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Wilkinson beefs up his body, game

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Texas Southern's Jacques Jones (left) gets a shot on the nose during a battle for the ball with Nebraska's Wes Wilkinson during first-half action of their game at the Bob Devaney Sports Center. (Ted Kirk)

He's still concerned about the kid's diet, but these days Doug Novsek has far fewer questions about Wes Wilkinson's appetite for success with the Nebraska men's basketball team.

For two seasons, the third-year-assistant felt, literally and figuratively, he had to spoon-feed the lanky prospect from Grand Island. What Wilkinson had to show for his career were malnourished averages of 2.0 points and 1.7 rebounds.

But lately, finally, Wilkinson offers proof that his game has as much substance as his preferred choice at the dinner table.

"Favorite meal? Probably steak and potatoes," Wilkinson said Monday, two days after his career-best, 22-point feast sparked the Huskers to a 95-85 double-overtime win against Kansas State.

And it's not just that beefy performance that gives Wilkinson something succulent to ponder entering tonight's game at Colorado.

During his last five contests, Wilkinson is averaging 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2 blocks.

Through his first five, those figures were 3.6 points, 3 rebounds, 0 assists and 1.7 blocks.

Against Kansas State, Wilkinson sank 9-of-14 shots, including a tiebreaking three-pointer with 1:30 left in the second overtime that put NU ahead for good. By halftime, he matched his previous career high of 13 points.

"He hesitated a little bit the other night," said Novsek, Wilkinson's position coach, "but as opposed to last year, he's shooting all kinds of balls he wouldn't have shot."

Only twice in his first 66 games did Wilkinson take as many as nine attempts. In the last three, he has let it fly nine, 14 and 14 times — a welcome sight considering that his 50.8-percent accuracy from the field (32-for-63) is bettered by just one other NU regular, John Turek.

"We just really got with Wes at the end of last year and (said), ‘Act like you belong around here. Walk around here, and take some ownership in your career,'" Novsek said. "It was almost like he was apologizing for being around.

"You've got to stay with him in a lot of different areas. Eating. Lifting. It's been a big mental thing with him. He just didn't understand, you can't not eat, come in here and lift weights and then practice. You're going to wear down. … I think he's starting to learn some of the other things that it takes to be a successful player."

According to senior point guard Marcus Neal, Wilkinson's renewed commitment

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started showing last spring.

"The guys we brought in here on (recruiting) visits as power forwards, he killed them," Neal said.

Wilkinson then averaged 13.2 points and 7 rebounds during Nebraska's six-game tour of Australia in August. But his progress came to a halt when, during an outdoor scrimmage on the opening day of practice, he broke a bone in his left foot.

For the next five weeks, Wilkinson, fitted in a walking cast, was limited to shooting free throws, ball-handling drills and riding a stationary bike. After missing the season opener, he spent four games getting into playing shape. But during the last six games, he has been on the court an average of 26 minutes.

"He was murderin' before he got hurt," Neal said. "It was a blow to our team, because he wouldn't have never lost a step if he would've stayed healthy."

Added Novsek, "It was like a wasted momentum type of deal. You just think, ‘God, this kid had all this going. Can (he) ever get a break?'"

Wilkinson, now near 220 pounds after coming to NU at 195, has provided the hoped-for answer. After all, he was heralded as one of the nation's top 70 high school seniors in 2002.

For the time being, he's enjoying his primary role of being an offensive spark off Nebraska's bench.

"In hindsight, I think I should've redshirted my freshman year, (or) maybe even sophomore," Wilkinson said. "I just knew I needed to get into it physically, really put on some muscle — and mentally — get caught up with the game. I knew if I kept my faith and kept on working hard, my time would come."

For a guy who still needs an occasional reminder not to be shy about asking for seconds at the table, it must taste like dessert.

Reach Curt McKeever at 473-7441 or



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