A few weeks after coming to the United States, Australian Aleks Maric started showing up on recruiting analysts' top 100 lists. Boy, does Nebraska need the gurus to be right about that selection.
Maric, a 6-foot-11, 265-pound center from Sydney, signed with the Huskers prior to his senior season at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. Considering 6-9 senior John Turek is the only other NU scholarship player who butters his bread in the paint, Maric will have to make his burly physique a constant presence for Barry Collier's team to continue the progress capped by a feel-good run in the 2004 NIT.
"That might be one of the biggest factors of us having a successful season," said Turek. "But that's the same with any team. You need that inside-outside balance.
"[With] Aleks, I'm sure in Australia it's not nearly as physical as the Big 12, but he'll get used to it. He's 265 pounds, and he's played in the world championships against the top players in college, so he knows what the competition's like."
FRONTCOURTEven if Maric makes a quick adjustment, Nebraska will be thin up front. Turek is the Huskers' only known quantity. Collier will turn to walk-on center Tony Wilbrand and Wes Wilkinson, a 6-9, 215-pound forward who is more in the mold of '04 senior Brian Conklin, the most accurate 3-point shooter in school history.
NU should benefit greatly from an August trip to Australia, which followed 10 days of on-campus practices. Only the returning players were allowed to make that trip, and the summer workouts gave Collier the opportunity to see if any of the seven perimeter could adapt their game to help the three interior players.
None of them, however, have the bulk of departed forward Andrew Drevo, or the shooting skills of Conklin, both of whom were among NU's top four scorers last season.
"[Turek's] really getting stronger. His lifts in the weight room have improved significantly, and he's been playing well," Collier said. "Wes has to improve his passing and positioning. It's probably wishful thinking to think he'll be 10 pounds heavier by October."
BACKCOURTLast season, Nate Johnson was the Huskers' No. 1 offensive option. Johnson is now trying to make it in the professional ranks, but Collier is thrilled to welcome back three senior guards -- Jake Muhleisen, Corey Simms and Marcus Neal -- who combined for 63 starts as juniors. "I've always thought that a college basketball team's season rides on its seniors' play," Collier said.
Collier believes the senior guards and Turek, along with junior guard Jason Dourisseau, will give Nebraska enough scoring threats. He also expects incoming freshman Joe McCray to be able to "run away from the basket, catch the ball and shoot." McCray averaged 16.2 points per game and shot 49.4 percent from 3-point range and 88.4 percent from the free throw line last year at Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute.
The Huskers also signed Marcus Perry, a high-scoring (25.4 ppg) transfer from Southern Union State (Ala.) Community College.
"I know we're losing a bunch of good guys, but we're going to have some guys come in, work hard in the off-season and pick up some slack next season," Neal said. "We have a certain swagger. The [NIT] definitely helped. Guys got a taste of postseason play and got a little experience in it, and want to try to get to the NCAA."
FINAL ANALYSISThe Huskers won just 11 games and finished in last place in the Big 12 in '02-03, but last season Collier's club took a much-needed jump by winning 18 games and reaching the postseason for the first time since '99.
The Huskers were rarely overmatched. They lost in overtime at league champion Oklahoma State, by two at Texas, split games with Kansas, played two down-to-the-wire contests against Colorado and went 2-1 against Texas Tech and Missouri.
League coaches regularly praise Nebraska for carrying out Collier's well-prepared game plans. They also hint that the Huskers are playing with less talent. With the incoming class, that disparity could be shrinking. Throw in four experienced seniors, and Collier might have enough to stir together an upper-division surprise.