The biggest question for Nebraska coming into the 2008-09 season was how it would fare without a dominant presence in the post with the departure of center Aleks Maric
Through the first few weeks of practice, the answer has been so far, so good.
Using lineups that occasionally feature five guards on the floor at one time, the Huskers say they're adapting well to playing without a true big man. As they prepare for their season-opening exhibition game against Chadron State on Friday, the Huskers are eager to see how much their success in practice translates to game day.
"All of our guards have been real impressive these past few weeks of practice," senior guard Ade Dagunduro said. "I definitely feel that despite not having Aleks Maric that we should be good on offense. We're going to use our defense to key our offense."
Head coach Doc Sadler said he still hasn't decided who his staring five would be for Friday's game, but with the amount the Huskers plan to substitute this season, it probably won't be that much of an issue.
Sadler said he expects to play nine or even 10 players each game in order to keep fresh legs on the floor and allow the Huskers to constantly push the ball offensively and apply full-court pressure on defense.
In practice, Nebraska mixes players up in numerous lineup combinations during scrimmages, which should help develop chemistry and familiarity with whichever five are in the game.
"We really change up the lineup so much, so there really haven't been a five that's mainly been out there," sophomore guard Cookie Miller said. "It's been a balance so we can be competitive on both sides of the floor."
Because of their lack of size, the Huskers are looking to counter with relentless pressure on defense. By hounding opponents the length of the court, they hope to prevent teams from getting the ball down low and using the shot clock to their advantage.
Nebraska used a similar strategy last season, especially when Maric was on the bench. The Huskers led the Big 12 Conference in scoring defense, allowing just 60.7 points per game and holding opponents to a 40.2 field goal percentage.
"Last year we were a good defensive team, and it seems like right now, with the way we're playing defense in practice, we're just as good as last year," junior guard Sek Henry said. "As long as we can just help each other, we shouldn't have any problems."
Whoever ends up seeing the most playing time, it's pretty much a guarantee that Nebraska is going to base its identity on working harder and out-hustling its opponents. Potentially using as many as 10 of the 18 players on their current active roster, that identity will have to come from everyone.
"I don't think anybody should have a problem with starting or not starting this year, because we all know that when we're on that court, we're playing hard," Henry said. "Coach is going to love us for that. He's going to play the players who play hard."
Miller, Henry not worried about starting job
Just as it was last year, Miller and Henry plan to share the point guard responsibilities this season. However, the starting job is still up for grabs.
While neither player is too concerned about getting the starting nod considering how often the Huskers plan to substitute players each game, the competition for the title has been a benefit for both.
"I know he probably wants to start and I'd love to start too, so whatever Coach thinks is best, that's how it's going to go," Henry said. "We don't have any problems over who's going to start, because we both know we're good at what we do and we're going to help this team."
Miller entered last season as the starter and started 24 of NU's 30 games. In his first year as a Husker, Miller recorded the second-most assists in a season with 109. However, when Miller was forced to miss some time due to injury, Henry stepped in, and the competition's been on ever since.
For Sadler, that competition has improved both players.
"I think it's very good," Sadler said. "I think last year, there wasn't a lot of competition there for Cookie. With his injury it allowed us to have to play Sek. Right now, both are having to compete every single day, and in my opinion that's what makes you a better basketball player."
Miller and Henry probably won't find out who will get the starting job until Friday's exhibition. Though both players realize the title is fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that hasn't stopped either from giving their all to prove themselves in each and every practice.
"You can never tell what's going to go on in a game, that's up to the coaches," Miller said. "I leave that up to them, how much playing time we get. All I'm going to do is keep working hard in practice."
Freshman Jones continues to impress
It hasn't taken long for true freshman Eshaunte Jones to make his presence known since joining the team a few weeks ago.
Though he has yet to playa collegiate game, Jones has impressed both his coaches and teammates with his ability, especially when he has the basketball.
"He can really shoot," Miller said. "You'll be able to tell once the games come along. He's a very good shooter, and he has a good IQ for the game. He's very smart, and you can tell that he's a true freshman that's going to play in a lot of games this year."
While he's still adapting to the college game, Jones has all but guaranteed himself a spot in the Huskers' rotation this season.
"He's going to play," Sadler said. "He's a very good offensive player. Like most players as freshman, they're likely much further along offensively than defensively. But he's looked pretty good so far."
The one setback for Jones is that he's still dealing with an ankle injury he suffered in the offseason. Sadler said it will eventually require surgery, but Jones is going to try and play through the pain as long as possible and hopefully make it through the season before going under the knife.
The pain has gotten to him eventually, as he's already had to miss three practices. Still, Sadler said as long as Jones says he can deal with the injury, he'll see his share of playing time.
"Still, it's going to be a day-to-day deal with him," Sadler said. "He's got a bad ankle, and that's not going to change. It's just a matter of if we can get through the year with him. If we can, we will. Whether we can get through the year and then have surgery or does he have to have surgery before the year's over, that's the only question. The given is that he'll eventually have to have his ankle fixed."
Bad ankle and all, Jones has already proven himself as a valuable asset to the Huskers in practice.
"He just plays hard," Henry said. "Even though he probably makes a couple mistakes knowing the offense and stuff, when all that gets done, he's going to be a very solid player for this team. I'm happy to have a good player like him on our team."