Nebraska's team leaders have been pretty clearly defined since well before the season even started. Seniors Brandon Ubel and Dylan Talley have not only been constant producers for the Huskers on the court, but the voices of the team in practice and off the court.
As the regular season draws closer to end, however, head coach Tim Miles is starting to figure out which players will fill Ubel and Talley's shoes when their careers eventually come to an close.
While he didn't want to look too much into the 2013-14 season with at least nine more games left to play this year, Miles said he's seen some younger players start to show the potential of being NU's next team leaders, specifically emerging freshman Shavon Shields.
Even so, he still needed to see far more from them before he could feel completely comfortable with the situation.
"We still need more leadership," Miles said. "Leadership isn't something you can just designate, you know? 'These are out captains, let's follow them.' It has to be from them and it has to be a living, breathing deal. I think it helps. I think it's good for guys like Shavon, but I think other guys still need to consider their attitude and consider where they're at with things."
With the way he's played the past few weeks, Miles said Shields is starting to earn the respect of his older teammates, and his confidence to speak up in practice and in the locker room has grown significantly over the course of the season.
After missing the bulk of the pre-season and the first few games with nagging elbow and wrist injuries, Shields has started the last nine games at forward and has averaged 9.9 points and 5.8 rebounds during that span. He truly put himself on the map three weeks ago with his 29-point performance in Nebraska's win over Penn State, which the Huskers will take on for a second time on Saturday night at the Devaney Center.
"He's really done a nice job for us," Miles said. "Shavon is a player that really wants to improve and is very committed and emotionally invested in what we're doing. It bothers him when things don't go well. It bothers him when we don't win. It bothers him when the scout team doesn't run stuff right. When he sees a teammate who's acting up or whatever, he'll speak out to him, like, 'Hey, knock it off!' He really cares about all the right things."
Ubel echoed Miles' impressions of Shields' growth as a player and a leader this season. For Ubel, part of him being the foundation for turning Nebraska's program around entails making sure the players after him carry on the right attitude and approach to the game, and Shields has done just that so far.
"He has such a good basketball IQ that he knows not only where he should be, but where other guys should be," Ubel said. "I've kind of been helping him and telling him, 'Hey, if you see something, tell them. Let them know.' Because he sees a lot what some of the other guys might not. He's the kind of guy that everybody on the team respects, and he brings it every day. He's definitely a guy I could see going forward that could do that for this team."
Shields' emergence has definitely been a welcomed sight for the Huskers, but they know full well it's going to take more than one player to establish a solid leadership base for next season and the following years to come.
Miles added that Nebraska's three current redhsirt players this season - Walter Pitchford, Terran Petteway and Deverell Biggs - could help fill that role next year, but they need to be able to be on the court during games before they could make that next step.
Since the day Miles took over in Lincoln, one of the things he's stressed the most has been for his players to be more vocal on the court and speak up when they see something wrong or that could help the team. Miles calls it having one voice in the huddle, and while there's still much work to be done in getting that where it needs to be, Ubel said it's remained a point of emphasis since Day 1.
"Everybody needs to be more vocal," Ubel said. "I mean, that's kind of been something that Coach has talked about a lot and harped on as kind of a weakness at the beginning of the year for our team. So we've all kind of started to tell each other, 'Hey, if you see something, let me know.' You've got to talk that out and just encourage everybody to be more vocal."