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October 14, 2008

'Small ball' will be the theme for NU this season

Looking over the Nebraska men's basketball team roster, it's little wonder why the term "small ball" will likely be the perfect description of the Huskers this season.

Of Nebraska's 18 total players, 14 are listed as guards and the other four are forwards. Only four players stand taller than 6-foot-6, and only two of those four even saw the court last year.

Even so, NU head coach Doc Sadler was rather optimistic of his team's chances during his preseason press conference on Tuesday.

"I'm excited," Sadler said. "This team's going to be totally different… I think it's going to be a team that's going to be fun to team to watch play. It's a whole different style… It's going to be fun."

Sadler described the Huskers' new style as being a fast-paced, spread-out offense complimented by a defense that will rely heavily on full-court presses and trap zones. Because of NU's size – or lack thereof – Sadler said the team's overall goal would be to create points on drives to the basket and keep opponents from setting up their offenses by pressing them the length of the court.

It's a somewhat new philosophy for Sadler, created partly out of strategy and also out of necessity. Because true freshman center Christopher Niemann was declared ineligible to play this year during the offseason, the Huskers don't have a true center on their roster. That leaves 6-9 sophomore forward Alex Chapman – who just had surgery on his knee and is out at least two more weeks – as the team's tallest player.

As a result, Sadler said fans shouldn't be surprised if the Huskers come out with lineups featuring as many as five guards.

However, the challenge of winning without a proven post player is nothing new for Sadler. During his time as coach at Arkansas-Fort Smith from 1999-2003, Sadler said he used a five-guard lineup to win four straight conference championships. At one point, Sadler's tallest player was 6-1.

"I loved it," he said.

To help come up with better ideas of how to make the smaller lineup work in the Big 12 Conference, Sadler said he and his staff have studied film of international teams that commonly use smaller players effectively. He also compared his game plan to what Don Nelson does with the Golden State Warriors.

While the initially impression is that the Huskers will be a team that potentially will live and die by the 3-point shot, Sadler quickly disagreed.

"Good offenses find ways to get to the free-throw line," Sadler said. "I don't think we're going to shoot anymore 3's than we have in the past. We'll have an emphasis on driving to the basket."

In reality, Sadler isn't worried at all about the Huskers' play offensively. It's matching up defensively that has him the most concerned.

"Playing this style, the concern isn't on the offensive end," he said. "The offensive end is where (opponents) have concerns. What your concern has become is the other end in maybe how you're going to defend the post. I was always taught that you can defend the inside game a lot easier than you can the outside game. You can double, triple, quadruple the post guy if you have to.

"But the rebounding part, that's the two areas of concern. The offensive end, that doesn't concern me at all. We're going to score points. We've got guys that can score."

Sadler said he hopes the Huskers can prevent teams from exploiting NU's size in the post by pressing them the entire court and utilizing the shot clock to their advantage.

"We'll do a little bit of all of it," Sadler said. "Obviously in the full court (press), it allows you to do some things defensively that I haven't ever done here before. In the half court, we're going to obviously have to trap the post and do some things there because we're so small.

"All those things are going to be, I hope, sound. It's not going to be a gambling situation. More than anything it's going to be a situation where you take time off the clock so maybe the other team doesn't have as much time as they'd like to have to get the ball where they want to get it."

Sadler said Nebraska isn't the only team preparing to work with a smaller lineup this season. While teams like Kansas and Texas will still have plenty of size, Sadler said teams like Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech will all be smaller than they've been in the past.

Youth needs to step up

With Nebraska banking on a fast-paced offense and full-court defense this season, Sadler said he expects to play as many as 10 players in games to help rest his starters and provide much needed depth.

This means several true and redshirt freshmen will be counted to hit the ground running. Sadler pointed to players like true freshman Eshaunte Jones and redshirt freshmen Brandon Richardson, Toney McCray and Alonzo Edwards all to play significant roles this year.

"It's guys that haven't played," Sadler said. "Just some guys that haven't ever experienced the floor at this level. They're going to be counted on. In my opinion, they need to know that it's not just show up and play."

Injuries to senior Paul Velander and junior Chris Balham will likely means Sadler will be forced to go from playing his usual seven or players a game to as many as 10.

That number could go even higher if Jones's injury status doesn't improve either. Jones has dealt with a foot injury that trainers said he could play through, it's just a matter of how much pain he can handle that will determine how much he actually plays.

"It's something that can supposedly get any worse," Sadler said. "It's just going to be a matter of how much pain he can play with. Our goal right now is just really try to push him to the wall every day and not take it easy on him. I won't limit Eshaunte's practices at all. We'll try to really push him and see how are he can go."

As for Balham, Sadler said he expects the forward's injury situation to be much like it was last year, as the Huskers will try to be careful with how they use him in order to keep him healthy for later in the season during the conference schedule.

"The thing that's tough with Chris is managing his practice and playing early to get something out of him late, when it's really important in conference play," Sadler said. "Obviously right now he probably feels a little bit better, feels like he can do more. But he probably felt the same way last year. It's important that we try to manage it now to have him later.

"It's just something that he's had every year. As all of us know, late in the year last year he couldn't hardly play at all. Hopefully that won't be the case, but at the same time you probably got to expect that it's going to be something like that."



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