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.

RELATED: K-State’s Marcus Foster hasn’t forgotten or forgiven teams that pulled offers

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.

Former Memphis star Joe Jackson arrested on felony charges

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Former Memphis point guard Joe Jackson was arrested on felony drug and gun charges on Wednesday night.

The Memphis native and former McDonald’s All-American was charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to manufacture, distribute or sell as well as possession of a firearm while committing a felony, according to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

Jackson was pulled over for an improper turn on Wednesday, and when officers searched the car, they found a back-pack that smelled like marijuana. From the paper:

When officers opened the backpack they found a pill bottle filled with 100 various colored pills that had symbols of a naked lady, a four-leaf clover, a Superman symbol and a dolphin printed on them. Police believed the pills to be ecstasy, according to the affidavit.

Officers also found a .40-caliber pistol under the driver’s seat and a .loaded .22 Keltec pistol in the backpack with the drugs, police said.

Police also found $4,500 all in $100 bills in the backpack.

Jackson was a five-star prospect that played for Memphis from 2010-2014. He was named Conference USA Player of the Year in 2013 but nearly transferred out of the program at one point due to the scrutiny he received and the amount of pressure that came with being a native son touted as the savior of the program.

He played in the Las Vegas Summer League last month.

It has been a bad year for former basketball players from Memphis. To say nothing of what happened with the Lawsons, Zach Randolph was arrested for possession in Los Angeles, former Tiger and Tennessee Volunteer Scooter McFagdon was caught up in a drug bust as was former walk-on Clyde Wade III, and Memphis-native and former Louisville point guard Chris Jones was shot after a fight at a pickup game.

South Carolina coach suspends G Rakym Felder indefinitely

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard Rakym Felder has been suspended indefinitely and won’t attend classes this fall, another blow to a thinning Gamecock backcourt that reached the Final Four this past April.

Felder’s status was announced by coach Frank Martin on Wednesday.

Felder had been suspended since June 30 for his involvement in a fight outside a bar. He was arrested July 13 and charged with assault and battery.

“Due to some unfortunate decisions by Rakym, he has been suspended indefinitely from our program,” Martin said in a statement.

Felder’s loss further weakens a South Carolina team that was already short in the backcourt after last season’s NCAA Tournament run. Three starting guards from last year, including leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell, along with rising sophomore P.J. Dozier, are no longer with the team. Dozier entered the NBA draft and, after not getting selected, signed this month with the Dallas Mavericks.

Thornwell signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, who picked him in the second round.

Felder, from Brooklyn, New York, was supposed to slide into one of the openings created by the departing guards. He played in 36 games last season, averaging 14.6 minutes off the bench.

Like the rest of the team, Felder stepped things up in the NCAAs. He scored 15 points, including going 7-of-8 at the foul line in the final five minutes to hold off No. 2 seed Duke, 88-81, in the second round.

Felder had nine points and three assists in South Carolina’s Sweet 16 win, a 70-50 victory over No. 3 seed Baylor.

Minus Felder, the Gamecocks only guard from South Carolina’s regular rotation with experience at South Carolina is junior Hassani Gravett.

Felder took full responsibility for his actions and apologized to the school, the team and Gamecock fans in a statement through his attorney, Neal Lourie.

“I know I have let you down and I will have to work hard to regain your trust,” Felder said.

Lourie said Felder has personal issues that “he cannot fix alone and requires professional help.” Lourie did not elaborate on those problems.

This is the second time Felder has been arrested since enrolling. Last October, he was tasered by police stemming from a bar fight and charged with six counts, including assault and battery and resisting arrest.

Felder entered a pre-trial intervention program and played after missing only one game. “‘He’s a beautiful kid, not a good kid, a beautiful kid,” Martin said on Nov. 13 in defense of playing Felder against Holy Cross.

Lourie requested a jury trial on Felder’s latest charge. A trial date has not been set.

Martin said he’ll stand by Felder this time, too, and continue to “help Rakym grown as a young man even though basketball is not part of our relationship right now.”

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Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.