What makes Nebraska's recent run of five wins in its past six games especially impressive is that it's had that type of success despite still searching for a locked-in starting lineup, let alone a regular bench rotation.
Head coach Tim Miles shook things up for last week's game at Michigan State by plugging junior forward David Rivers back into the starting five for the first time since the Northern Illinois game on Nov. 30, 2013. Rivers responded by matching his season high with seven rebounds, six points and two assists in 24 minutes of action. The strong performance was apparently good enough for Miles to announce that the 6-foot-8 Rivers would get the start again for the Huskers' home game against Penn State on Thursday night.
After starting six of the first seven games of the year, Rivers was benched per coach's decision for seven of the next nine contests, and he played a combined nine minutes in those two appearances. The Little Rock, Ark., native eventually worked his way back into the rotation for NU's home game against Ohio State, which coincidentally or not kicked off the Huskers winning six of their next eight outings.
"I call it observational learning," Miles said of Rivers' turnaround. "You sit on the bench long enough and watch everybody else play, and pretty soon you want to get out there and you start playing harder and better. Dave handled it well. He didn't pout. He just kept practicing hard. He didn't do anything special in practice, but he certainly didn't react unfavorably. I think just his attitude really had a lot to do with it too."
Rivers has been more and more productive since his return to regular playing time against the Buckeyes, and he's hauled in a career-high seven rebounds in each of the past two wins over Illinois and Michigan State. Miles said it's been Rivers' recommitment to rebounding that has played the biggest role in getting him back on the court. Earlier in the season, Miles said Rivers had a rebounding percentage (which measures the number of rebounds per possession played) in the low single digits, where typically a forward should be in the high teens or low 20s.
"When he got his chance, he made an impact," Miles said. "Sometimes when that door opens and you're not prepared for the opportunity - you only get one chance to make a good first impression, and when Dave came in, he really did a nice job. That was really important for him, and us."
With Rivers now in the starting five, he's taken the place of senior guard Ray Gallegos. Miles said that while part of that move has to do with wanting a bigger lineup on the court to start the game, he's also liked what he's seen from Gallegos as an offensive boost coming off the bench, especially with how well he plays off of sophomore point guard Benny Parker. Parker of course is another player who worked his way to become a mainstay in NU's rotation, going from a minimal role player to averaging 20 minutes of playing time over the last four games.
"Benny was always one of those guys who kind of got the ball to Ray, and Ray always kind of shot better with Benny," Miles said. "So now we've gone to a bigger lineup, so we'll come in with Benny and Ray. I think that will help Ray too. That's what I'm hoping."
Despite Parker's solid play as of late, Miles said he'll continue to play him off the bench and keep freshman Tai Webster as the starting point guard. Even though Webster's minutes have noticeably diminished in recent weeks - he played just 12 against MSU - Miles said he's actually seen him make good progress from the beginning of the season, especially in his defense.
"Since Benny has taken off, Tai's really picked it up on the defensive end," Miles said. "Actually, even though his minutes have gone down the last two games, he's played his best two defensive games in terms of all those things we've talked about - awareness, ball pressure, knowing what's going on, and handling the kind of smaller minor details that look insignificant at times but can cost you points."
Though he'll likely continue to be the starter the rest of the season and beyond, Webster has undoubtedly struggled in his first taste of American basketball. While his production has fallen well short of what many, including himself, had hoped when he came in as one of the prized pieces of the 2013 class, Miles said the New Zealand native has handled the learning curve as well as could be expected.
"You see him in the locker room and he's celebrating happier and louder than everybody else, and he's skipping out of the locker room just happy as a lark," Miles said. "So I think he's handling it really well. I know he wants to play better, especially on offense, but like I said, from his point of view, there's a lot of guys out there hungry to score and do those things. I think he'll find his way. I like Tai Webster. I think he's got a chance to be a really good player."