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Collier gets huge test in second year

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ And Barry Collier thought his first season as Nebraska's basketball coach was tough.

Take a look at what he faces in his second.

The Cornhuskers will open Collier's second year of rebuilding with four new starters, which is the primary reason preseason polls have Nebraska at the bottom of the Big 12.

``This year's strengths are very different from last year and we need to play to those,'' Collier said. ``I think what's really needed is work ethic in practice everyday. That's not going to be stunted by anybody's opinion of us.''

The Huskers, 14-16 in Collier's first season, lost four-year starting guard Cookie Belcher and two-year starters in center Kimani Ffriend and forward Steffon Bradford.

The trio of seniors were also Nebraska's top three scorers and rebounders, combining for 43 points and 21 rebounds per game.

And guard Rodney Fields, who was fifth in scoring with an average of 5.5 points, was also a senior, leaving guard Cary Cochran as Nebraska's only returning starter.

``I'm just a piece of the system, so I don't think my role has really changed,'' Cochran said. ``We think we can be successful, but we also know we can't be successful just by showing up. We don't have a team where we can do that.''

Cochran, a senior who started 23 games last season and averaged 9.3 points, is a lethal shooter. He was second in the Big 12 and fourth nationally in 3-point shooting, hitting 47.3 percent and tying the school record with 78 3-pointers in a season.

Nebraska also has experience at guard in senior John Robinson, a transfer who joined the team after the first semester last season. Senior Kedrick Ford and junior college transfer Brennon Clemmons give the Huskers more depth in the backcourt, where Nebraska also has freshmen Corey Simms and Jake Muhlheisen.

But it's the frontcourt where the difference will be most noticeable. Ffriend was a 6-foot-11 shot blocker who averaged nearly 14 points per game. The 6-6, 240-pound Bradford was a bull inside the lane.

The Huskers most experienced center is Brian Conklin, a 6-11, 230-pound sophomore who played in all 30 games, starting six, and averaged four points and 2.8 rebounds.

Conklin realizes why expectations outside of Lincoln aren't so high.

``It's to be expected. They don't know who's coming in. They just look at what we've lost,'' Conklin said. ``It's up to you to change it if you disagree with it.''

Seniors Ross Buckendahl (6-5, 210) and Justin Boeker (6-9, 240) and sophomore Ben Chesnut (6-6, 210) are the top forwards. Buckendahl is returning from knee surgery which sidelined him all of last season.

The Huskers will get more help when 6-6 Wilson Thomas, the starting split end on Nebraska's football team, joins the team in January.

Collier, who was at Butler for 11 years before replacing Danny Nee after the Huskers went 11-19 in 1999-2000, said the Huskers are further along in fall practice this year because the returning players have a year in Collier's system.

A non-conference schedule that starts with seven of the first eight games at home should also help the new Huskers get acclimated before the Big 12 season begins at Missouri on Jan. 5.

Collier is optimistic the team can still improve despite its losses, but will not say how much.

``I felt like I was twiddling my thumbs and wasting time trying to predict a win-loss record,'' Collier said. ``I have no idea what tomorrow brings, much less where we'll stand in March.''
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