Nebraska head coach Tim Miles had been saying for weeks that it wasn't a matter of if Tai Webster would come into his own as the Huskers' starting point guard, but when. If the true freshman's performance in Thursday night's 80-67 win over Penn State was any indication, that time might coming very soon.
Webster ended the game with 10 points, a season-high five rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes of action, but the manner in which he attained those numbers that was the most impressive aspect. After seeing his playing time drop significantly over the past three games in favor of sophomore Benny Parker, Webster came out looking like a completely different player just in terms of his offensive aggressiveness and confidence with the basketball in his hands.
Of Webster's 10 points - his highest total yet in Big Ten Conference play - eight came from the free throw line, as he got to the line five times and finished 8-of-10 from the charity stripe. Nebraska also ended the game with just five assists as a team because of its 48 free throw attempts, and three of those were courtesy of the New Zealand native.
"It felt real good," Webster said. "I just got back to playing and not thinking about the game too much and just letting it come to me. Letting the points come, hitting the open players when I see them. I had a real good time out there."
Maybe the best thing to happen to Webster this season has been the emergence of Parker, who went from being buried in the rotation earlier in the year to becoming one of NU's top options off the bench. While Parker is obviously limited offensively, he's more than made up for it with relentless tenacity and energy on the defensive end. Miles said Webster responded perfectly to Parker's pushing, and rather than get discouraged over losing playing time he took it as a challenge to make himself better.
"I think it's relieved him, you know?" Miles said. "Like, he doesn't have to be the only one. When he comes to the bench, somebody's going to pick him him. Because I think Tai really cares about the team and wants the team to win, and that's what he truly wants to happen. So I think he's got a bit of a sense of relief, and also I think Benny's taught him some lessons on this is how it's done."
Webster said Parker has played a huge role his own development this season simply from having to try and match his energy and effort every day in practice and workouts.
"Benny Parker, he's an inspiration every single day," Webster said. "He brings energy and a spark to the to team every single day in practice and pushes me to the limit every time. He guards me in practice, I want to go at him as hard as I can, and he's going as hard as he can at me."
While Webster has struggled noticeably on offense much of the season, he's actually been one of the Huskers' better perimeter defenders. With 23 steals on the year, Webster is just two behind Leslee Smith (25) for the team lead and is now only two away from cracking the school's top-10 list for steals in a season by a freshman. If he ends up leading NU for the season, he'll become the first freshman to do so since Cookie Miller back in 2007-08.
"If you look at the last few games, his defense has been outstanding, really," sophomore forward Terran Petteway said. "He's been tough on the ball, and that's why his offense is picking up, because he's playing better on the defensive end."
It was no secret that this season would be an adjustment for Webster. Moving across the world to play in one of the best conferences in college basketball while keeping his academics in order and adapting to an entirely different culture was certainly a daunting task for a 17-year-old kid. Slowly but surely, though, Webster is finally starting to settle in to life as a Husker, and he's moving closer and closer to becoming the type of player many hoped he'd be all along.
"I wouldn't say it was more (of an adjustment). I knew what it was going to be like," Webster said. "It's been a journey. I've had my ups and downs, and it's been a journey. I've enjoyed it a lot. I love coming out here playing in front of our fans, and whether it's home or away, being able to play college basketball has been a dream my whole life. To come here and do it in Division I, it's amazing."