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March 5, 2013
While Wednesday night's game against Minnesota will be emotional enough with Nebraska's final sendoff for the Bob Devaney Sports Center, the real focus of the night for the Huskers will be on their three seniors playing at home for the last time.
Brandon Ubel, Dylan Talley and Andre Almeida all took distinctly different paths to end up in Lincoln, but all three have played crucial roles for head coach Tim Miles in trying to establish the foundation of what he wants the program to be all about.
In his long track record of turning losing teams into winners, Miles has learned that the senior group is one of the most crucial elements during the first season. While Nebraska's 13-16 over record and 4-12 mark in the Big Ten Conference might not show it, Miles said his trio of seniors have done everything he could have asked for this season.
"You only go as far as your seniors are going to take you in that changeover, and these guys have been phenomenal," Miles said. "Just their behavior, their buy-in, their unflinching in terms of taking on challenges. I admire them for that. They've been really good that way. For me, I can't think of a better bunch of guys to go in with, and it's been a neat season that way. I want to send these guys out a winner."
After being thrown into the lineup as a true freshman four years ago, Ubel has been a rare constant amid seemingly massive roster turnover every season during that stretch. The Overland Park, Kan., native will make his 86th career start on Wednesday night, and with 837 career points, he needs just eight more to move into the top 40 on the school's all-time career scoring list.
Ubel said he's expecting a large number of friends and family to make it out for his final home game as a Husker, and it wasn't until a couple days ago that the reality of his college career coming to a close finally started to sink in.
"It's kind of weird," Ubel said. "It kind of hit me yesterday. For the first time I really kind of sat down and thought about it. It's going to be weird, but it's going to be fun. I mean, I'm expecting a pretty good crowd, a lot of my family is going to be there, last game in Devaney, so it will be kind of emotional for everybody. It should be fun."
As important as Ubel's production has been on the court - he's third on the team in scoring at 11.1 points and leads the Huskers with 6.7 rebounds per game - Miles said the 6-foot-10 forward's biggest contribution has been as a vocal leader on and off the court.
"Brandon appears to be one of those people that's going to be successful at whatever he puts his mind to," Miles said. "He's really a bright kid. He's a connector with people, and whatever he does he does well. He's been the face of our program for a long time, when Doc (Sadler) was here and now that I'm here. He's been the guy representing us and doing it in a first-class manner. You can't think of a better guy than Brandon Ubel to be an ambassador for our program."
Injuries have slowed down Almeida pretty much since the day he got to Nebraska three years ago as a transfer from Arizona Western College. After a knee injury in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament sidelined him for the entire 2011-12 season, the 6-11, 314-pound center from Sao Paulo, Brazil, was expected to be a fixture in the post for the Huskers this season.
Once again, though, injuries and inconsistent play made it tough for Almeida to see the floor as the year went on, as he's averaged just 15.2 minutes in 25 games played with 17 starts. As frustrating its things have been in his senior season, Miles said Almeida never let it show or affect his attitude at practice or in the locker room.
"There's not a better guy than Andre," Miles said. "Not a better friend or easier guy to get along with. Andre's all about the team, and he wants the team to do well. He never flinches. There's games I don't play him, and I don't even give him a reason. I'm just like, 'Dre, these are the guys I thought ' and he doesn't even require an explanation. Some kids are a little needy where if you leave them out of one rotation they think the sky is falling. Andre wants the team to do well, and that's the most important thing for him. I just love that about him. He's been a real asset for us that way, and he's such a physical force that when he plays well, the Huskers always seem to play well."
Finally there's Talley, who has been far and away Nebraska's most productive and consistent player all year. Following an injury plagued first season as a Husker last year after joining the team from Blinn (Texas) College via Binghamton University, the 6-5 guard has steadily improved with every game played.
Even after being asked to take over as the starting point guard midway through the year, Talley has managed to play the best basketball of his career over the past six games, averaging 19.8 points and currently ranked eighth in the Big Ten with 14.4 ppg on the season.
What has impressed Miles the most about Talley this season, though, has been his willingness to do whatever is asked of him and to be successful in whichever role he plays.
"He's another guy where every challenge we put in front of him he just accepts," Miles said. "I remember telling those guys, 'I think we're going to redshirt Deverell (Biggs) and I'm going to sit on two scholarships.' 'OK, OK.' Then, 'I think I'm going to make you a point guard.' 'OK.' He just takes every challenge on and has found a way to be successful. You look at Dylan's last, what, four or five games, he's really done well for us It's not that he's just scoring, he's really doing a nice job for us. I'm proud of him that way. Now he's out there chasing around a lot of point guards too defensively and doing a good job with that. I think we've seen from the beginning to end him adhering to our certain way of play, and his acclimation to point guard and our style of play has been outstanding."
Nebraska's hopes of qualifying for the NIT or beyond still aren't technically out of reach, and a win tonight over a talented Golden Gopher team would be a great step in the right direction.
While there may have been more downs than there have been ups over the past four years, the three Huskers seniors all agree that their time at Nebraska will be an experience they'll cherish for the rest of their lives.
"It's been fun," Ubel said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. Obviously you wish you'd win more games, I'm sure everybody does, but I've gotten to play in two conferences; go to probably the coolest venues in the nation, some of the most historic places; I played for some really good coaches and with some awesome teammates. I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's been great."