Nebrasketball: Time to Panic?

20 Apr

Even by their historically ugly standards, 2015 has been a very bad year for the Nebraska Basketball program.

Let’s recap Nebrasketball’s low-lights since the first of the year:

  • A 5-13 record, with an average margin of defeat of 13 points.
  • NU was winless on the road and 1-8 against conference foes that made the NCAA tournament.  (It should be noted that lone win was over Michigan State, a Final Four team).
  • The team was locked out of their locker room and banned from media contact by Head Coach Tim Miles after an embarrassing home loss to Iowa.
  • The Huskers fell behind 13th seed Penn State by 16 points in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.  A late rally gave the Big Red a chance to take the lead in the final minute, but they ended up losing by four.
  • Walt Pitchford announced he’s quitting basketball to focus on getting his degree.  Three days later, he had declared for the NBA draft.
  • After appearing in every game, promising freshman guard Tarin Smith decided to transfer.
  • Star forward and leading scorer Terran Petteway announced that he’s foregoing his senior season to enter the NBA draft.
  • Assistant Coach Chris Harriman, a member of Miles’ first staff, is leaving to become associate head coach at New Mexico.

Clearly, there is smoke coming from the Nebrasketball program.

But is there fire?  Collectively, one must ask if there are big issues within a Nebraska program a year removed from looking like a team on the rise.  I think it’s foolish to make sweeping generalizations without looking at the events separately.  Individually, all of these are explainable and/or understandable*, especially the four departures.

*Except for that 5-13 collapse.  I could list twenty things that may have factored in the downfall of the 2014-15 Huskers, and still not account for everything that played a role in that train wreck.

Transfers in college basketball are rather commonplace.  In 2013, there were 455 transfers across D-1 college hoops.  Until Tarin Smith picks a school, it will be hard to determine if he is “up-transferring” to a better program or going to a lower D-1 school where more playing time appears readily available.

Miles was quoted in the Omaha World-Herald as saying “Tarin and I had talked over the last month about his future and where he fit in.  I believe strongly in Tarin and wanted him to stay, but I put out the most likely scenario for him and told him he had to feel good about it.”

One can certainly speculate that the “likely scenario” Miles talks about is Smith being an off the bench role player behind touted point guard recruit Glynn Watson and Benny Parker, who started many games in the 2014-15.  Smith tweeted that his decision “has nothing to do with me competing for a position”.

Pitchford’s initial decision made sense.  He regressed as a player in 2014-15, and I assumed he realized the pro prospects for a 6’10” guy with limited post presence and a deteriorated shooting touch were slim.  I applauded his decision to get his degree and pursue a career in business.

So I get that his decision to declare for the draft a few days later is – on the surface – very curious.  But before we go any further, its worth clarifying that “declaring for the NBA draft” doesn’t necessarily mean that Walt P. believes he’ll be drafted by an NBA team (spoiler alert:  he won’t).  Putting your name into the draft open doors for international teams to evaluate and sign you.  My hunch is Pitchford was sincere about getting his degree and starting a business career, but realized that he could make some decent money playing overseas ($65,000+, in an European league).  He’ll have the rest of life for a business career, but his body has a limited number of years of competitive basketball left.  He might as well see what’s out there.

Petteway’s decision to turn pro is on some levels similar to Pitchford’s decision:  he may not be drafted by an NBA team, but the odds are strong that he’ll get an opportunity to make a nice living overseas.  But looking deeper, I think Petteway’s decision was likely easier to make.

It’s tough for me to say if Terran Petteway is making the right choice or not.  Selfishly, I think he only improves his draft stock by coming back – the highly touted recruiting class likely means he wouldn’t need to be three or four of the best scoring options on the floor every single night.  He’s on pace to get his degree at the end of this semester, so he could have focused on basketball essentially full-time.  Plus, he likely is viewed as a better prospect leading a team that wins 20 games instead of being the best player on a team that loses 20.

But I can also appreciate the flip side.  Had he returned to NU, Petteway would have been 24 when he turned pro, which is old for NBA rookies.  He would have risked injury or a Pitchford-like regression.  As much as Petteway said all the right things about Lincoln and Husker fans when he left, I suspect he won’t miss being bashed on message boards, social media, and talk radio for having poor body language or taking too many shots*.  Finally, I won’t theorize how or if the passing of Terran’s mother from cancer impacted his decision, but clearly her declining health weighed on him this past season.

*Look:  you are obviously entitled to your opinion on how Petteway carried himself on the court as well as his shot selection/volume.  I have no doubt that you could make a convincing case that Petteway was “ball hog” who was prone to pouting on the court.  But you will never convince me that Nebrasketball will automatically be better in 2015-16 without Terran Petteway.  Even if the incoming freshmen and transfer Andrew White III are better than their considerable hype, are you really telling me that a team like Nebraska wouldn’t benefit from one of the program’s all-time prolific scorers who had a reputation for being a competitive, hard worker?  That doesn’t seem likely.

As for Harriman, it’s frustrating to lose a good assistant and recruiter – especially to a Mountain West team who will be giving him a raise.  But “associate head coach” is a promotion and a stepping stone to what every assistant wants:  a head coaching job of his own.  It stinks losing good assistants – I have the loss of former assistant coach Craig Smith on that long list of things that impacted that 2014-15 season – but on the flip side it says something about the guys Miles has working for him when they move up to other jobs.

*   *   *

So should we be concerned about where the Nebraska Basketball program is at?  Should Tim Miles start his fourth season on the hot seat?

In light of the player and coaching transitions, I say no.  Roster turnover is a natural part of the college game.  Don’t believe me?  It’s worth noting that of the players I’ve named in this piece (Tarin Smith, Walt Pitchford, Terran Petteway, Andrew White III, and Glynn Watson) the only one who has not transferred is the one who has yet to graduate high school.  Yes, the attrition rate from Miles’ NU recruiting classes is now above 50%, but I’d rather have guys move on than be dead weight on the roster or blights in the locker room.

One of the worst parts of being a Nebraska Basketball fan is having to play the Chicago Cubs “wait ’til next year” game with the next recruit who possibly possesses the potential to potentially get the Huskers that elusive NCAA tournament victory.  Because much like the Cubs, that blue chip inevitably turns into a blue busts.  I like the potential of this class.  I just would like them better with some more veterans on the team.

As for Miles, I think it is far too early to be talking seriously about his job security – especially since we’re 13 months removed from finding sculptors for the statue of him outside Pinnacle Bank Arena.  Yeah, he probably could have handled the locker room lockout better (i.e. internally), but Miles should have enough equity with fans to get through another .500 season.  Beyond that?  Well, I’ve been wrong about Tim Miles once before, so you’ll forgive me if I’m slow to doubt him again.

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