The college basketball season isn't far off. It’s time to start looking at the important questions that will shape the 2016-17 season.
On Oct. 1, 2015, the University of Nebraska Press published "Nebrasketball: Coach Tim Miles and a Big Ten Team on the Rise." The author, Bethel University journalism professor Scott Winter, was granted full access to the Nebraska men's hoops program during the 2013-14 season, despite Miles' self-effacing reservations. "He wasn't sure they'd be any good," Winter writes, "much less a story worthy of a book."
In fact, the timing couldn't have been better. The 2013-14 Cornhuskers would turn an 8-8 start into a 19-13 record, beat a top-10 Michigan State team on the road, finish Big Ten play on an 11-3 burst, and earn the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 1998 -- just its seventh in school history. By Nebraska's moribund standards, it was a dream campaign, and the perfect way to break the bottle on the hull of the school's just-opened $184 million downtown arena.
Miles' star was on the rise, and deservedly so. In two seasons, he had lifted a program from the grave and infused it with his own goofy, dad-jokey personality. He also earned the respect of his Big Ten coaching peers -- Tom Izzo chief among them. (In Izzo's foreword to "Nebrasketball" -- in the first two paragraphs alone – the Michigan State coach reveals that he recorded a video for Nebraska's 2013-14 team banquet, claims credit for Miles' Big Ten Coach of the Year award, laments that his team never recovered from the Nebraska loss, and says "I mean, I really don't like you, Tim Miles." A higher compliment was never paid.) Between the energy of Nebraska's coach and those suddenly gleaming facilities, it was time to ask whether Nebraska basketball had finally arrived.
As the 2016-17 season approaches, we're asking a different question:
What if Nebraska is just … Nebraska?
Three seasons later, the heady, exciting days of 2013-14 feel like a distant memory. In 2014-15, the three players most instrumental in Nebraska's breakthrough season -- Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford -- all returned, and expectations were duly raised. Nebraska was ranked No. 21 in the preseason Associated Press poll; an NCAA tournament bid seemed like a given. Nonconference losses to Creighton, Hawaii and (true story) Incarnate Word (at home!) almost immediately made those expectations look laughable. By March, NU looked completely checked out. The season finished with nine straight defeats, a 13-19 overall record, and -- just one year after a stifling conference run -- the Big Ten's ninth-ranked per-possession defense.
The 2015-16 season was a bit better: The Cornhuskers finished 16-18, stole yet another road win against a high-powered Michigan State team, knocked off red-hot Wisconsin in the conference tournament, and got an impressively efficient scoring season from former top-50 prospect/Kansas transfer Andrew White. Even so, they still allowed 1.08 points per trip to Big Ten opponents, 10th-worst in the league, and managed just 1.06 on the other end.
Then came the summer of 2016, and perhaps the loudest rebuke to Nebraska's recent hoops momentum yet.
In the last week of June, late in the transfer-process calendar, White's family asked the athletic program for his release. The parting was ... well, less than amicable, let's say. Setting aside the specifics of who informed whom of what when (and White has a side to the story), and the usual overwrought rhetoric about transfers, there's no question White's decision left Miles in a tough spot. But why? Why would a player who had already uprooted his life, sat out a season, thrived in his first year back and already returned from testing the NBA draft waters suddenly decide to leave?
Omaha World-Herald columnist Lee Barfknecht offered the key insight at the time:
In the spring of 2015, about a month after Andrew White III finished sitting out his season as a transfer at Nebraska, I got a phone call. It was White’s father, Andrew Jr. The topic was one I’d never heard before.
White Jr. asked if it would be smart to hire a public relations firm to tout his son’s accomplishments and potential. At that point, White had averaged 2.3 points and 5.4 minutes in two years at Kansas, and hadn’t set foot on the floor for Nebraska. [...] There’s your window into […] the Whites asking for a release so Andrew can leave as a fifth-year graduate. The stars in this family’s eyes are gigantic.
A month later, White chose to play at Syracuse.
There's a lesson here: From a pure perceptual standpoint, the gulf between Nebraska and Syracuse is as large as that between Duke and Northwestern. For players (or families) convinced that their talented child is, in fact, a future NBA star, the opportunity to spend a year under the Carrier Dome lights must be a no-brainer call.
This is not Tim Miles' fault. It's not anyone at Nebraska's fault. It's just reality. And state-of-the-art facilities, and a season of unexpected (if moderate) success, won't alter reality -- at least not right away.
The good news: Even after White's departure, and the graduation of Shields, the team's top scorer, there are reasons to be optimistic about the 2016-17 Cornhuskers. Senior guard Tai Webster (a once-and-future source of Nebrasketball optimism) has steadily improved throughout his career. Four rising sophomores (Glynn Watson, Jack McVeigh, Ed Morrow and Michael Jacobson) were passable or better during their rookie campaigns. Louisville transfer Anton Gill, a former top-50 prospect in his own right, is joining up. NU wasn't all that far off last season.
Most important? Miles is still the same coach whose work made the Nebrasketball project look so effortlessly ahead of schedule just two seasons ago.
As it turns out, overcoming a century of uninterrupted basketball apathy isn't quite as easy as it looked. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.