I thought this was going to feel weird and yep, it sure does. Nebraska, third in the Big 10. Wow, crazy. At the same time it makes sense though. The Huskers finished fourth in the conference last season and return nearly everybody from that team. They were 11-7 in conference play and beat Ohio State and Michigan State at home. I mean this is serious, people. Tim Miles is obviously some kind of wizard, and it doesn't look like it's stopping any time soon because he's already inked two ESPN Top 100 dudes for 2015 (Ed Morrow, #62, and Glynn Watson, #66). Seriously what a jerk.
The main reason Nebraska is going to be good this year is the return of Terran Petteway, one of only two All-Big Ten first teamers back this season, and his 18.1 points per game. I love this guy's game. At 6-6 he's the perfect size and has the perfect athleticism and ball handling skills to create his own shot whenever he wants, he can rebound (4.8 per game) and distribute a little bit (1.6 assists per game, but assist rate that was second on the team), and he has a perimeter game. Of course, he only shot 33% from three which is acceptable but not great when you're taking nearly five per game on average. If he's figured out the three-pointer this team suddenly has Sweet 16 potential, and sleeper ability to go further. Not joking.
Another guy who could really help out the team by hitting more accurately from deep is Nebraska's other wing Shavon Shields, who hit less than 32% last season. He's got a nice all around game that compliments Petteway (12.8 ppg/5.8 rpg/1.6apg), and the two of them give Nebraska a potential 1-2 punch that's up there with anyone else in the conference, even if neither of them are dead-eye from deep. With Ray Gallegos, who you may remember from when he torched the Gophers two years ago for 30 points and 6 made three-pointers, and his 54 made 3s gone from the team this year somebody needs to give the Huskers a boost from outside, and it's likely Petteway or Shields.
Of course, things aren't all that desperate because Walter Pitchford is back at power forward and he hit at a 41% clip last season. He's not some dandy either, with about a 50/50 two-pointer/three-pointer split and a defensive rebound rate that's up there as one of the top in the conference. That high three-point conversion and a 54% 2-point percentage makes him one of the most efficient players in the B10. The Huskers did get hit by a bit of blow when returning senior PF Leslee Smith went down for the year with a knee tear. He's not much for scoring but he supplied rebounding and defense and they'll have to find a way to replace that production. Senior David Rivers and incoming freshman Jacob Hammond will have to come up big. There's also some grad transfer guy from Georgetown who was terrible there so who knows.
The main question for the Huskers is really at PG, where Tai Webster didn't really live up to expectations last season (4 pts/2 assists per game in 23 minutes). The only other PGs on the roster are undersized Benny Parker (5-9) who is better served as a mini offensive energy explosion off the bench (think Microwave) and freshman Tarin Smith who may not be ready and is just 165 lbs. at 6-2 which won't really cut it right away in the Big Ten. Webster is from New Zealand and I read somewhere last season that somebody said if he had been in the US he'd be a top 50 recruit, but that certainly didn't play out last season. I know I already said Petteway could elevate this team another level, but Webster is probably the most important player for Nebraska this year. Watson should be a stud PG next season and Rivers and G-Town guy are the only seniors, but Petteway could bolt to the NBA so it'd be good for them to make a run this year.
Look I don't know. Even after writing all that it still seems weird to have Nebraska predicted to finish in third place in the conference, but after reading all that it completely makes sense. They have a great coach, a program on the rise, a ton of experience back, and one of the top players in the conference returning. Honestly if it wasn't Nebraska they could even go one place higher, but I'm just not ready to do it yet. I just can't. Hell of a turnaround by Miles though. Gonna suck for them when Pitino and the Gophers dominate the conference every year eventually when that happens. When not if.
#4 MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
#5 ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
#7 MICHIGAN STATE
#8 IOWA HAWKEYES
#9 MARYLAND TERRAPINS
#10 INDIANA HOOSIERS
#11 PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
#12 NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS
#13 PURDUE BOILERMAKERS
#14 RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS