By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
I heard the question many times over the course of the last five months.
Sometimes, I was the one asking it.
Have anyone ever seen a Nebraska student-athlete improve this drastically over four years, and end his or her career with such a power impact, in the manner Tai Webster has for the Nebraska men’s basketball team?
Here’s the answer upon which I kept deciding: The list of such athletes at Nebraska is very short, and Webster is the headline name.
Oh, sure, you could offer names like Joe Ganz or Richelle Simpson or others and not be wrong. In fact, compared to the recruiting hype Webster received, you could argue another athlete may be more worthy.
At that point, we’re splitting hairs.
Let’s just agree that, given the eight New Zealand flags the Nebraska student section held during the playing of the New Zealand national anthem on Sunday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena, that Webster’s determination, toughness and resiliency haven’t gone unnoticed by a fan base that treasures such traits.
Webster, a 6-foot-4 guard from Auckland, New Zealand, played his final home game for the Huskers. His mum, Cherry, watched her son play in a Nebraska uniform for the first times these last two home games.
While the 93-57 loss to Michigan will be forgettable, the strides Webster made to reach this point certainly won’t be.
“I wanted to take my basketball career beyond Nebraska, and I just wanted to feel like I could accomplish something while I was here,” said Webster, who played in his 126th career game with Nebraska. “I came here four years ago the way I was and I got clearly better. To see the results, I feel like I did a good job.”
Webster entered Sunday’s game averaging 17.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and four assists over 28 games. Since 1994 – the year before Webster was born – only eight Big Ten Conference players have finished the season averaging 17 points, five rebounds and four assists. Others include D’Angelo Russell, Michael Finley, Evan Turner and Denzel Valentine.
That’s excellent company for a player who arrived in Lincoln burdened with enormous expectations and wondered more than once if Nebraska, and college in general, was the place for him.
Each season, he’d return home and talk with his parents, and each time, he decided to stick with the process.
“I wanted the challenge,” Webster said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m proud of myself for that.”
Likewise, Nebraskans are proud of Webster for not taking the easy route and quitting. Some likely wondered if that may happen when Webster’s freshman season ended with him sitting on the bench with a towel draped over his head as teammates consoled him.
Webster had started on the NCAA Tournament team of 2013-14 – Nebraska’s only NCAA team since 1998. But coaches yanked him for a missed defensive assignment in the first half, and Webster didn’t return in the Huskers’ opening-round loss to Baylor.
“Tai’s journey has been really incredible in terms of he came in greatly heralded and started on an NCAA Tournament team and then worked his way out of the rotation,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “But just the fact he never quit I think means everything.”
Instead of succumbing, Webster dug deeper. He followed the leads of players like Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, whose unwavering work ethics had yielded positive results on the court.
“I’m blessed to have so many good basketball minds around,” said Webster, who was also awarded the Bus Whitehead Memorial Basketball Scholarship prior to Sunday's game. “But especially the older guys, just playing behind Terran and Shavon and guys like that. They were just good example-setters, especially guys like Terran, whose work ethic is just second to none. He’s kind of like my big brother. I just want to follow him around and do what he’s doing, because he’s obviously a great player.”
Webster entered Sunday with 30 straight games scoring in double figures. Of players in power conference schools, only he and Josh Hart of Villanova had produced double-figure scoring efforts in every game this season.
That streak ended for Webster, who scored eight points and left the game, with 3:46 remaining, to a standing ovation from the crowd of 14,071. With a smile, he hugged each player and coach as he exited and took a seat on the bench one final time at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Webster will have at least one more game, on Wednesday, when Nebraska faces Penn State in the play-in game of the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C.
And when it ends, what will Webster take the most from his resilient Nebraska basketball career?
“Probably just how proud I was of just the journey,” Webster said. “You know, it was a long journey. It was full of adversity, full of up-and-downs. To just come out the other side and be able to look back at it, I think is something to remember forever. I’ll take that with me forever.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.