OKLAHOMA CITY — The newness of Big 12 Basketball Media Days seems to have worn off for Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler.
Entering his third year with the Huskers, Sadler has grown out of the role of the rookie coach and is now a seasoned member of the Big12 coaching community. No longer are the questions he fields at media days about what his plans are for the future of Nebraska basketball.
This season, it's all about now.
Despite a young and undersized roster, Sadler has high hopes for the 2008-09 Huskers. They may not be the most talented or experienced bunch he's ever coached, but they've made up for it so far with good old fashioned hard work.
"I do like our basketball team," Sadler said. "It's probably been the hardest working basketball team that I've ever coached or been associated with. Anytime you get that quality about people that are willing to come in and give their best each and every day, you're going to have a chance to be successful, and that's what these guys have done.
"It's been the hardest preseason, and probably it's even been the hardest first five or six days of practice that I've ever put a team through. They've answered the bell."
Sadler has been preaching both mental and physical toughness since the day he took the job at NU, and from talking to the players, it's clear that his words are starting to sink in. Sadler said he noticed in his first season that players seemed surprise by the physical demands of his style of play.
With his seniors now having two years of experience under Sadler, the Huskers are beginning to accept and expect that nothing will come easy.
"Playing for Doc, he demands you work hard," senior guard Steve Harley said. "You go hard all day. We're going to have to use that to our advantage. All this conditioning that we're doing early in the offseason, it should pay off down the road."
Senior guard Ade Dagunduro agreed that this past offseason and first 10 practices have been more intense than anything he's experienced as a Husker.
"It's definitely been brutal," Dagunduro said. "It's kind of a breaking down mode, but it's a breakdown to build us up. It's definitely going to prepare us for the Big 12 Conference, mentally and physically. We've been having more football-style of practices and football-style drills. It's definitely going to make us tougher, and that's something we need."
Another reason for optimism is the fact that the Big 12 as a whole is as wide open as it's ever been, as even powerhouses like Kansas are Texas find themselves in somewhat of a rebuilding phase after losing numerous players to the NBA and graduation.
Aside from Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin, there is also relatively little star power in the conference, meaning as of right now, the playing field is about as level as it ever could be.
In many ways, Nebraska has just as good of a chance as anyone at the moment to make a run at a conference title.
"I think (the parity) makes each and every game so important," Sadler said. "You don't have any time for slip-ups. The good news is that you have a chance to go in and compete each and every night and maybe something good will happen. The bad news is if you play bad on a given night and don't play as well as you can play, you're going to get beat."
Nebraska's players agreed, saying they see this season as a prime chance to show they can compete with the best the Big 12 has to offer.
"I see that as a window of opportunity," Dagunduro said. "I don't think there's a team in the Big 12 that's out there that we're going to say we're going to have to play more that perfect to beat. There's great teams in the Big 12, but there definitely is a window of opportunity for us to get victories."
How long this perceived parity lasts this season remains to be seen, but if nothing else it provides good preseason motivation for a Nebraska program looking to take the next step. The Huskers feel that they are close to moving up the Big 12 ladder and establishing themselves as a consistent contender within the conference.
"We're a year smarter," Dagunduro said. "We kind of know what it takes this year to make the tournament. We were probably a win away from making the NCAA tournament last year. We know we can't let the at-Colorado's, when we lost in overtime, and certain games slip up.
"We got to take advantage of games on the road and games that we're supposed to win. We're supposed to win every game at home, and that's the way we should work at it."
For Sadler, the past three years have been a learning process. Not necessarily in the sense of basketball X's and O's, but more so in learning what it takes to shape a program around you philosophies and ideals.
Sadler is no longer the new kid on the block in the Big 12, and while Nebraska is still far from being mentioned among the conference's elite, he at least now is learning what it takes to get there.
"I understand it a little bit better, I understand the league a little bit better," Sadler said. "I think the longer you're in a place, the more comfortable you get. Not necessarily does it get easier, but you understand what you're up against."
Huskers' shooting vastly improved?
Of the many improvements Sadler said he's seen from his team during the offseason, he's been more pleased with Nebraska's improved shooting as anything else.
While obviously shooting is far different in an empty gym ay practice than it is in a game, Sadler said the Huskers' overall shooting percentage has been a pleasant surprise.
"The thing that I've been a little surprised about is how well we can shoot the basketball," Sadler said. "I think our players have just worked on it. It's easy to shoot in practice and in drills, and we'll see if it translates to playing in games. If that happens, I think we'll have a good team if we shoot the ball well."
Sadler hasn't been the only one to notice the improvement, either. Even with the rule change this offseason that moved the 3-point line back a full foot to 20 feet, 9 inches, the Huskers have had no problems hitting shots from the perimeter/
"Our percentage in our 3-point shots I know is going up," Harley said. "I thought it was going to struggle because of the new 3-point line, but obviously it's not. It's been helping us a lot because it spreads out our offense. A lot of people are getting shots that they want."
Combine an increased shooting percentage from the outside with the even faster-paced offensive style they plan on using this season, and suddenly the Huskers look to have the potential to be one of the Big 12's more explosive offenses.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Dagunduro said. "Last year we were a little slow and methodical, working inside-out trying to feed off Aleks Maric. This year, our strength is our guards, so we're going to be working outside-in. A lot of fast, up-tempo style of play, and I like that style of play. I like to get up and get after it."
Players still concerned about lack of height
Though Sadler has spent the majority of the offseason trying to ease the worry of Nebraska's lack of a proven big man down low, some of the Husker players are still concerned with their lack of height.
With just three players taller than 6-foot-6 and none over 6-8 on their roster currently practicing with the team, the Huskers know they'll have to use a variety of techniques to counter opposing teams with bigger post presences.
"It's definitely is a concern considering we are in the Big 12 Conference and there's huge guys day in and day out that we go against," Dagunduro said. "What we're going to have to counter our lack of size with is our toughness and our heart. You've got to leave it all out there every game."
With the potential of as many as five guards on the floor at once, Nebraska is banking on being able to out-hustle and out-run teams to make up for the size down low. The biggest concern is handling taller post players on defense, which the Huskers hope to counter with full-court presses and zone trap defenses to keep the ball on the perimeter.
Still, the Huskers know they'll have their work cut out for them against teams with 7-footers clogging up the lane.
"It's a big disadvantage on the defensive end when you don't have that big presence in the middle, plus defensive rebounding is going to be very hard," Harley said. "We've just got to use or advantages to our advantage; try to big guy caught on a guard on offense, get the floor spread out.
"We have no choice. We might have five guards on the floor at one time, so we're going to have to get up and down the court. That's the only way we're going to have an advantage."
***Sadler said the Huskers plan on relying on its redshirt freshmen to come in an make immediate impacts this season. He pointed to players like Toney McCray and Alonzo Edwards to play particularly big roles.
"Tony McCray and Alonzo Edwards are continuing to get better," Sadler said. "I do think as the season goes along, those guys are going to be major players in helping us win some basketball games."
***Sadler gave some good news in that redshirt freshman guard Brandon Richardson is expected to return to practice on Friday after missing the past week due to injury. Sadler also said sophomore forward Alex Chapman would be out another week to 10 days while still recovering from knee surgery.
As for freshman guard Eshaunte Jones, Sadler said he is still listed as day-to-day deal with a foot injury. Jones has already two of NU's 10 practices this fall, but when he has practiced, Sadler has been more than impressed.
"When he has been able to practice, he's been everything we hoped he would be," Sadler said.