Nebraska Season Preview

When you look at his coaching record, you can’t help but wonder where Tim Miles would be if he had the charmed career of Roy Williams instead. Williams attended UNC, where he was a part of the freshman team, volunteered for Dean Smith, and sat in on practices of the varsity team. After college, Williams took a high school coaching job, a position he held for 5 years. He wasn’t very good at it—the team was 21 games under .500 in his tenure—but Smith nonetheless hired him as an assistant in 1978. Williams remained on UNC’s bench for another decade, and after that he received his first head coaching position at Kansas University in 1988, where he just happened to have a senior named Danny Manning on his roster. The rest is history.

Compare that to Tim Miles: out of college, he was an assistant at an NAIA school for six seasons. He then took a head job at another NAIA school and guided a floundering program to two conference championships. Then he turned around a Division II school. Then he took a team transitioning to Division I (which usually means you’re cannon fodder) and compiled a .582 winning percentage over six years. Then it was off to Colorado State, in a conference dominated by the likes of UNLV, BYU, and San Diego State. The Rams won 7 games in Miles’ first season, and 20 in his last. And finally, Miles took a job at one of the least-respected basketball programs in the Big Ten, and got it to the NCAA Tournament in his second season—the school’s first in almost 20 years.

Basically, no one can accuse Miles of being born on third base—the guy hit a solid triple. That said, at only one of these stops has Miles won more than 20 games as a head coach (at Southwest Minnesota State). Everywhere else, Miles gets the ship righted, the program enjoys some success, and Miles is scooped up by the next athletic director looking to inject some life into the basketball team. Well, Miles has already gotten things turned around in Lincoln, but he’s still there. Can he build on it?

With roughly three-quarters of the minutes returning, including Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Terran Petteway, it would certainly seem like they have a good chance. But a couple of caveats are needed here. The first is that the team’s best post player, Leslie Smith, tore his ACL in the FIBA World Championships (coaches, take note). I haven’t seen anything rule him out for the season, but even if he comes back, one would think we’re looking at a January return at the soonest. By that point, it might take too long for Smith to get back into game shape to justify burning a redshirt.

Smith’s absence is big on a couple of fronts. First, he made shots, which is something the rest of the team struggled with. Second is the fact that he’s the team’s best rebounder. On defense, I suspect this won’t matter all that much—Miles’ teams are almost always competent at cleaning up misses. But Smith was the only offensive rebounding threat, and for a team that could once again struggle to make shots, that’s not a minor loss. The team welcomes the Biblically-named fifth year transfer Moses Abraham, who is a solid defensive rebounder but otherwise is a liability on the floor.

The second issue Nebraska faces coming into the season is shoring up the point guard position. This is actually all gravy, as that position was pretty much a black hole all of last year. Freshman Tai Webster was one of the worst players in high major basketball that received regular minutes (30 percent shooting combined with a turnover problem does not an effective player make), and the patchwork job of Benny Parker, the since-dismissed Deverell Biggs, and the since-graduated Ray Gallegos was only marginally effective.

This overwhelming ineffectiveness at the 1 would normally be a good thing—anything approaching “average” would be a huge marginal improvement—but stories like these worry me a bit. Yes, it would be great if freshman Tarin Smith came in an immediately grabbed the starting point guard position and performed capably in that role. But it would also be unlikely, as Smith was not a top-100 recruit. The good news about Smith could easily be a way to deliver bad news about Webster under the October fluff-only rules of college basketball journalism. We’ll have to wait to find out which it is (it could also be both), though Webster’s performance at the FIBA World Championships did not inspire confidence.

So what’s the bottom line on the Huskers? It’s easy to see that they have a strong 3-man core in Petteway, Shavon Shields, and Walter Pitchford. That trio could be the best in the Big Ten if Pitchford and Shields’ perimeter shot accuracy starts lining up with their free throw touch. But after that? A lot of questions, frankly. Nebraska should be good enough to repeat its .500 level Big Ten performance (despite the 11-7 record, the Huskers played the conference to a draw on a points basis), but unless Smith unexpectedly surprises, I can’t see much more than that.