With an 0-3 start to the Big 12 Conference season, many members of the Nebraska basketball team have already gone on record saying Saturday's game at Missouri is a must-win situation to keep their post-season hopes alive.
Head coach Doc Sadler is not one of them, however.
Even if the Huskers were to lose to the Tigers, Sadler said his team's season goals would still be attainable. Obviously a fourth-straight loss to open league play for the second time in the past three seasons wouldn't help matters, but according to Sadler, it wouldn't be the nail in the coffin either.
"You look at the history of this league, especially here lately, and you see teams that were 3-6 or 2-5 and came back to make the NCAA Tournament," Sadler said. "It's all about a 16-game schedule and who you're playing. Obviously we were disappointed Saturday (after losing to Iowa State), but at the same time you've got an excellent chance to go on the road maybe at Iowa State and get a win.
"This thing is a long, long way from being a panic situation, and I don't know if we'll be in that situation no matter what happens Saturday. I know I won't be. As I've said so many times, patience is going to be a very, very critical thing with this basketball team, and that's going to start with me."
Nebraska started off its Big 12 slate 0-4 during the 2007-08 season, but it was able to rebound and finish the year with a 7-9 record in the conference.
There's no arguing that a win on Saturday would go a long way in restoring some of the momentum the Huskers gained earlier in the season, but with the real grind of the league schedule just getting under way, the players aren't denying the importance the game has in terms of the rest of the year.
"For me, this is a have-to game," redshirt freshman guard Eshaunte Jones said. "We have to win this. That's all there is to say. We have to win this game."
Though he won't go as far as some of his players in describing Saturday's importance, Sadler admitted that the only way to get the Huskers out of their current funk is to get a big win to help make up for at least one of their three disappointing league losses.
The only way to do that, Sadler said, is to toughen up and get the job done when it maters the most.
"I think it goes back to toughness," Sadler said. "You've got to instill toughness in them, and I think toughness broods confidence. There's nothing that we can do more to help than to get a win and play well on the road."
Jones a big missing piece in ISU loss
Whenever you have the Big 12 leader in 3-point percentage out of your lineup, it's never a good thing.
Such was the case for Nebraska last week against Iowa State when Jones was at home sick with a stomach flu. In a game that came down to one shot, there's no denying that the Fort Wayne, Ind., native's shooting was definitely missed.
"No question," Sadler said. "You're talking about probably over the last 10 ball games he'd been maybe our most consistent perimeter player as far as offense is concerned. But it is what it is. We didn't have him, so to speculate what it would have done doesn't really matter.
"I think probably more than anything, just like it is with most perimeter guys that can shoot it, it makes it easier to get it to the inside guys having him in there. It gives them just another step or two. In that area, he probably helps us as much as anything else."
Watching his team suffer such a tough loss and not being able to do his part was especially hard for Jones. In fact, he actually left home midway through the game and drove to the Devaney Center to at least be at the game for the final minutes.
"I was watching it, and I was feeling so sick and I felt so bad that I left the team and I should have been here even though I was sick," Jones said. "I ended up driving all the way back here and sat in the top corner so nobody could see me. I needed to watch. I at least needed to be here. Luckily I snuck in and was able try to watch the last three or four minutes of the game.
"I take the blame, because I wasn't here and I didn't put in any effort. I should have been here to help my team, sick or not. I should have been playing."
Hankins-Cole still struggling to adjust
Earlier in the season, junior forward Quincy Hankins-Cole said the conditioning aspect was the most difficult adjustment he had to make coming from junior college to the Big 12.
Now 18 games into his first season as a Husker, it seems that adjustment is still an ongoing process.
While the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Hankins-Cole could be a huge addition to Nebraska's lineup as the conference season unravels, both he and Sadler say his inability to consistently put forth a high enough level of effort each day in practice has made it nearly impossible to justify playing time in games.
"I think he's getting closer to understanding, but it's just a different deal," Sadler said. "When you recruit a junior college player, you don't need to make mistakes. At the same time, you need to give him time. If they play hard consistently, they'll be OK. In my opinion, that's not something that he's done. He's always been able to get minutes when it came game time, but its finally hit home. He don't like it, I can tell you that. We need him, but he's going to have to play hard."
Hankins-Cole said Sadler has been clear about what he expects from him as far as consistent effort goes, and he's made it a point to try and give his all each time he takes the court. However, he admits it still doesn't happen as much as it should.
"He just wants me to be more consistent, and basically he said it's on me," Hankins-Cole said. "It's pretty much on my shoulders now. I've got to do it in practice before I do it on the court. Until then I'm just going to keep working towards doing that."
Sadler said this past week of practice has been big for Hankins-Cole to take the next step and show the consistency needed to become a regular fixture in the Huskers' lineup. While he's made improvements, Sadler said the Roosevelt, N.Y., native still can't seem to keep up the level of effort for a full practice.
"This is a big week for him," Sadler said. "I've told him, I thought for two hours (Wednesday) he had a great practice, but then for the last hour I didn't think he was very good. It's about consistency and understanding. For 34 minutes I think we're a decent basketball team, but for five or six we struggle. It's about consistency, and he's got to understand that."
Around the rim
***Sadler hit the road for some recruiting earlier this week, as he traveled to Southern California and Dallas, Texas, to evaluate some potential recruits. As far as this coming recruiting class goes, Sadler said he's looking primarily at adding a wing player or two, if he adds anyone.
Following the decommittment of Conway, Ark., point guard Kenyon McNeaill earlier this month, Nebraska has one scholarship to fill for next season.
"I could see us not taking any or I could see us taking a couple," he said. "I don't see us taking more than two, but I could also see us not taking any also."
***In other recruiting news, Sadler said he's heard nothing but good things about the progress of 6-10, 320-pound center Andre Almeida, who committed to NU back in October.
"He has been playing really, really well," Sadler said. "I've had some people call me - (director of player personnel) Dave Babcock of the Milwaukee Bucks had gone to see him play and told me he was really, really good. He really liked him."
***After Iowa State guard Lucca Staiger suddenly announced he was leaving the Cyclones to pursue a professional career back in his home country of Germany earlier this week, Sadler was asked if he had any concerns of the same thing happening with any of his foreign transfer players.
In particular, he addressed fellow German players Christian Standhardinger and [db]Christopher Niemann[/db], who both played on the same German club team with Staiger before joining the Big 12.
"I think you better always look a at situation when you recruit those kids that academics is not only important to them, but important to the family," Sadler said. "The fact of the matter is, I doubt that Christian would even be here if it wasn't for his mother. It's very important. She's emphasized the academics to him, and it's very, very important to her. Christopher is definitely a guy that's here for academics more than basketball. It's totally different. Lucca was here for basketball first, is my understanding. So anytime you et a situation like that I think you better be concerned."
***An area of emphasis for Nebraska on Saturday will be getting to the free-throw line more often. In their past three games, the Huskers have shot just 38 free throws. In comparison, Missouri went to the line 43 times in its win over Kansas State alone.
"We're just not getting fouled," Sadler said. "We're not being strong. We're not being physical. We're not demanding people to foul us. We've got to be more aggressive on the drive. But again, it's not going to do us any good if we don't make our free throws."
***A lack of mental toughness has been a reoccurring theme for the Huskers this season. Well, it has for everyone except [db]Brandon Richardson. The sophomore guard has already played through two back injuries, a deep thigh bruise and a stomach flu this season and has rarely missed a practice.
"Brandon's never been questioned for his mental toughness," Sadler said. "Brandon's one of the toughest guys we've got. If Brandon's not out here, there's something seriously wrong with him."
For Richardson, missing a single minute of any game simply isn't an option.
"You've got to call the cops to come get me if I can't play," Richardson said. "I refuse to just sit and watch. I don't care if it's for 30 seconds. I want to be out there helping my guys."