays on both ends of the floor.

While Kansas had a monster performance from its monster in the middle, this was another win in which the Jayhawks needed to claw back from a big deficit to win at home. Not quite the same threat at The Phog this season as they’ve been in years past, the Jayhawks have looked beatable at home during many nights this season.

But even though Kansas hasn’t looked immortal, they’ll certainly take an important win like this over a tough opponent like West Virginia.  The win means the Jayhawks are still within striking distance of Texas Tech as the Red Raiders are on the road against Baylor on Saturday night. The big question with Kansas will be if they have enough gas to close things out and potentially win another Big 12 regular season title. Regardless of how the Red Raiders do against the Bears on Saturday, Kansas will get its chance at Texas Tech with a game in Lubbock next week.

Before they get to that all-important game, however, the Jayhawks have to overcome being worn down. Having to exert a lot of energy by playing starters heavy minutes during emotional comeback wins isn’t going to help in that equation.

Jay Bilas noted that Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham has only missed 30 seconds of action total over his last 10 games. The All-American floor general is literally playing 40 minutes per night. And although Graham was still a warrior in finishing with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, he never took over in a tight, must-win game like an All-American would usually do.

Graham made a key three-pointer and still put up a good stat line, but he only finished with six field goal attempts. His teammates were usually the ones going on strong scoring runs. This could ultimately be the byproduct of Graham riding the hot hands of his teammates and being a good floor leader. It should also be noted that Graham went to the charity stripe 10 times as he was getting fouled quite a bit.

But Graham could also be wearing down after all of the recent minutes. Graham is averaging 37.2 minutes per game this season. For perspective, Jimmy Butler is leading the NBA in minutes at 37.3 minutes a night. Basketball fans constantly make jokes about Tom Thibodeau running him into the ground. In other words, Graham’s recent workload has been ridiculous.

And Graham’s fatigue is starting to show in his shooting numbers. Over his last four games, Graham is shooting 36 percent from the floor (20-for-55) as his scoring production has started to dip. Graham is also only 8-for-24 on two-point field goals during that span, as most of his offensive production is coming from threes and free throws. Things aren’t going to get any easier for Graham when he has to face opponents like Trae Young and Oklahoma and Texas Tech next week.

Does Graham have enough in the tank to get Kansas past that stretch for two more wins? When will his teammates run out of gas if they have to keep playing at full speed during every game?

Azubuike also had to play 31 minutes in Saturday’s win over West Virginia — the first time he’s had to play over 25 minutes since Jan. 20. Looking gassed at the end, Azubuike still managed to muster enough energy for those big plays late in the game. Other Kansas starters are also playing well north of 30 minutes every game as it leads to some inconsistent nights.

Even if Kansas somehow manages to win another Big 12 regular season title, it might come at the expense of everything else this season. The Jayhawks might not have anything left to give after another few weeks of games like this.

Minnesota’s Amir Coffey out for the season with shoulder injury

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Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey will miss the rest of his sophomore season with a season-ending shoulder injury, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-8 Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s most productive freshman last season but he wasn’t able to stay consistently healthy during the 2017-18 campaign. Coffey put up solid numbers when he was able to play, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, but he missed 10 total games with the injury.

Coffey has been out for the last five games, and with Minnesota’s postseason hopes plummeting during an eight-game losing streak, the decision to hold him out was probably best for his long-term health.

Barford leads dominant Arkansas past No. 21 Texas A&M, 94-75

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford capped off the most difficult stretch of his young Southeastern Conference career with a disappointing and foul-plagued performance the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M.

The standout Razorbacks forward remembered that game all too well, and it showed as he added yet another dominating effort to his remarkable freshman season on Saturday.

Gafford scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting to lead Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) to its fourth straight win, 94-75 over the No. 21 Aggies. It was the fifth straight game in double figures for Gafford, who is shooting 70.7 percent (29 of 41) since the 80-66 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 30.

The 6-foot-11 freshman was on a mission to atone for that loss, and it showed as he hit his first five shots and punctuated the dominating win with a late dunk.

“Playing them here, in my mind I had to play smarter and more physical,” Gafford said. “Because in my mind, I was ready for them. I was ready for Tyler Davis, I was ready for pretty much all the big men because pretty much I got punked when we went up to Texas A&M, and I didn’t want that to happen tonight.”

Gafford had plenty of help from his teammates, with Jaylen Barford scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and adding five rebounds and five assists for the surging Razorbacks.

Also, Daryl Macon finished with 20 points for an Arkansas team that’s won seven of its last nine. It was the eighth time in the last nine games Macon has scored 20 or more. C.J. Jones had 13 points off the bench.

Robert Williams had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8), which lost its second straight after entering the rankings this week. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had three blocks and finished 10 of 13 from the field.

Admon Gilder also scored 20 points for the Aggies, while Davis added 15 points and T.J. Starks had 12. However, Texas A&M was unable to slow down an Arkansas team that shot 49.3 percent (35 of 71) from the field and hit 10 of 23 3-pointers.

“There’s not many teams going to come in here and beat Arkansas when they shoot the ball like they did today,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well and made some tough shots.”

REBOUNDING RAZORBACKS

Texas A&M entered the game 3rd nationally and tops in the SEC in rebounding with an average of 41.9 per game. The Aggies also outrebounded Arkansas 45-30 in their win last month, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on Saturday — finishing with a 45-33 edge on the glass.

Freshman Darious Hall followed up his career-best 11-rebound effort in a win over Mississippi earlier in the week with seven rebounds in only 17 minutes on Saturday, and Gafford and senior Trey Thompson had six rebounds apiece.

“This is a team that beat us by 15 at their place, and they’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country with all that size,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Somehow we found the energy. We found the players that were really engaged and going to get those rebounds.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The last time the Aggies won in Fayetteville was March 1, 1986, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference and Arkansas still played in Barnhill Arena. They led only once on Saturday, a 4-2 advantage that disappeared quickly after the Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run. Texas A&M was 0 of 7 on 3-pointers while trailing 43-32 at halftime, and it just avoided matching its season low for 3-pointers — finishing 4 of 17 as a team.

Arkansas: The win starts a difficult five-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas, which entered Saturday 32nd in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Beginning with the 18th-rated Aggies, the Razorbacks face teams all 31st or higher in the ratings during the five games — including Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. They started the stretch in dominating fashion on Saturday, a key victory for a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons this year.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M returns home to face Mississippi State on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks host Kentucky on Tuesday.