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January 14, 2010Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler has preached to his team for months now about the importance of getting mentally tough enough in time to handle the physical and emotional gauntlet of the Big 12 Conference.
Now two games into league play and no wins to show for it, it appears the Huskers are still working their way towards finding that level of mental toughness needed to survive in the Big 12.
Though it has just three players on its roster with more than two game of experience in conference play, Sadler said the learning period has officially run out on his team to get there.
"We don't have any time," Sadler said. "Obviously you'd like to be sitting some of these young guys down and have them learn it that way, but we don't have that luxury. We've got to find different ways. I think we're getting closer, but we're not Big 12 mental toughness right now."
Sadler said he had no doubt his team would get to that level of toughness before the season was over, but as far as this year is concerned, the Huskers would have to get there sooner rather than later if they were to have any shot at postseason play.
After two straight league losses where NU had a chance to win late in the game and let it slip away, the players seem to finally be starting to learn what their coach has been talking about this whole time in regards to stepping up when it matters the most.
"I know Coach Doc's tired of losing," junior point guard Lance Jeter said. "We're all tired of losing. It's just something that we've got to go to practice tomorrow and try to get a win Saturday."
One young player who Sadler said still lacks enough mental toughness but has shown the most improvement in that area is redshirt freshman center Jorge Brian Diaz. With two straight games scoring in double figures, including 15 points Wednesday night against No. 3 Kansas, Diaz is steadily emerging as a go-to player in the post for Nebraska.
Sadler said Diaz still has a lot of work to do on defense and in the rebounding department, but has merely told the 6-11 center to continue to work hard and develop his game at the Division I level.
After all, Diaz and all but three of his teammates are just getting their first tastes of what life is like in the Big 12 Conference.
"He's played now two Big 12 games," Sadler said. "It sounds like my biggest weakness is everyone else's - patience. These guys are freshmen. You're talking about Brian Diaz going up against Cole Aldrich, who some people thought would be top-10 pick last year, and I thought he did pretty good. He's one of the guys who doesn't have the mental toughness, but that makes him normal. All these guys are going to get better at it, but we just don't have much time for them to do that."
Ubel off to nice start
Another player who has had to learn on the fly this season has been freshman forward Brandon Ubel, who earned a spot in the starting lineup almost by default after the loss of Christopher Niemann to his second ACL injury last season.
In 16 games played and 11 starts, the 6-11, 220-pound Overland Park, Kan., native has averaged 5.8 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. More importantly, he's stepped in and provided much needed depth in the post with the absence of Niemann and having fellow 6-8 freshman Christian Standhardinger miss the entire non-conference schedule.
"I couldn't be any happier with him," Sadler said. "I think he is getting more confident and he's going to continue to get better. The fact of the matter is he's going to be depended on to continue to do the things that he's been doing.
"He has stepped in and he's done a very nice job. The good news is, again, that most of these guys are freshmen, so he's got a lot of basketball ahead of him."
Jones emerging as 3-point ace
Everyone knew redshirt freshman guard Eshaunte Jones could shoot the basketball, and he's shown that he's certainly not afraid to fire away when he gets the chance.
In the past two games, Jones has shot a total of 19 3-pointers, making seven on them. Against Kansas, the Fort Wayne, Ind., native shot 4-of-11 from beyond the arc to account for all 12 of his points in the loss.
Heading into the KU game, Jones was leading the Big 12 Conference in 3-point shooting percentage at 46.2 (30-of-65), though his 36-percent clip against the Jayhawks may have since changed that ranking.
Sadler said he has no problem with Jones pulling the trigger from 3-point range, so long as he makes a consistent amount of his attempts. At the moment, Jones isn't nearly consistent enough to be shooting as much as he has been.
"He shot the ball well in the first half (against Kansas), but obviously he didn't shoot it very well in the second half," Sadler said. "Consistency is something that you've got to have. I wouldn't expect him to have it right now as a freshman. Before he can become that player, consistency would say that he's that guy, and he's not consistent right now."
Sophomore guard Brandon Richardson just can't seem to catch a break.
After posting his best offensive performance of his career with 18 points against Jayhawks, Richardson suffered another setback when he took a knee to his right thigh and suffered a deep bruise.
If that weren't enough, he was already dealing with a stomach flu virus that forced him to miss Monday and Tuesday's practice and made him lose roughly eight pounds. Sadler said Richardson is listed as "very doubtful" for Saturday's game against Iowa State, as he tried to practice Thursday but had to pull out because of pain.