In less than 24 hours, the Tim Miles era at Nebraska will officially get underway when the Huskers kick off their first practice of the 2012-13 season on Friday.
Miles formally met with reporters during a press conference on Thursday to talk about the coming season and how the adjustment has gone not only for his team, but for he and his coaching staff as well.
The first-year head coach said things have gone about as well as could be expected since he took over back in March, but no one would know exactly what kind of team NU would have until it plays its first game next month.
"Like anything, they were unsure," Miles said of his team's psyche when he took over. "One guy recruited you in Doc Sadler - charming, likeable, great guy, beloved - and now we've got this guy. You know, who's he? So there's that uncertainty, and you have to build trust over time. I think it's only going to continue to develop, but at the end of the day, nothing succeeds like success. We're only going to have confidence if we earn it. You can't go out there and say, 'Be confident.'"
As far as this coming season is concerned, Miles said Nebraska would have to rely heavily on its seniors to lead the way both on the court and in the locker room. He pointed to seniors like Brandon Ubel and Dylan Talley as guys who would have to be the catalysts to help establish the culture he and his staff want to bring to the Huskers.
Outside expectations for Nebraska this season are mostly as low as could be considering what it returns from a team that struggled mightily in the Big Ten Conference last year. Miles said he and everyone else on the team knows they are in for a challenge, but that hasn't changed the NU's overall goal going in.
"I think I'd ask my seniors what they expect, and I think those guys want to play in the NCAA Tournament," Miles said. "So I owe it those guys… I think you owe it to your seniors to try and do the best you can. This group's got it tough. We're going to be short-handed. We could be as few as eight scholarship guys, with three new guys in that group with a couple guys that didn't play last year on a team that got 10th or 11th in the league.
"So how are we going to overcome all that and be more successful and get to that point? Well, that's what we have to figure out between now and when we start playing games here in November. I like this group. They're hard working. But we have challenges to overcome."
Ubel returns as Nebraska's most overall productive player from last season. Asked what he's learned about his new coach over the past seven months, he said what's stood out the most has been the energy Miles brings every day and the excitement he's built around the program.
"He just kind of brings a different energy that kind of hasn't been around here since I've been here at least, and I'm sure for a while before that," Ubel said. "There's excitement. There's energy. There's positive vibes not just from outside but from guys on the team too. It's different."
Both Miles and Ubel said the top priority going into the year was to establish an offensive identity and be far more aggressive with the basketball than they were in years past. Ubel, Talley, and junior guard Ray Gallegos will all counted on to pick up the scoring for Huskers, who were one of the worst offensive teams in the country in 2011-12.
"We look around the team and say where's the scoring going to come from?" Ubel said. "If I'm not being aggressive and Dylan's not being aggressive and Rey's not being aggressive, who's going to score? In pickup and even in these hour workouts that we've been having, we have to just always be thinking attack mode and going to the basket, looking for your shot. The whole mentality of the way we've been playing has changed."
Miles breaks down offensive, defensive styles
One of the things Nebraska fans are most anxious to see from the Huskers this season will be the style of play Miles brings to the court on both the offensive and defensive ends. After last year's dismal play on offense, how Miles plans to change up the way the Huskers attack with the ball will go a long way in gauging how well he'll be able to turn the program around.
"Offensively, I think we play with a good pace," Miles said. "That's not necessarily tempo, which is possessions, but when we have the ball, are we on the attack? We want to be on the attack and put pressure on teams. We want to put them in a position where we can drive and kick to each other to get the right kind of 3s and find easy baskets.
"Is that transition? Yes. Is that offensive rebounding? Yes. If that free throws? Definitely. So just a very steady way that allows us to compete against every opponent in every venue in every atmosphere or circumstance you can imagine."
On defense, Miles said the emphasis would be simply making life as difficult as possible for opposing teams, which will be done by any means necessary.
"Defensively, kind of a no-nonsense approach," Miles said. "We want to keep guys in front of us. We're trying to do a better job of taking away 3-pointers, which means we have to have rim protection. We have to block shots, take charges, and really have a defensive discipline that makes teams have to beat you and to not give them easy baskets."
One of the keys to what Miles wants to do is the play of the point guard, which at the moment still doesn't look to be a settled position for the Huskers. Miles said there has yet to be a final decision on whether junior college transfer Deverell Biggs will play or redshirt this season.
"Deverell, when we recruited him, said 'I think I want to redshirt,'" Miles said. "And I said 'That's not a deal breaker to me. It's not a preference. I'd rather have you play, but I'll honor that wish if that's what you want.' But I said let's get into the season and kind of decide as we get closer to November. At this point, that hasn't changed."
Should Biggs decide to sit out, it would leave freshman Benny Parker as the top candidate to become the starting point guard. While Parker possesses a lot of natural skill and instincts at the position, Miles didn't make it sound like he thought the Kansas City native was ready to run the ship just yet.
"Benny's a natural point guard," Miles aid. "Who else can play the point well? It's interesting. Who knows? … For a coach, you don't know what your game plan is until you've got to go out there and try and win that game. Maybe we have to play big, maybe we have to play small, maybe we go point guard by committee. I won't know until we actually have to try and figure out how to win."
The good news is Miles dismissed the notion that his scheme is entirely reliant on the point guard. So long as his team has a good amount of depth at guard, the system should still be effective.
The problem is, Miles won't know just how deep the Huskers' backcourt actually is until the season finally gets underway.
"It's guard-centric," Miles said about his offense. "I think we do our best when we have a nice combination of guards, and I'm not sure how that's going to pan out for us."
Newcomers impressing early on
Along with Parker, a couple other newcomers look to be on their way to playing big roles for Nebraska this season.
Fellow freshmen Shavon Shields and Sergej Vucetic have reportedly gotten better and better since arriving to campus, and with the Huskers' lack of proven depth, both should find their way onto the court from the start of the season if things continue the way they have been.
On Shields, Miles said he's been equally impressed with the 6-foot-6 guard's intelligence on the floor as much as his overall skill set.
"I really like Shavon Shields' basketball IQ," Miles said. "I think he gets it. He knows how to win. He knows how to make winning plays. When we put him out there with groups, his group's always a higher functioning group it seems like. I think that usually bodes well for winning."
As for Vucetic, Miles said the 7-1 center from Serbia still had a ways to go in terms of his strength and conditioning. As soon as he bulks up enough to handle the rigors of the Big Ten, though, the consensus is Vucetic could end up being a rare talent when all is said and done.
"He came in, and the first couple weeks were tough for him," Ubel said. "I mean, straight from Serbia, he got here, didn't have that summer session with Coach or anything, so he was getting used to not just basketball here, but Nebraska in general and going to class and stuff. But in the past month, I can't even describe how much better he's gotten. Just playing more physical.
"I mean, he's so long, it's unbelievable. He's probably got a 7-5 wingspan along with being 7-1. He's pretty skilled. He can do a lot of things. He's just got to learn the work ethic it's going to take and the motor has to be going all the time. I'm trying to help him along with that, but he'll be very good."
What also works in favor for all three newcomers to have big roles for the Huskers this season is Miles' track record of playing young players right away if they're good enough.
"I think I've coached or recruited the all-time leading scorer at most of the schools I've been at, which bodes well for young people playing immediately usually," Miles said. "That's how you become the all-time leading scorer at your school. So I would say we're as favorable as anybody for allowing young people to come up and play immediately."
Almeida looking better than ever
For a guy the size of 6-11, 314-pound senior center Andre Almeida, conditioning has always been one of the biggest hurdles in his development since coming to Nebraska.
Not only that, but lingering knee injuries have slowed his progress even more by keeping him off the court and limited to light cardio and calisthenics. Over the course of the offseason, though, all reports are Almeida has finally been able to stay healthy and as a result, both his conditioning and overall game have flourished.
"Andre I think has looked better in the fall than he ever has," Miles said. "He's a big guy. You're to going to see vast improvements in his body. That's just in his DNA. He's moving better, but we're going to have to manage that. We're going to have to watch those knees."
Ubel said few players have worked harder than Almeida, and that his physical gains have made him almost impossible to defend in the low post.
"He's put in a lot of work this summer, getting in the gym," Ubel said. "You can't stop him. I mean, he's just too big. If he gets the ball in the paint, he's scoring. There's really no question about it. You're either going to foul him or he's going to score. He's going to be invaluable for us."
Again, the fact that Almeida has been able to stay healthy is the No. 1 reason behind his success this offseason. So long as he can stay on the court, the Huskers know they have potentially one of the most physically dominant big men in the country.
"He's done everything that I've done (in workouts and conditioning)," Ubel said. "He hasn't sat out a second. Every day coaches and the training staff are asking him, 'How are your knees feeling?' 'They feel good, they feel good.' So there's never really been a day where he's been sitting out and saying 'I'm kind of sore today.' He's been full-go the whole time."
Around the rim
***As mentioned on our site earlier this week, NU assistant Chris Harriman was named to the 2012-13 college basketball "Dream Team" coaching staff in an article by CBSSports.com. Miles said that mention was a perfect example of the asset he knew Harriman would be when he hired him away from Saint Louis.
"When your assistants make the Dream Team, and it's Coach (John) Calipari and Chris Harriman, and they're going to coach all these future NBA Hall-of-Famers, it's pretty cool for your program," Miles said. "I think he's bucking for a raise. I think he's behind it. But no, Chris is a great recruiter. Our entire staff is really strong. Chris has done a marvelous job for us. When I hired him, he's got great pedigree working with (Saint Louis head coach) Rick Majerus … and at the end of the day, Coach Majerus is one of the finest teachers in all of basketball. What Chris learned in that amount of time I think is invaluable to us. He's an aggressive recruiter and does a really good job."
***Miles said the workload for transfers Walter Pitchford and Terran Petteway would likely be pretty limited this season since they have to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules.
"We try to get them physically better," Miles said. "We try to spend a little more time on skill work with them, but in terms of working them in with the team, just a little bit of that here and there."
***After his little dustup with the Creighton fan base last month by referring to Nebraska as "the only game in town" during an interview at a Husker football game, Miles said he plans to fully embrace the in-state rivalry with the Bluejays moving forward.
"Why wouldn't you?" he said. "I think it's a great opportunity. One is they've got n established program. Greg McDermott has always had high-quality programs… They've done a great job. They've got a great setup over there. That's a game I look forward to playing every year. That will continue. People have asked me if I'm going to continue to play Creighton. Absolutely."
***Miles talked about his decision to award sophomore walk-on Trevor Menke with a scholarship for this season.
"I rewarded him for being an outstanding scholar," Miles said. "I mean, he had the best GPA on our team, and I wanted to make sure that a young guy like that who was showing up every day, putting in all the work possible, that we rewarded him when we could. We could reward him, so we did."
***Ubel said he's also been impressed with the progress of Talley. Like Almeida, Talley was limited much of last year with a lingering thigh injury, but now is healthy again and playing as well as ever.
"He's really good," Ubel said. "He's gotten in shape to the point where he couldn't last year because of his quad, he was hurt a lot and in and out of practice. He couldn't really get into the game shape he wanted to. This year, he's worked as hard as anybody in the weight room in the offseason, running, doing stuff on his own, and you can tell there's a difference with him. He's very good."