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January 19, 2011For the first time in more than three years, Toney McCray is evolving into the player everyone thought he could be.
A promising redshirt freshman season in 2008-09 was followed by an elbow injury that sat him out for all but three games last year, but now Nebraska's junior guard has finally settled into his place on the Huskers' roster since the start of Big 12 Conference play.
As a result, Nebraska finally seems to have the all-around playmaker it's been missing years.
Over the course of the first four league games, the Missouri City, Texas, native has scored in double figures three times, including tying his career-high with 18 points in Tuesday night's win over Colorado. Prior to this year, McCray had reached double figures just once in Big 12 play.
"I feel like I'm definitely capable of knocking down shots," McCray said. "I don't know if I'm the go-to guy, because we've got so many guys. Everybody can shoot and make plays, but I think I've been a lot more aggressive the past couple games."
Part of the reason for McCray's emergence has been him settling into the No. 4 spot when the Huskers have the ball. While it's not like he's banging in the low post - he's actually out on the perimeter on nearly every possession - the 6-foot-6, 210-pound McCray has gotten the advantage of being guarded by bigger, slower defenders at times.
As he's shown the past two weeks, that's a match-up he can exploit more often than not.
"I like the roll that I'm in," McCray said. "My teammates are always encouraging me to be more aggressive and look to score, but I've felt a lot more confident the last couple games. It's really built my confidence up."
While his scoring has definitely been a big factor in Nebraska's 14-4 record and 2-2 start to the Big 12 schedule, McCray's coaches and teammates say his impact on plays when he's not shooting has been just as valuable.
Through 18 games, McCray ranks third on the team in rebounds (4.4 per game), assists (1.3) and steals (0.8). Against Colorado, he hauled in a game-high eight rebounds to go along with his 18 points, and his monster put-back dunk and blocked shot in the second half provided huge momentum bursts for the Huskers.
His favorite play from Tuesday night's win? Surprisingly enough, it was a pass.
With the ball bouncing out of bounds following a miss by CU, McCray sprinted to grab it in time and then threw a pretty over-the-shoulder pass up court to teammate Brandon Richardson, who was then fouled on a lay-up attempt.
"(His energy) motivates us, because Toney's a great athlete," senior point guard Lance Jeter said. "He's capable of doing that every night, and when he does that it's another spark that we can use. He's an excellent player who can go in and out. He's got that ability to get tip dunks and all that, and it's just a plus when he's doing that because it gives us an extra burst of energy and makes us want to play even more."
Head coach Doc Sadler said McCray's big play ability on both ends of the floor have added a new dimension to Nebraska's lineup. Along with junior college transfer guard Caleb Walker, Sadler said this year's team may be one of the most athletic he's had in his five seasons at NU.
"Tony and Caleb (Walker) go to the offensive glass and they're pretty athletic," Sadler said. "They're going from 20 feet from the basket... They're athletic enough to get in there and make some plays. I thought the plays Tony made were energy plays - kind of got the people into it."
The season is still young, but McCray's early success has been a long time coming. After showing flashes of his potential as a redshirt freshman and earning Big 12 Rookie of the Week honors twice, many wondered how he would respond after having to watch essentially his entire sophomore season from the bench.
For McCray, he's just glad to finally be playing basketball again.
"I'm just happy to be out here," McCray said. "Being out injured (last season) really just helped show me how to be happy playing basketball, because maybe I took it for granted a little bit. So I'm just happy to be out there with my teammates, man. We just have so much fun in the locker room and on the floor. I'm just happy to be here."