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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. ”

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“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.

Villanova’s Jenkins to return for senior season

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) reacts to play against North Carolina during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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After briefly taking part in the NBA Draft evaluation process, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins announced Monday night that he’s decided to withdraw and return to school for his senior year. Jenkins, whose three-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats the win over North Carolina in the national title game, announced the news via Twitter.

2015-16 was a breakout season for Jenkins, who moved into the starting lineup and averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The 6-foot-6 forward shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and with starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating he’ll have even more opportunities to produce next season.

Jenkins’ decision to return leaves wing Josh Hart as the lone Wildcats going through the early entry process at this time. Hart was a first team All-Big East selection as a junior, and his return would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that many expect to be a national title contender in 2016-17.

Jenkins and Hart wouldn’t be the only returnees who had a part in the national title run, with guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, wing Mikal Bridges and forward Darryl Reynolds back as well. To that group Villanova adds Fordham transfer Eric Paschall and a recruiting class anchored by Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter with Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney available after being hampered by injuries last season.

Delaney missed all of last year after undergoing surgical procedures on his hips, and DiVincenzo played a total of 74 minutes over the first nine games before having to sit due to a broken foot.

Florida State guard Rathan-Mayes to return for junior season

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (22) drives past Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger, left, for a score in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
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With their top three scorers from last season all deciding to declare for the NBA Draft, Florida State was facing the possibility of having to rebuild their backcourt ahead of the 2016-17 season. However two of those three have decided to return to Tallahassee, with rising junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes announcing on Monday that he will be back in school.

Rathan-Mayes joins rising sophomore Dwayne Bacon in returning to play another season for head coach Leonard Hamilton, with Malik Beasley hiring representation and remaining in the draft.

Rathan-Mayes had more scoring help last season and as a result was able to concentrate more on the distribution aspects of the point guard position, as he averaged 11.8 points and 4.4 assists per contest. With the return of Rathan-Mayes and Bacon, Florida State will have two of its top three scorers from last season back on campus.

The Seminoles did lose some veteran players, most notably guard Devon Bookert and center Boris Bojanovsky, but the returnees and a recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American forward Jonathan Isaac means that they won’t lack for options next season.

Auburn lands third transfer within the last week

Auburn guard T.J. Dunans (4) and coach Bruce Pearl celebrate a 75-74 win over UAB in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.  (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)
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After receiving commitments from former Purdue/Houston guard Ronnie Johnson and former Presbyterian forward DeSean Murray, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl continued to load up on the transfer market Monday. Forward LaRon Smith, who was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Bethune-Cookman last season, announced that he will use his final season of eligibility at the SEC program.

Like Smith, Johnson will also be eligible to compete immediately for the Tigers while Murray will have to sit out next season before having two years of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-8 Smith played two seasons at Georgia State before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, where he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest in 2015-16. Smith played just over 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.

Smith reached double figures in scoring in four of the Wildcats’ final seven games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in an overtime win over North Carolina A&T. He joins a front court in need of depth following the departures of the likes of Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris, with Horace Spencer, Trayvon Reed and incoming freshman Anfernee McLemore also competing for minutes in 2016-17.

SMU lands former Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt

Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt (24) leaps for a layup past Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips (25) during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. Arkansas won 75-65. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP
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With a five-member recruiting class set to arrive on campus this summer, SMU added a talented transfer Monday afternoon. Jimmy Whitt, who played his freshman season at Arkansas, committed to join Larry Brown’s program. Whitt, a 6-foot-4 guard from Columbia, Missouri, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2016-17 campaign.

As a freshman at Arkansas, Whitt averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in just over 17 minutes of action per game. He reached double figures in scoring nine time, with the high being a 15-point outing in a blowout win over Missouri in mid-January. Whitt produced a stretch of four consecutive games in double figures during non-conference play, but he struggled to maintain that consistency against SEC competition.

At SMU he’ll join a perimeter rotation that will lose rising senior Sterling Brown following the 2016-17 season. Among those who will have eligibility remaining when Whitt becomes eligible are Ben Emelogu, Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and incoming freshmen Tom Wilson and Dashawn McDowell.

 

Boise State assistant named head coach at Northern Colorado

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Courtesy UNCBears.com
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GREELEY, Colo. (AP) Jeff Linder is the new basketball coach at Northern Colorado. He spent the last six seasons at Boise State, where he was associate head coach for the Broncos since 2013-14.

Linder replaces B.J. Hill, who was fired last month amid an NCAA investigation into allegations of violations in the program.

University President Kay Norton and Athletic Director Darren Dunn announced Linder’s hiring Sunday.

Linder played high school ball in Lafayette, Colorado, and college ball at Mesa State and Western Colorado State. He began his coaching career under Colorado head coach Ricardo Patton.

In a statement, Linder said, “I look forward to returning home to the state of Colorado and continuing to build this program into something everyone can be proud of.”

Hill was 86-98 in six seasons at UNC.