Tim Miles admittedly was worried about his basketball team early in the season.
Using the first-year coach’s rather blunt words, Nebraska “wasn’t really doing anything right.”
The players’ mood reflected as much.
“We’d come in and win, and in the locker room, it’d be like a morgue,” Miles said. “Nobody felt good about anything. We just weren’t clicking at all.”
Those “expert” predictions about a single-digit victory total?
Yeah, maybe not so far off, Miles thought.
After a while, the Huskers had a better day here, a better day there. And then a few more. The seniors — Andre Almeida, Dylan Talley, Brandon Ubel — started taking ownership. Players slowly began understanding what it would take to prove doubters wrong.
“It just took us a long time," Miles said, "to get as good as I hoped we could be."
Nebraska, picked by 23 of 24 conference beat writers to finish last in the Big Ten Conference, finished 15-18 overall and 5-13 in the league, good for 10th place in the 12-team league, with a victory in the conference tournament.
Nebraska -- the only team that finished in the top 100 of the RPI (at No. 99) with a losing record -- might today be preparing for the National Invitation Tournament, had it not been for home losses to Kent State and Purdue.
“I feel like these guys were really fun to coach,” Miles said. “Their disappointment was real that they didn’t get as far as they wanted to. It wasn’t an act, it wasn’t a façade. And that, to me, means more than anything."
All in all, it wasn’t a bad start for a new coach beginning another rebuilding project.
“The entire ordeal,” Miles said, “exceeded my expectations the way I felt those first few games.”
Now, what about expectations for Year Two?
Fans will naturally look for Nebraska to take another step, which logically means they’ll look for a few more victories, and a serious push for the postseason, maybe the NIT.
Make no mistake, Miles welcomes such expectations. He also knows he has a heavy workload to meet them.
“We’re going to lose a lot this year,” he said. “We’re going to lose a tremendous amount of leadership, poise and maturity, and we’re not replacing leadership, poise and maturity. We’re bringing in some talent, but unproven guys in those regards.
“Next year, I think we’ll have more talent, but it will also be a group that’s not worked together as closely, that’s not been on the same page, mentally. It’s my job to get them on the same page. But it’s going to take a lot of work on everybody’s part to come together.
"I think we could be good, but you can’t just sit here and say, ‘Oh, next year we’re going to win 18 or 19.’ We’ve got a lot of work to do for me to be comfortable saying that.”
Nebraska returns starters Ray Gallegos, Shavon Shields and David Rivers, and will have three redshirts eligible next season — Terran Petteway, Deverell Biggs and Walter Pitchford.
Petteway, a 6-foot-6 guard who transferred from Texas Tech, brings a great deal of versatility, Miles said, with the ability to even play point guard, if needed. Biggs, a junior college transfer and Omaha native, will challenge for a starting job at point guard.
The 6-10, 230-pound Pitchford, a Florida transfer, is a key piece to a front court that loses Ubel and Almeida.
“They bring a lot of good things to the table, but they also haven’t been under the scope, the bright lights, yet,” Miles said of the three redshirts. “It’s going to be a test to their maturity, their poise, their ability to make consistent, good decisions when winning and losing are on the line. There have been times in practice where they haven’t demonstrated that they can do it consistently.”
Signed recruits Nick Fuller, Nathan Hawkins and Tai Webster will arrive in June, when coaches can begin working with them, in limited periods, per NCAA rules. Webster and Hawkins are guards, and Miles said Fuller, a 6-7 wing, is a three; until Fuller gets on campus, Miles isn’t certain whether he could stretch to a four, or play two-guard.
Miles still is searching for a couple of big men in the late-spring signing period, knowing that size is a big question mark for next season.
He’s led small teams before — Miles’ team last season at Colorado State had no one taller that 6-6 and made the NCAA Tournament — but he also realizes a small lineup won’t be as affective in the Big Ten.
“I’m going to worry about it in October when I have the team finalized. At the end of the day, we’re going to work hard to build a winner, and I know this much: In this league, you need to be a complete team. You need to have good guards, good wings, strong forwards and a good center, with depth … or you just get trampled. You’re just not going to make it.”
* Miles said Nebraska made a “collective decision” involving coaches, players and administrators to not play in the postseason College Basketball Invitational, which had interest in inviting the Huskers to its 16-team field. Purdue (15-17) accepted a CBI bid and becomes the first Big Ten team to participate in the 7-year-old event.
* Power forward recruit Matthew Atewe, who took a weekend visit to Nevada, has narrowed his list of schools to Auburn, Charlotte, Nebraska and Nevada, and said he’ll decide on a school March 30. Atewe, a Toronto native who attends Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts, recently was cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
* Miles isn’t certain whether he will fill the staff position vacated when Ronald “Chin” Coleman left his role as director of player development before the season. He said he wants to wait and see what, if any, recruiting limitations the NCAA puts on the position, as it reconsiders some recent rules changes. Otherwise, Miles anticipates no staff changes.