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March 22, 2014

NU ahead of schedule, but still hungry for more

SAN ANTONIO - Given the fact that Nebraska went from a team predicted to finish dead last in the Big Ten to earning a first-round bye in the conference tournament to receiving its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998, it's safe to say the Huskers not only exceeded expectations this season, they changed the entire trajectory of the program.

After surprising many fans and media by winning six Big Ten games in his first season in Lincoln two years ago, the bar had been raised a reasonable amount for head coach Tim Miles to take another small step towards rebuilding Nebraska basketball into a winner. But hardly anyone, including Miles himself, could have anticipated the Huskers making a jump like they did in 2013-14.

As frustrating and disappointing as NU's 74-60 loss to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday was, optimism for the future may have never been higher than it will be going into next season.

"One year early is a good problem to have," Miles said when asked if his team was ahead of schedule in its rebuilding process. "You guys have seen this team all year, and they wear their emotions on their sleeve. We know where we need to mature, we know that we need more discipline, and we know where we need to add more pieces to the puzzle, too. So I just can't image we just won't have anything but an improved product.

"But you have to commend these guys on finding a way and willing themselves into the tournament. Although today was a debacle, I don't think that can diminish the season. It's a bad day, but I don't think that this day defines them. It's not how many times you get knocked down, it's how many times you get back up, and know that these guys will get back up and I'll get back up."

Nebraska returns all five of its starters and loses just one player - senior guard Ray Gallegos - from its regular game rotation next season. The Huskers will also add two new pieces with its 2014 recruiting class in Rivals150 center Jacob Hammond and point guard Tarin Smith, and there likely will be at least one more addition in the form of a Division I graduate transfer or junior college prospect.

Given how much the Huskers grew up from where they were at the start of the season to their final game, it seems as if this group has only scratched the surface of what it could become over the next few years.

"I can't wait," Petteway said. "I hope everybody's hunger is at the same level so we can come back in the summer, bust our butts and get back to this position. Hopefully we can get that first tournament win."

If there is one potential positive to take away from Friday's loss, it's that Nebraska finally got a taste of the type of success it takes to make the NCAA Tournament and how good it feels to play in the Big Dance. Assistant coach Craig Smith said the NU's staff hopes the defeat sticks in the back of the team's mind all summer and serves as a source of motivation to do whatever it takes to get back to postseason play and win once they get there.

This season can definitely be considered a major success for the Huskers, but the goal is that it is only the beginning of what's to come.

"They picked us last in the Big Ten and we ended up getting fourth and really exceeded everyone's expectations except ours," sophomore forward Shavon Shields said. "I think coming into the season we knew that we could get it done. We got part of our goal done and just came up a little short. We have to go into the offseason hungry to get better, hungry to correct our mistakes and learn from this mistake so we can get a win in the NCAA Tournament."


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