January 8, 2009

Thursday notebook: Point guards spark NU's offense

Nebraska's offense appears to have gotten a nice shot in the arm the past two games, and mostly anyone on the team you ask about it will tell you it's been due largely to the play of its point guards.

Behind junior Sek Henry and sophomore Cookie Miller, the Huskers eclipsed the 80-point mark in consecutive games for the first time all season with an 88-56 victory over Maryland Eastern Shore and a 81-56 win over Florida A&M.

In those games, both Henry and Miller have been two of the sparkplugs of NU's offense, as they've combined for 35 points and 14 assists. Against Florida A&M, Henry dropped a team-high 19 points, while Miller finished with a game-high six assists.

Head coach Doc Sadler pointed out Henry and Miller as keys to Nebraska's offensive resurgence not only because of their individual performances, but because of their ability to make everyone around them better.

They, on the other hand, just see it as simply a result of doing their jobs.

"I don't think it has anything to do with me or him," Miller said. "We've been doing the same things we've been doing all year. I think it's just (everyone else has) picked up their game and they took it to the next level."

Sadler said a big part in Henry and Miller's improved play has been their ability to get the ball out in transition. By running the floor more, the Huskers have been able to play to their strength of scoring on fast breaks and wearing out opponents by running the floor.

Because the Huskers have been able to create turnovers and have vastly improved their defensive rebounding the past few games, their transition offense has seen a significant boost. If they are able to keep this up come through their Big 12 Conference schedule - which begins Saturday at home against Missouri at 1 p.m. - Sadler said the Huskers would have a chance to be seriously competitive the next 16 games.

"Well I think more than anything our defensive rebounding is a little bit better, and that gives guys like Cookie and Sek an opportunity to get the ball into the open floor a little but more," Sadler said. "The fact of the matter is if we get many transition baskets in any of these next few games, we're going to win. That open floor stuff we've been seeing the last few games, it ain't gonna happen (anymore). If it happens on the other team's end, we're going to get beat. It turns into a grind-it, half-court game if you're going to have any success at all."

Miller said both he and Henry have made it a point to get Nebraska's offense going after a lackluster stretch that at one point saw it lose three times in four games. He said the Huskers are beginning to understand what everyone's role is on the offensive end, and with more players stepping up to do their part, the scoring increase has been a natural result.

"We're learning what everybody's role s on the team," Miller said. "I think at the beginning of the year we didn't really know what everybody's roles were, but now we're really getting the flow of that and are starting to click now.

"I think it's just knowing the roles on the team. I know I'm not going to be a big time scorer game in and game out, but if I have to score I can score. It's just knowing the roles and knowing who's hot out there and getting them the ball."

Turnovers could be key against Tigers

Neither team turns the ball over, and they both force as many turnovers as any team in the country. Something will have to give on Saturday.

Looking over the current national team statistics, Nebraska and Missouri rank as two of the nation's best in turnover margin. With a +7.4 turnover margin, the Tigers rank third overall in Division I, while Nebraska is right behind at No. 4 with a +7.4. Only VMI (8.2) and Houston (7.5) boast better margins.

Individually, Missouri's Zaire Taylor ranks 10th nationally with an assist/turnover ratio of 3.14, while Nebraska's Miller also ranks in the nation's top 50 with a ratio of 2.30.

Sadler said Miller's ball security while running the point this season has been the most impressive aspect of his play this season.

"Even last year, I was surprised with his turnovers," Sadler said. "He doesn't turn the basketball over very much, and he takes care of the basketball."

When the Huskers host the Tigers on Saturday, winning the turnover battle will likely be crucial to pulling off a win to open their Big 12 schedule. Nebraska committed at 12 turnovers in all three of its losses this season, and now faced against Missouri's tenacious full-court press defense, ball security will be as important as ever.

"Missouri's going to be Missouri; 40 minutes of hell is what I think they call their press," Miller said. "(Turnovers will be) a big thing. It's going to be a big test for us on Saturday. We're going to really see what we're made of. It wasn't really a rough (non-conference) season, but it got us ready for the Big 12. There ain't nothing like the Big 12, so it'll be a big test for us on Saturday, but we feel like we're ready play."

Huskers looking for increased intensity

Though Nebraska played one of its better games of the season Monday against Florida A&M, Sadler was quick to point out a drop in the Huskers intensity after jumping out to big lead in the second half.

As soon as the Huskers let their guard down, FAMU was able to chip away at the lead with a barrage of 3-pointers. Though NU was able to hold off the rally, Sadler said the Huskers can't afford to take any more plays off heading Big 12 play.

"I felt like our defensive intensity really was not there," Sadler said after Monday's win. "It was like we had gotten confused to think the basketball game was over… That was a concern. More than anything, it was the first time all year that we really let our concentration go on the defensive end. I was disappointed, but we came back and picked it up."

The players appear to have picked up on Sadler's concern, as there seems to be a renewed urge to put together a full 40 minutes of high-intensity basketball against the Tigers.

"We need to keep the intensity up the whole game, no matter if we're up or down," Henry said. "If we can just keep up the intensity, I think we'll be good… I thought the last game we played, the beginning of the second half our intensity wasn't that good. They came out pretty strong, hitting us with shots, and Coach had to really get on us during a time out. But we came back out with intensity.

"We need to have that within our team. Without Coach telling us, we need to tell each other to keep up the intensity. We've got to put it on ourselves and have some stress for Coach."

Henry said the fact that the Huskers will likely be viewed as the underdogs in the majority of their remaining games should help provide some extra motivation to keep their intensity up.

"I kind of like us being the underdogs," he said. "When we do come out, people are going to be surprised. Sometimes when you're already out there and known as a big team, people come after your heads… When you're the big dogs, people come at you. We're the underdogs right now, so people are probably going to sleep on us."

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