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October 14, 2013

Nebraska lineup slowly starting to take shape

Nebraska is now more than two weeks of practices into Year 2 under head coach Tim Miles, and with a roster full of new faces ready to make their official Husker debuts, the team is slowly but surely starting to take shape.

Miles met with reporters on Monday to give an update on where his squad was with roughly three weeks to go before its exhibition opener against Nebraska-Kearney on Nov. 4. While he's seen both plenty of progress and struggles from the Huskers as they work to gel as a unit on the court, Miles said he's liked what he's seen from the group thus far.

"They're a really hard-working bunch," Miles said. "We lifted in the fall at 6:15 a.m., and we had guys there at 5:40 before the lift shooting, and that wasn't just an occasional thing. It was a regular deal. You just can't say enough about their work ethic and their buy-in that way. They're a really competitive group that way, almost to a fault. There's some perfectionism in there too, where they expect everything to be right all the time because they've put in so much hard work. That leads into emotional control and how you handle it when things don't go well. Can you handle it when frustration sets in there a little bit? That maturity part is going to be a big part of this team."

One of the biggest steps Nebraska took in establishing that cohesiveness on the practice floor and in the locker room over the offseason was a team vote to elect captains back in September. Miles said he and his coaches let the players vote on three guys they wanted to elect as captains, and the ones chosen were senior guard Ray Gallegos, sophomore guard Terran Petteway and sophomore forward Shavon Shields.

While it may seem rare for two sophomores to be elected captains, Miles said it showed just how much Shields and Petteway had taken ownership of the team along with the lone senior Gallegos.

"I think it's good," Miles said. "That shows this is a team that says, alright, these are guys that we believe in and these are guys we want to be our voice. These are our leaders. When they establish them - a coach can try and develop that and mentor that only so far. It's got to come from your guys."

Seeing how Shields emerged as one of the Huskers' best players by the end of last season, his selection as one of the captains wasn't too much of a surprise. However, Petteway has yet to play a single live second for the Huskers after transferring from Texas Tech last year. Knowing the type of effort, intensity and leadership Petteway has shown during practice since the day he arrived on campus, Miles said it made perfect sense that Petteway had earned that type of respect from his teammates.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Terran Petteway is our hardest worker," Miles said. "We have to talk him out of the gym. There's no doubt that he's our most relentless competitor. We have to talk him down at times, he's so hyper-competitive. I think guys follow that. They respect that."

As for when Nebraska does take the court for the first time against UNK and then the regular season opener versus Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 7, Miles said he was still looking to see how his game rotation and starting lineup would shake out over the next few weeks. The good news is the Huskers have a number of versatile players who could play two or even three different positions if needed. The bad news that hardly anyone has truly established himself at one of those spots.

"We do have guys that can play multiple positions. The key is to get them to play any of those positions well," Miles said. "So that's what we're working on. If we can get five that can play well all at one time, they're going to be on the floor a lot. But I like that. I like that versatility. I like the fact that we can play small. We really could play small. We could play big if we had to. I think a key for us no doubt is going to be staying injury free.

"The reason I say that is even though we have some guys that have been in the program, we are a very inexperienced team. We're not necessarily young in age, we're young in experience. Coaches use that often, but that worries you a lot as a coach, just not knowing how the roller coaster is going to ride. We're going to find out right away."

However NU's rotation ends up, it will almost certainly be a much deeper group than what Miles and his staff had to work with in their first season last year. After games of playing just five guys the entire second half at times, it's hard not to think that the Huskers should be able to make a jump in terms of wins and losses in Year 2. Based on his previous coaching stops, though, Miles said that might not necessarily be the case.

In Miles' first head coaching job at Mayville (N.D.) State, his team won 17 games during his first season and then 18 in his second. At his next stop at North Dakota State, Miles won 16 games his first year and then 16 again the season after. At his previous job at Colorado State, Miles went from seven wins with the Rams to nine in his second season.

The only job where he's been able to make a significant improvement in his second year was at North Dakota State, where he went from 11 wins to 20.

"This is my fifth head coaching job … and I know Year 2 is difficult," Miles said. "Here's why Year 2 is always difficult from what I have found: it always feels like we're way better than we were Year 1, and we rarely perform like that. It's more of a frustrating experience that way. I know that in my other four stops, three of them it's happened that way… You feel like you're in better shape, but you never know. Three out of the four stops we haven't taken the jump that I thought we would or maybe fans thought we would."

With so many new faces and the buzz over the debut of the Pinnacle Bank Arena, the excitement surrounding Nebraska's program is higher than it's been in more than a decade. Miles was asked if fan expectations for the Huskers might be a bit too high right now, and if people should temper their hopes for NU this season.

"I'm not worried about tempering fan expectations," Miles said. "We should have expectations. That's something we want. If we don't have a program that builds expectations and has people saying 'what the heck is going on?' sometimes, we're not doing it right… We want to go to the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there every year. Even if we have a team that has no chance of doing that, that's what I'm going to tell you. If we have a team that should win the league, that's what I'm going to tell you. It's my job. It's our goal. It's the same goal every year."

Around the horn

***Miles gave some injury updates on a handful of players, and in doing so announced Nebraska had already suffered a season-ending loss. Miles said freshman walk-on guard Tim Wagner fractured his left ankle in practice last week and would be out for the year. Wagner had eight screws and two plates put into his ankle, and the expected recovery time is anywhere from four to six months.

"It was really a gruesome injury," Miles said. "I mean, it was just like all the worst pictures you see on TV. The kid handles it like a champ. I think he's got eight screws in and two plates in his ankle, and obviously ended his season. They've got him in the training room waiting to get him to the doctor and Mike Peltz walks in, and (Wagner) says to Mike Peltz, 'You probably would've walked this one off, huh big guy?' I mean, who handles it like that? Your ankle is at a 45-degree angle the wrong way. That's a tough one, because Tim is a kid I really enjoy having in our program. He was just starting to kind of figure things out and be able to go out and practice pretty well."

***Other injuries included freshman point guard Tai Webster, who rolled his right ankle last week and has missed the past five practices. Miles said Webster would remain out until he was 100-percent recovered and could fully return to practice, but said he expected Webster to be back by next week at the latest.

***Miles said junior college transfer forward Leslee Smith was still having some issues with his surgically repaired knee, and as a result was now also dealing with a hamstring injury.

***Miles said he wanted the Huskers to practice in Pinnacle Bank Arena as much as possible leading up to the start of the season so they could get as comfortable playing there as they could. He said he would like it if NU could practice there for a third of its 30 practices before the UNK game.

***Miles said junior Deverell Biggs has shown great flashes during practice, but has also made his share of mistakes. Biggs will miss the exhibition and the first two regular season games after a violation of team rules over the offseason.

"I'd say he's had some really excellent practices, and when he has a bad one, it's kind of catastrophically bad," Miles said of Biggs. "He set a record the other day: worst turnover ever. But Deverell can make plays. He's a home run hitter. We've just kind of got to continue to get him on the right path, because home run guys also strikeout a lot."

***Speaking of lofty fan expectations, few Huskers have built up as much excitement within the fan base as Webster. Rather than try and shield Webster from the pressure of living up to the hype, Miles said the New Zealand standout was ready to handle being the center of attention.

"I think he kind of likes the expectations," Miles said. "I think that Tai Webster enjoys the idea that he can come in and really make a true difference and that fans are expecting a lot. You saw him ham it up in our first practice. He's not afraid to grab the mic and not give it back. That's kind of what you want your point guard to be. Tai's a mentally tough kid. I think he can handle it."

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