LOCATION: Lincoln, NE
CONFERENCE: Big 12
LAST SEASON: 20-13 (.600)
CONFERENCE RECORD: 10-6 (t-5th)
STARTERS LOST/RETURNING: 3/2
COLORS: Scarlet & Cream
HOMECOURT: Devaney Center (14,200)
COACH: Danny Nee (St. Mary of the Plains '71)
record at school 243-171 (13 years)
career record 350-238 (20 years)
ASSISTANTS: Cleo Hill (North Carolina Central '88)|
Larry Gay (Florida State '73)
Randy Roth (Ohio '83)
TEAM WINS: (last 5 years) 18-21-18-20-20
RPI (last 5 years) 53-48-53-41-53
1998-99 FINISH: Lost in NIT second round.
Signs pointed to change after the 1997-98 season. Sure, the Cornhuskers ended the season in the NCAA Tournament that year. Attendance was sagging, however, and the team failed to the conference title for about the 50th straight year. Coach Danny Nee had talked to other schools. Prospects didn't seem very bright for 1998-99. Time seemed right for a change. But Nee hung on, and the Cornhuskers found themselves in the heat of a race with a 9-3 start in Big 12 play. The run included Nee's first victory at Kansas. Three straight losses doomed Nebraska to the NIT, but the 10-6 Big 12 record smacked of overachievement. "It's time they got the credit they deserved," Kansas coach Roy Williams said. "I feel for (Nee) sometimes because I don't think he gets enough credit in his home state. I think he's more highly respected around the league than he is at home. And that's a sad situation. Nebraska basketball has jumped a great deal since he's gotten there." Compared to where it had been, absolutely it has. Nee's teams are responsible for 11 of the program's 18 postseason appearances. Nebraska had been to one NCAA Tournament before Nee arrived, five since. The Cornhuskers have been to postseason play nine straight years. Only 13 Division I schools own longer streaks. The season gave Nee an opportunity to respond to his critics. "It was probably more about personality than record," Nee said. "It took us the first half of the season to adjust to not having (former first-round draft pick) Tyronn Lue at the point. Once we did that, we became a very solid team."
The early problems peaked in a 37-point loss to Wisconsin. At the midway point of the year, Nebraska was 8-7 and 0-2 in the league. The conference hot streak coincided with the emergence of center Venson Hamilton as one of the Big 12's top players. He became the fourth player in the history of the Big Eight/12 to score 1,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds and block 200 shots in a career. The others were first-round draft picks Wayman Tisdale, Danny Manning and Byron Houston. Hamilton didn't go in the first round, but he became the Big 12 Player of the Year with averages of 15.7 points and 10.2 rebounds. His will be the biggest shoes to fill in the Big 12. Nebraska will be built around 6-4 senior shooting guard Cookie Belcher (11.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 138 assists, 102 steals, .428 FG, .305 3 PT), who may be the league's top defensive player. Belcher ranks third in the nation among active players with 264 career steals. He will be gunning for the Big Eight/12 career mark of 334 held by Kansas' Darnell Valentine. Last year, Belcher was fifth in the nation in steals per game (3.2), and his total of 102 was second behind only Shawnta Rogers of George Washington, who had 103. Shooting is the troubling aspect of Belcher's game. As a freshman, he shot .457 from the field and .395 from behind the arc. The percentages have decreased each of the last two seasons. The only other sure thing in the starting lineup is 6-5 senior small forward Larry Florence (10.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, .508 FG, .738 FT), a three-year starter in his fifth season in the program. Florence, one of the few Big 12 players who made more shots than he missed, turned it on at the end of the season when he averaged 13 points and 5.0 rebounds in the final five games. As a freshman, he shot just .383 from the floor. "When I came here, I wanted to be known as the guy who guarded the other team's best player, and I had doubts about the other parts of my game," Florence said. "But I became more confident." He also knows his limits. Florence doesn't shoot three-point shots. He is strong enough to take most of his opponents low. After that, starting spots are up for grabs. Nebraska would love for 6-1 sophomore Gary Cochran (5.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, .400 FG, .398 3 PT, .935 FT) to develop into more of a regular. He is the team's designated sharpshooter and saved his best for last a year ago. He scored a season-high 23 in the NIT loss to TCU and tied a school record by making seven three-point shots. Cochran probably will come off the bench again this season. Also in backcourt reserve is 6-2 junior Rodney Fields, set for his first season at Nebraska after sitting out last season. Fields had a steel rod inserted into his lower leg to repair a stress fracture. He averaged 15 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists for Tyler (Texas) Junior College two years ago. Guards Ross Buckendahl (1.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg), a 6-5 junior, and Craig Wortmann (1.0 ppg, 0.5 rpg), a 6-4 junior, are Nebraska natives and will continue their roles as practice players and crowd favorites. So who starts at the point? His name is Danny Walker, and he was a confused fellow in the spring. First he said he was going to Nebraska. Then he changed his mind and said Texas. When it came down to signing the papers, Walker returned to Nebraska, perhaps on the promise of the starting assignment. Walker, a 6-1 junior, transferred from Compton (Calif.) Community College, where he averaged 15.1 points and 5 assists. He shot .410 from three-point range. As a sophomore, Walker played only 15 games because of injuries. The well-traveled Walker started his career at Southern Cal, where he averaged 4.9 points in 16 games. Walker then transferred to New Mexico State, but never played. "He fills a big need for us," Nee said. "He's the quality ball handler we've been looking for." Nebraska also looks to transfers to fill in up front. The most intriguing newcomer is junior Kimani Ffriend, with two fs. Before he was suspended from the Gulf Coast (Fla.) Community College team for disciplinary reasons, the 6-11, 220 pound Ffriend averaged 18.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.4 blocked shots. He was ranked among the nation's top five junior college centers. Sophomore George Mazyck came to Nebraska from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, where he averaged 8.0 points and 8.5 rebounds last season. The 6-8, 270-pound Mazyck started his career at Missouri, but played in only four games before injuries curtailed his freshman season. Completing the transfer front line is 6-6, 240-pound junior forward Steffon Bradford, who played with Walker at Compton. He averaged 18.9 points and 7.9 rebounds. If the newcomers don't work out, Nee can fall back on a one-year program veteran, 6-7 sophomore forward Louis Truscott (3.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .386 FG). He made the most of his opportunity against Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament when he scored a season-best 12 points in a season-high 24 minutes. Kenny Booker of Clarkson, Miss., and Brian Conklin of Hubbard, Ohio, are the freshman class, but only Booker, a 6-8 forward, is expected to play. He averaged 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds at Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C. His brother, Carlos, was Southern Mississippi's starting center last season. Conklin, a 6-11 center who played for Hubbard High, is ticketed for a redshirt season.
Blue Ribbon Analysis
BACKCOURT B BENCH/DEPTH C|
FRONTCOURT C INTANGIBLES C
Because transfers will start at point guard and center, Nebraska is tough to figure. If Danny Walker and Kimani Ffriend can made the transition to everyday Division I players, the Cornhuskers can contend for the Big 12 title. There's a problem of no established scoring sources, and Cookie Belcher and Larry Florence must leave no doubt that this is their team, the way Tyronn Lue did two years ago when the Cornhuskers went to the NCAA Tournament. Coach Danny Nee wants to open up the offense. "We're going to open it up," Nee said. "I'd rather have a quick shot than a turnover. We'll have the athletes to do that." With 11 victories, Nee will be become Nebraska's leader in career victories, surpassing Joe Cipriano, who coached for 17 seasons. With the retirement of Missouri's Norm Stewart, Nee is the dean of Big 12 coaches. The betting a year ago was he wouldn't be around to hold that distinction, which proved one should never bet against Nee.
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