LINCOLN — There was a time when junior Tai Webster could afford to wait, deferring scoring opportunities while veteran shooters or skilled dribblers kept Nebraska's offense from stalling.
He doesn't have that luxury anymore. Nebraska needs an attacking and active Webster, at all times. Whether the results are positive — like 12 second-half points against Purdue, including a fast break finish through contact, a couple of steals and an audacious at-the-rim attack against a 7-footer that led to two free throws. Or if they're negative — like five first-half turnovers Saturday, plus a forced drive and missed layup that gave the Boilermakers more than enough time for one final possession before halftime.
Senior Shavon Shields and junior Andrew White can't be the only NU players capable of creating openings.
"There's times where I've got to keep it going for us, whether it's on the defensive or offensive end," Webster said in a recent interview with The World-Herald. "I've just got to be productive. You can't let it get out of hand. Hopefully I can just maintain it."
That way, when Shields and White heat back up, "we're right where we left off," Webster said.
54.9 percent shooting
7/14 3-point attempts
MARYLAND AT NEBRASKA
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The transition is still a work in progress for Webster.
There was a point last season when coach Tim Miles was convinced that the 6-foot4 guard focused the majority of his energy on improving his defense. Webster looked to shut down the opponent and "not even worry about offense," Miles said.
Even this season, a rib injury limited Webster's ability to play at his full potential in December. And he's had some ups and downs since then, too. He dropped 22 points against Iowa but then couldn't convert a handful of layups in the next game at Rutgers. He played a critical role in Nebraska's upset at Michigan State, keeping the pressure on the Spartans when Shields was injured and White was in foul trouble — but Webster missed three key free throws late in that game.
Still, Webster knows his role. And he's not backing away from it.
There's a reason he's at practice 30 minutes early to run through a shooting routine — layups, then rip-and-drives, then pull-ups, then 3-pointers. There's a reason he's watching more film than ever, extensively critiquing his performances. There's a reason teammates think Webster's playing the best basketball of his collegiate career.
"Any little extra work," he said. "If I've got a little extra time — maybe between classes or something — I try to get in here. Even just to shoot some free throws or something. It will pay off in the long run, hopefully."
Through nine conference games, he's averaging 11.7 points. He's made 54.9 percent of his shots, including 7 of 14 3-pointers. He's recorded 12 steals, too — only six Big Ten players have more.
"He's trying to do what we ask him to do — and that's really all you can ask from a guy," Miles said.
Miles complimented Webster's team-first attitude. Webster has played three positions in 2 1/2 seasons. He began this season as a starter, but he started to come off the bench about 10 games ago.
No complaints from Webster, though.
In fact, he says there are advantages he gets as a reserve with experience playing various spots on the floor.
He can see and interpret the opponent's opening strategies. He can keep his emotions in check. Plus, defenders are a step slower after a few minutes of game action.
So there's no reason to sit back. Webster wants to have an influence on the action, which is exactly what Nebraska needs from him.
"(I have) the perfect opportunity to come in and push it right back down their throat," Webster said. "That's the way I look at it."