Team preview: Nebraska

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2003-04 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: November 5, 2003, 8:10 PM ET
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It usually takes about four or five seasons for a coach to put his stamp on a program. Well, Nebraska coach Barry Collier is entering his fourth season and the mark he has left has gotten progressively worse. The Cornhuskers have rattled off win totals of 14, 13 and 11 the last three seasons, respectively. All this losing is not familiar to Collier, who turned Butler into a NCAA Tournament mainstay in the late 1990s.

But with his most experienced squad yet (four starters, 12 lettermen returning), Collier might just have the makings of a decent team-which would be welcomed in football-crazed Lincoln.

"There's not a real substitute for experience, as you go from year to year," Collier said. "We have players that have been through the Big 12."

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Last year's struggles were partly because of the fact Nebraska's best player, 6-4 junior point guard Jake Muhleisen (11.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.4 apg), had a season-ending injury in the season's first Big 12 game against Kansas. (Another point guard, departed senior Brennon Clemmons, also was hampered by an early December injury in which he dislocated three toes.) Muhleisen was fouled and landed on his back, suffering a fracture in the hip socket and a small fracture in the pelvic area.

The injury did not require surgery and he has added 10 pounds in the off-season. Muhleisen, who had a career-high 10 assists in Nebraska's home blowout win over ranked Minnesota, is deceptively quick and has excellent awareness.

Collier understands Muhleisen's impact-past and present.

"Jake was the key to last year and [will be] this year," Collier said. "He'll be back in there as captain and one of our most experienced players."

Replacing Muhleisen last year was junior college transfer Nate Johnson (13.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.2 spg), a 6-2 senior who had to play out of position the rest of the way.

Johnson came in as the coaches' choice for conference preseason newcomer of the year after being the NJCAA Division II National Player of the Year at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Kan. Despite struggles at the point (a position he never had played at any competitive level), Johnson ended up being the Cornhuskers' second-leading scorer and was selected to the Big 12 honorable-mention team.

Like Muhleisen, Johnson had a career game in an upset-an overtime win against visiting Colorado in which he had a team-high 24 points while playing 42 minutes.

Collier realizes that Johnson, who also led Nebraska in minutes for the season, should blossom in his normal spot at the two-guard.

"That [switching back] should really benefit him, since point wasn't his position by nature or even skill," Collier said. "He's a more effective player when he can concentrate on what he's good at."

An area of concern for Collier is Johnson's shooting, which was 40.6 percent from the field and a dismal 23.7 percent on three pointers.

"Nate needs to become a more consistent shooter, percentage-wise from the perimeter," Collier said. "He had some excellent games but he needs them more often."

Johnson did managed to shoot 72.8 percent from the free throw line.

Joining Muhleisen and Johnson on the perimeter will be 6-5 junior guard Cory Simms (7.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg).

Simms started all but three games last year and was asked to defend some of the conference's best guards. Defense is Simms' mainstay but his size and speed can cause match-up problems on the other end as well.

Simms was Nebraska's second-best shooter at 46.1 percent, just behind Muhleisen (46.9).

Senior forward Andrew Drevo (13.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg), 6-8, was a walk-on transfer last season (after red-shirting the previous year) and wound up being a Big 12 honorable-mention selection. For his exploits, Drevo was rewarded with a scholarship this season.

An effective low-post threat, the 270-pounder was 10th in the conference in rebounding, 11th in double-doubles (six) and 20th in scoring.

Against Minnesota, Drevo piled up a career-high 27 points and 14 rebounds. Drevo also had strong road showings against Oklahoma (24 points) and Colorado (19 points) to garner Big 12 Rookie-of-the-Week honors in the final week of the regular season.

Drevo shoots more three pointers (48-of-149) than your typical 6-8, 270-pounder, averaging 32.2 percent from behind the arc.

"He has the ability to score the ball," Collier said. "I look for him to have even better numbers."

Still, Collier knows Drevo can make improvements-primarily on defense.

"He needs to be more consistent and be a better defensive player," Collier said.

Rounding out the starting lineup will be 6-9 junior forward John Turek (7.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.8 bpg), the most athletic of Nebraska's interior players. He led the Cornhuskers in blocks and was second on the team in rebounding. (He had team-bests in both categories as a freshman.)

Turek, the only Cornhusker who started every game, was sixth best in blocks for the Big 12 and had a career-high five against Minnesota.

"We need John to defend, rebound and block some shots," Collier said.

His free-throw shooting (43.9 percent), on the other hand, merits some attention.

"We also need him to be more effective offensively, particularly at the free-throw line," Collier said.

Brian Conklin (3.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg), a 6-11 fifth-year senior, is a solid veteran who will provide help off the bench. Conklin was relegated to back-up duties last season after starting 21 games the previous year.

He needs to regain his shooting touch, which helped him to a school-record 65 three-pointers as a sophomore. Last year, Conklin fell off considerably as he shot only 30.7 percent from the field and 25.9 percent from behind the arc. From the free-throw line, however, he nearly was automatic as he missed only one of his 15 shots.

A couple sophomores who should see more action this year are 6-5 guard Jason Dourisseau (4.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg) and 6-9 forward Wesley Wilkinson (1.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg)-both of whom played in every game last year.

Dourisseau is a tall guard who can create in the lane because of his speed. He needs some help in the shooting department (55.3 percent from the free-throw line, 35 percent from the field and 23.9 percent on three-pointers a year ago).

Wilkinson is a lanky defender who spent the summer in the weight room trying to get bigger and stronger.

Like Dourisseau, Wilkinson could benefit from some extra shooting practice as he missed all but three of his 20 three-point attempts a year ago. He was solid from the line, connecting at a 77.8 percent clip.

As for recruits, Collier thinks he has found a couple of understudies for Muhleisen in 6-0 junior college transfer Marcus Neal (20.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.4 apg) and 5-8 freshman Charles Richardson (12.0 ppg, 10.0 apg, 6.0 spg).

"Marcus and Charles both will help us at that point guard position in pushing each other," Collier said. "Marcus is more of a scorer and Charles is more of a set-up guy."

Neal, from Polk (Fla.) Community College, was the Suncoast Conference Player of the Year and was an NJCAA honorable-mention all-American. CBSsportsline.com ranked him the 30th-best JUCO prospect.

Richardson, only 155 pounds, was an all-American nominee and one of Chicago's top prep defenders while at Proviso East (Maywood, Ill.) High School.

Swingman Shuan Stegall (23.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg), 6-6, is another freshman expected to see action.

Shuan is a really long, rangy player that can play on the wing," Collier said. "He will be in the mix early on and we will find out how he stacks up."

Stegall was an honorable-mention all-American by FutureStars.com after prepping at Redan (Stone Mountain, Ga.) High School.

Freshman James Reynolds (18.5 ppg, 3 rpg, 2 apg) a 6-2 guard from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, was a late signee. Reynolds, who played at Lynwood (Calif.) High School as a junior and at Redondo Union (Redondo Beach, Calif.) High School as a freshman and sophomore, is effective from beyond the arc. He made at least six three-pointers in three games as a senior.

"He can really fill it up," Collier said. "He's a strong, athletic kid."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

There is no dismissing Nebraska's success at home (9-6 last year; 12-4 in 2001-02). But in order to move out of the Big 12 cellar and into the middle tier, the Cornhuskers have to find a way to win on the road, where they went 0-10 last year. In the Collier era, Nebraska is 3-26 (.103) in road games (compared to 29-16 at the Devaney Sports Center).

Collier is well aware of that fact and thinks that home games are a direct reflection of how a team plays away from its friendly confines.

"We just need to do an even better job at home," Collier said. "And as you do that, you're going to do a better job on the road."

Getting back to the basics of Collier-ball (efficient three-point shooting, limiting turnovers) would be a welcomed change too.

"Obviously we need to shoot the ball a lot better," said Collier, whose club shot 39.8 percent from the field and 27.6 percent on three-pointers last season.

Ultimately, Collier believes, it all comes down to defense. With 13 scholarship players for the first time in his tenure, Collier should have enough rested bodies to turn the defense up another notch (the Huskers' field-goal percentage defense of 40.8 percent last season was third best in school history).

"Defense gives you a chance night in and night out," Collier said. "We did not have that on the road. You need depth and toughness to get that."

Doubling last year's win total in the Big 12 (three) is not out of the question for the Cornhuskers in 2003-04. Should that happen, Collier might have his first 15-win season at Nebraska.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 327 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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