Ever since Nebraska capped a terrific 2013-14 season with a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten, things have not gone well for the Huskers.
They lost their first game of that season’s Big Ten Tournament, then got beat up by Baylor in their first game of that season’s NCAA tournament. And last season was a disaster, a 13-18 campaign lowlighted by a non-conference loss to Incarnate Word and an ugly 5-13 conference mark, good for 12th place in the Big Ten.
Then came this offseason, one of extreme upheaval, where nine players departed the program either because of graduation, jumping to the NBA, retirement or transfer. Only six players from last year’s roster are on this year’s roster. One of those players didn’t play last year, and two others averaged fewer than 10 minutes a game.
So for a team trying to rid itself of the taste of a miserable season, all this change is going to make things rather difficult.
That’s why the Huskers are going to rely on a mainstay to lead them through this year’s challenge: Shavon Shields.
“Shavon Shields is a very good player,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said last month during Big Ten basketball media day. “He’s underrated and deservedly so. I think he has a chance to be an NBA player. I think that he can score a whole bunch for us. I think as he improves his outside shot, he's only going to get better and better.”
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Shields is going to be the guy for the Huskers this season from a leadership standpoint and a production standpoint. Certainly the biggest of the nine losses for Nebraska this offseason was Terran Petteway, who opted to skip his senior season and make the jump to the NBA after two straight seasons averaging better than 18 points a game.
With Petteway and his large scoring burden gone for a team that was already the second-worst scoring team in the Big Ten, Shields is going to have to step up in a big way. But he’s ready to do just that.
And Shields also pointed out others who can step in and make an impact. Tai Webster and Benny Parker are the Huskers’ other main returners, and Nebraska is excited about Andrew White, a former Kansas Jayhawk who sat out after transferring in ahead of last season.
“I feel like that’s my position now,” Shields said of taking over the main scoring role. “But I think we’re going to have to have a lot of guys step up and have a lot more balanced scoring. ... Andrew White from Kansas is going to have to score for us, Tai’s going to have to score this year, Benny’s going to have to score for us. And then there’s a lot of spots up for grabs and a lot of points there.”
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Petteway wasn’t the only one to go. Big man Walter Pitchford also opted to forego his senior season. Tarin Smith transferred to Duquesne. Five seniors graduated, and another player was forced to retire due to chronic injuries.
It means for a bevy of newcomers. White is a Kansas transfer. Malcolm Laws is a walk-on who used to play at Florida Atlantic. And there are seven freshmen.
That’s a lot of new people and not a lot of time to get up to speed.
“I think we’ve brought in a lot of good guys, and I don’t think the jelling parts difficult. I think what’s going to be difficult is the learning curve with being freshmen and stuff like that,” Shields said. “But what’s really great about it is it brings out a lot of competition because there are a lot of spots that people can fill.”
In a loaded Big Ten, the odds might be against the Huskers when it comes to rebounding from last year’s awful results, particularly with all the fresh faces. But there’s no doubt Nebraska has a good one in Shields, and he’s trying to get the guys around him to forget about last season and just get better.
“I think just playing and having a process, a mindset of coming in and getting better every day,” Shields said. “I think if we do that, things will end up where we want them to.”