January 7, 2009

Huskers have long way to go entering Big 12 play

With Nebraska's non-conference schedule officially complete, the Huskers' attention now shifts solely to Big 12 Conference play, which opens Saturday at home against Missouri.

At 10-3, Nebraska is still in contention to make a postseason run. But with every game from here on out pitting them against one of the better conferences in college basketball, the Huskers must make significant strides to have any of their tournament aspirations realized.

After a rollercoaster non-conference schedule that saw both soaring highs and dismal lows, what exactly have we learned about third-year head coach Doc Sadler's most recent product? Well, here's a quick recap…

Like always, it's all about defense

As it's been the previous two seasons under Sadler, the Huskers' entire game plan revolves around its play defensively. This has proved to be both a good and bad thing over the course of the first 13 games.

On one hand, Nebraska has been able to smother opponents with its full-court press and create scoring runs for its offense that tend to break games open. It also has helped cover up the Huskers' scoring woes by keeping games under control and within reach while the offense finds its rhythm.

On the other hand, however, is that when the Huskers have a bad night defensively, their chances of winning dramatically decrease. In their three losses, Nebraska was unable to spark scoring runs and transition baskets by creating turnovers, thus putting all of the scoring responsibilities on its half-court offense. When that happens, NU has found itself in a whole lot of trouble.

Offense has been essentially non-existent

If Nebraska's isn't scoring in transition or off of 3-pointers, it isn't scoring much at all. It's been no secret that the Huskers have had their issues scoring in the half court, and this will easily be their biggest challenge come the start of Big 12 play.

Coming into the year, the major concern was how NU would compensate for the loss of center Aleks Maric, who constantly bailed out the Huskers' half-court offense last season. With no post presence to speak of thus far, Nebraska has struggled to get the ball inside and draw fouls to help open up shots on the perimeter.

The past two games have been encouraging, as the Huskers out up 88 and 81 points in wins over Maryland Eastern Shore and Florida A&M, respectively. The only problem is neither of those teams featured a player taller than 6-foot-8. Starting Saturday, that lack of size is going to finally come into play. Missouri, for example, has six players 6-8 or taller.

This team can go .500 or better in the Big 12 if…

They can find a way to score points consistently. The defense is obviously there, but going 4 to 5 minutes without a point simply won't cut it against the likes of Kansas, Texas and such.

Along with producing points off of turnovers, the Huskers have found a lot of success in their 3-point shooting this season. On Monday against Florida A&M, the Huskers hit 10 3's. Against Alabama State, they recorded their only other 80-point effort behind a season-high 14 3-pointers.

However, when the shots aren't falling, Nebraska has to find another way to score points. This means players like senior guards Steve Harley and Ade Dagunduro must continue finding ways to create their own shots off the dribble. It also means some of NU's younger players, such as redshirt freshmen Toney McCray and Brandon Richardson will have to step up and provide consistent offensive production.

Offensive MVP so far: Steve Harley

No player has been more consistent with the basketball than Harley, who leads the team in scoring while averaging 13.5 points per game. Harley has provided the Huskers with much-needed versatility on the offensive end, as he's shown the ability to get to the basket as well as hit the mid-range jumper.

Defensive MVP so far: Sek Henry

With a team-high 19 steals, junior point guard Sek Henry has sparked more than his share of transition points off turnovers while pestering opposing ball handlers the length of the court. His four blocks rank second on the team, and he leads NU with 40 defensive rebounds. Simply put, Henry has done it all for the Huskers on the defensive end.

Biggest surprise: Toney McCray

While all the preseason attention went to true freshman Eshaunte Jones, it's been McCray that has looked like the future star so far. Though he still needs to develop more confidence on the court, especially with the basketball, McCray has shown an impressive natural feel for the game that should only get better as the season progresses.

Biggest disappointment: Eshaunte Jones

Obviously this is no fault of his own, but Jones came into the season with many Nebraska fans expecting him to be the breakout offensive threat the Huskers had been waiting for. However, a nagging foot injury hindered him through the first few games, and he eventually was forced to cut his season short to undergo surgery. As a result, fans will have to wait until next season to see if "Bear" is everything they are hoping he is.

Overall non-conference grade: C

The 10 wins are nice, and the last-second victory over rival Creighton was easily the highlight, but the three losses were all tough to swallow. Losing to Arizona State on the road is understandable, but holding the Sun Devils to 64 points and still getting blown out by 20?

The Oregon State loss was even worse because that was a game Nebraska should have won. Again, they held the Beavers to 64 points, but the Huskers couldn't manage to get anything going offensively, and it ended up being their downfall. Then there's the Maryland-Baltimore County debacle. How Nebraska lost that game, or the fact that it was even a close game, is still beyond me.

Even so, the Huskers are still in a position to have their best season yet under Sadler, but it all comes down to finally clicking on both ends of the floor. It's going to be a brutal 16-game stretch the rest of the way, and the Huskers are going to have to play much, much better if they want to end it with any postseason goals still intact.

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