March 18, 2009

Despite finish, Huskers laid foundation for succes

Some look at Nebraska's end to the 2008-09 season as a total disappointment. Others, on the other hand, look at it as the start of something great.

Capped by Tuesday's National Invitation Tournament loss to New Mexico, the Huskers ended the year losers of five of their final eight games, including two straight mediocre showings in the postseason.

However, when looking at the body of work they put together over the course of the entire season, there's suddenly a lot more reason for optimism for the program's future.

Despite boasting the shortest line-up in all of Division I and having to overcome a number of potentially devastating setbacks to its roster during the offseason, Nebraska was able to win 18 games and finish .500 in the conference for the first time in 10 years.

On the surface, the Huskers' third season under head coach Doc Sadler was hardly anything to write home about. But when considering what this season may have done as far as laying the foundation for future success, this season's importance could very well be immeasurable.

"The hardest thing has been trying to come in on Day 1 and build a toughness," Sadler said. "These kids have bought in. It's not been easy. I'm not the easiest guy - especially those first two years - to play for because we demanded so much and that was something that was new to them. But they continued to buy in, and the selfishness is all gone on this basketball team.

"With the guys that we've got returning and the guys we've got coming in, hopefully they'll continue to do what you want. A culture is something that you try to develop. It doesn't happen overnight, and it's not there yet. It'll be there when we sell out the Devaney Center every game, no matter if it's an exhibition game or if it's playing somebody that's first place in our league."

Nebraska has made small but steady progress since Sadler took over in 2006, as it's improved by one win in the conference standings each of the past two seasons with two straight NIT appearances.

Following their first-round postseason exit on Tuesday, Sadler faced some criticism for not being able to take the Huskers to the next step of becoming an NCAA Tournament team. However, had everything fallen into place like it was supposed to before the season even started, that step could have very well been taken this year.

When all was said and done, Nebraska was forced to play this season without four potential starters/solid contributors that Sadler had counted on to play big roles this year. Guard Roburt Sallie was forced to transfer after a snafu with his academics, and centers Christopher Niemann and Brian Diaz both sat out because off-the-court issues with eligibility clearance with the NCAA and the university's admissions office.

Then there's freshman guard Eshuante Jones, who actually suited up and scored 16 points in his NU debut in an exhibition game against Chadron State. Jones went on to play in Nebraska's first four regular-season games - all wins - before deciding to redshirt the rest of the year because of a foot injury that had bothered him since before the start of the season.

Had those four players been able to contribute like Sadler had originally expected, things could have been a whole lot different for the Huskers. Instead, he had to work with the players he had, even if it meant playing guys severely out of position and having to overcome mismatches and disadvantages most coaches couldn't even begin to fathom.

Even so, with a whole lot of heart and just as much guts and grit, the Huskers still found a way to put together their most successful season in a decade.

"They've had no control of some of the issues that have taken place since this time last year, and they've responded," Sadler said. "They haven't complained, they haven't hung their heads. After everything is said and done, it's definitely exceeded my (expectations). I wanted to do better, don't get me wrong. But if you would've told me that with everything that had happened that we'd be sitting here in the third-best league in the country at 8-8, that tells you the guys came and played every day.

"That's all a coach can ask for. They gave me everything they got. That's what I'm happy about… This is going to be one of the, when everything is said and done, one of the most pleasurable teams I've ever coached. They've given you everything they've got."

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