High expectations have foiled Nebraska hoops before
LINCOLN — Tim Miles isn’t into comparing his teams, especially not this one.“Comparison is a thief of joy,” Miles said Monday.But there’s no getting around the fact that Miles and Nebraska have been here before. After Nebraska made the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, the Huskers were a preseason Top-25 team the following year. They returned nearly everyone, including Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford and Shavon Shields. And then the Huskers tanked. They lost 11 of their final 12 games and finished 13-18.Now, with arguably Miles’ best team in his seven years inLincoln, Nebraska faces a similar task after a 22-11 season a year ago. And the expectations have returned, albeit for a team that in a lot of ways is the polar opposite of that 2014-15 team that fell far short of expectations.“We’re just further down the line on what an expectation looks like,” Miles said. “The 2014 team was such an upstart and this team has been put together in a lot longer form, it feels like.”This team is also much more mild-mannered than the 2014-15 team. Petteway — who led the team in scoring that year — was a frenetic player who Miles said would “threaten” guys to work harder. Players on this team are much more soft-spoken. Senior point guard Glynn Watson even said as much last week, mentioning that the four leaders — himself, Isaiah Roby, James Palmer and Isaac Copeland — are all lead-by-example guys. No one is really barking a lot during practice.Typically, that would be concerning for Miles, who would prefer to have an “alpha dog” on the floor.“It worries you, let’s put it that way,” Miles said. “But at the same time, this is such a rock-solid group it doesn’t worry me a lot.”Nebraska begins practice on Tuesday, and there are some early health concerns. Roby is dealing with plantar fasciitis, a heel injury that could take weeks to fully heal. Miles said Roby will get some reps in early practices, but not as many. He won’t go live in 5-on-5 drills. The timetable on his return is fluid, because plantar fasciitis can inflame easily. The junior forward averaged 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and two blocks a year ago.Karrington Davis, a true freshman from St. Louis, Missouri, will also be held out of practice early while he rehabs hip issues.In their place, Miles is looking at a few younger guards to step up, primarily true freshman Amir Harris and sophomores Thomas Allen and Nana Akenten. Harris is a lanky player who can guard various positions. Allen and Akenten are shooters who Miles hopes can stretch the floor with a smaller lineup.No doubt, Nebraska will lean heavily on Palmer, the All-Big Ten guard who transferred into the program two years ago from Miami. Miles said on Monday that the one thing Palmer missed last year was “pro habits.” He’s seen those habits form over the past few months from Palmer, who scored 17.2 points per game and shot 44 percent from the floor. The senior has been showing up to the gym to shoot at 6 a.m. most mornings, and during fall workouts he was often shooting for at least an hour before coaches showed up.“Every day showing up and working to get better, and he’s been remarkable in that shift,” Miles said.Palmer is a good example of how different this team is from the 13-18 team that followed NU’s last NCAA tournament team. Palmer is quiet and consistent, unlike Petteway could be at times.This team knows who it is, both offensively and defensively, Miles said, while the 2014-15 group was a work in progress in Miles’ third year. But a key early in these preseason practices and throughout the season will be unlocking something inside the team to break it out of its comfort zone. He doesn’t want them too comfortable in their own skin, and wants a little more grit from everyone. Miles even joked that he wants to give Allen and Roby Batman costumes.“So they have an alter ego,” Miles said. “So they can put the Batman on and, ‘Now I’m Batman, damn it, now I’m gonna go play great.’ ”This team doesn’t have a lot of change in it, Miles said. The players are consistent and have good habits, and that’s encouraging, he said. And there’s one clear expectation: Last year was not good enough.“Really all we’ve talked about is how to make this collective group better,” Miles said. “I think this team could be really good.”And the mentality in the locker room?“We know we didn’t make it, we’re gonna make it this year, we’re going to keep working,” Miles said.