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January 6, 2010

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 on the road against Texas A&M.

At 12-3, Nebraska is off to its best start since the formation of the Big 12. But with every game from here on out pitting them against one of the best conferences in college basketball, the Huskers must make significant strides to have any of their tournament aspirations realized.

After going through both their share of highs and lows during their non-conference slate, it's still tough to know what to make of head coach Doc Sadler's young squad. Here's a quick recap of what we've learned so far…

Young Huskers have had to learn on the fly

With only two seniors seeing real minutes this season, Nebraska has had to turn to a slew of newcomers to come in and contribute right away. As a result, many players have seen significant minutes that probably wouldn't be playing as much otherwise.

That will likely change a bit once conference play starts up and Sadler limits his substitution rotation, but as it stands right now, the Huskers will feature just three players with any Big 12 experience in seniors Sek Henry and Ryan Anderson and sophomore Brandon Richardson.

How well the rest of NU's young roster responds to the rigors of the conference schedule will be a huge factor in determining whether the Huskers can keep their heads above water in league play.

Offense has emerged as a factor

Unlike last season, Nebraska's offense has been more of a contributor to its success this year than a roadblock. The Huskers are averaging better than 70 points per game and have broken the 90-point mark twice, including the highest scoring game since Sadler's arrival in a 94-61 win over Southern Utah.

However, it's certainly not as if the offensive woes have been completely erased. Anderson enters league play as the only Husker scoring in double figures on the year, and NU failed to break 60 points in four games.

Still, there's no question that Nebraska has made progress offensively compared to the past few seasons. In particular, the Huskers enter conference play shooting 47.3 percent as a team from 3-point range, with five players boasting 11 or more 3s on the season.

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

Its young players can step up and rise to the challenge of competing in the Big 12. The competition the young Huskers will see starting Saturday will be unlike anything they've ever experienced, as the conference is arguably as good top to bottom as it's ever been.

Since before the season even started, Sadler has expressed concerns over whether his team could get ready both physically and mentally in time for the start of Big 12 play. While many young newcomers have made good strides over the past 15 games, how much that translates when the competition heats up is definitely still a major question mark.

The Huskers do have solid senior leadership in Henry and Anderson, but outside of those two, no player knows what to expect from the next 16 games. Even Richardson - the only other player with any Big 12 experience - saw limited action in conference play last season and never started a game last year.

Offensive MVP so far: Ryan Anderson

No player has been more consistent with the basketball than Anderson, who leads the team with 11.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Along with his contributions in the box score, Anderson has also played a huge role in providing desperately needed leadership for the Huskers' young roster, as he generally sets the tone for his team both in games and in practice.

Defensive MVP so far: Jorge Brian Diaz

At 6-11, redshirt freshman center Jorge Brian Diaz has given Nebraska an element it hasn't seen since Aleks Maric on the defensive end. With his height and long frame, Diaz has been an effective force down low with a team-best 23 blocks. His presence in the post alone should prove a valuable asset during the Big 12 schedule.

Biggest surprise: Lance Jeter

Though he's just as inexperienced as the rest of Nebraska's cast of newcomers, junior point guard Lance Jeter has come in and immediately played with the swagger of a seasoned veteran. He's averaged 7.3 points and a team-high 4.0 assists, and he's also provided leadership and an unmatched drive to win both on the floor and in the locker room.

Biggest disappointment: Christian Standhardinger

Obviously this is no fault of his own, but Standhardinger was projected to come in and contribute right away for the Huskers before being forced to sit out the first 15 games due to NCAA transfer rules. Especially on the offensive end, Standhardinger's absence has definitely been missed early on. He's scheduled to make his debut on Saturday, but there's no doubt he'll be far behind the rest of his teammates after having missed the entire non-conference schedule.

Overall non-conference grade: C+

Nebraska's 12 wins and perfect 10-0 record at home are nothing to scoff at, as this has been its best start since the 1994-95 season. There have definitely been some good wins along the way as well, especially road wins over USC and Tulsa and a home win over Oregon State. However, there have also been some downright ugly losses, as the Huskers were completely out-played in each of their three defeats on the year. From this point on, every game will be a tough match-up for the Huskers, and at this point it's pretty much impossible to tell what kind of team will show up the rest of the way.



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