As the Nebraska basketball team took the court Thursday for its final unofficial workout before the start of the 2010-11 season kickoffs on Friday, there was a much different look and feel to the team from years past.
For one, the Huskers are for the most part as healthy as they've been in recent years. Second, there were enough new faces and missing pieces from last season that made them hold little resemblance to the squad that finished just 2-14 in Big 12 Conference play a year ago.
"I'm excited," head coach Doc Sadler said. "Obviously we've had a great fall practice. The guys have done everything that I've asked them to do. I think probably for this time of the year we're in about as good of shape as we've been in, not just physically, but mentally also, as any team I've had since I've been here, which is good."
Along with the several new additions to this year's roster, it was one player in particular who has been around the program for three years now who was one of the most talked about new pieces to the Huskers' puzzle.
After sitting out basically all last season with an elbow injury, junior wing Toney McCray is back in the mix and looks to be a guy Sadler is banking on to be one of the team leaders.
"I think Toney has had the best fall he's had on and off the court," Sadler said. "We sit here and look at Toney McCray as a guy who's been in this program a long time, but the fact of the matter is, Toney's had basically one healthy year. So he's still young."
Though McCray will definitely be counted on along with guys like sophomore center Jorge Brian Diaz, Sadler said he's still looking for that one player to emerge as NU's go-to guy when the game is on the line.
"That's the thing I think this team still doesn't have," he said. "There's not that identity of that one guy maybe that could be that person that (has the ball) late in the shot clock or whatever. You need a perimeter guy to do that, but also inside. Brian Diaz I think could have a great, great year for us inside, but we're still looking for that one guy maybe that can, when all else fails just break somebody down and go get a good shot."
Along with trying to establish leaders on the court, Sadler said he's also still waiting for someone to emerge as the same type of leader both in practice and off the court. He pointed to veteran players like junior guard Brandon Richardson and senior guard Lance Jeter as two guys he'd like to see step into that role previously filled by the likes of departed seniors Ryan Anderson and Sek Henry.
"That's what we've got to find out," Sadler said. "I think if you come to practice and you see the coaches having to do a lot of the talking, then we're in trouble. At some point, the kids need to be the ones doing the talking. We need to make our point, and then they need to do it and they need to hold each other accountable. I think when that happens, that's when you become a good basketball team."
Unfortunately, Sadler said it might take a while for those leaders to emerge.
"It doesn't come easy for anybody on this team, and that's the issue," he said. "That's just something that we've got to overcome."
Around the rim
***Sadler unveiled that Nebraska would be using a different defensive strategy this season, as he would be playing far more zone than he ever has at NU. He said while they won't play exclusively zone defense, the Huskers would try and model what Syracuse has done under head coach Jim Boeheim.
"We're going to try and play like Syracuse does," Sadler said. "I think you'll see McCray up front of it, you'll see Diaz and (sophomore forward Brandon Ubel) on the wing, and then one of those big guys - (Christopher Niemann) or (Andre Almeida) or someone like that in the middle. Length is an issue that we have now, and I think you've got some guys like Brandon Ubel that can play out on the perimeter also, because he can really shoot the ball.
"We're going to play some zone. How much? I would say there's going to be very few games that we don't play some."
***Sadler said he also plans on taking a new approach to each game this season, as he admitted that he might have lost focus on the daily process when NU was struggling during conference play last year.
"As I've told the team, the thing that I think I let down this team on last year is the attention to detail and trying to just get a win and not realizing that maybe there was a process that maybe I needed to stick with," Sadler said. "I think they understand at this point that that attention to detail is going to be like it was that first year or two that I was here."
***Sadler said Niemann and Almeida would both be limited during the early stages of practice, as neither was physically ready yet to go 100 percent on a regular basis. Niemann is still not completely healed after suffering consecutive ACL injuries, and Almeida is still not in the playing shape Sadler would like to be in before he puts the junior through a full practice.
"Both of them will be limited in some of the things we're going to let them do," Sadler said. "Even though Andre's done a great job in getting himself in better conditioning, it's not worth the risk of trying to get him ready to play next Saturday. He still needs to continue to get in better conditioning.
"Christopher has in the last week or so made a lot of progress, but as some of the doctors have told me, it's going to be a year before he's completely 100 percent."
***Lastly, Sadler said he's keeping an eye on Diaz, who apparently has been dealing with an injured hamstring through the fall.
"One of the things that concerns me is Brian, he's had a nagging hamstring (injury) all fall," Sadler said. "So I'm going to be careful with that."