Friday, March 7, 2014
Weekend Homework: Nebraska's big shot
By Eamonn Brennan
On Feb. 13, 2013, a few hours before eventual outright Big Ten champion Indiana destroyed Nebraska 76-47 in Bloomington, Ind., Cody Zeller parody account @TheBigHandsome warmed up for the game with a clever piece of trash talk: "Duke & UNC are playing tonight. Tyler says its the best rivalry in college bball, but I think IU & Nebraska will be just as historic someday ..." The point, of course, was to laugh at silly little historically inept Nebraska. The Cornhuskers would never amount to a basketball rival for anyone, let alone the blue-blooded Hoosiers.
Nebraska's return to Assembly Hall on Wednesday night, a little more than a year after the Zeller-led Hoosiers smashed Tim Miles' rebuilding group to smithereens, ended much differently than its last visit, of course. This time, the Cornhuskers held Indiana to 60 points in 64 possessions. This time, Nebraska was the cohesive, focused, intelligent team, and Indiana was the one that often looked overmatched. In the process, Nebraska effectively ended a young, struggling Indiana team's chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The late bubble surge that Hoosiers fans hoped to make after back-to-back home wins over Iowa and Ohio State was stopped short, just like that, by a program that hasn't won a regular-season title in any conference since 1950, that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, that's one of only two BCS programs to have never won an NCAA tournament game.
How did this happen?
Tim Miles and Nebraska host Wisconsin on Sunday in one of the biggest basketball games in school history.
Indiana's offensive problems had a lot to do with it, sure. But most of the credit should head Nebraska's way. Nobody expected the Cornhuskers to be this good, this fast. But they are, and they now look likelier than ever to break that NCAA tournament streak.
Of course, "this good" is relative and in need of context. When Nebraska fired well-respected former coach Doc Sadler two years ago and hired Miles, everyone from the administration to fans knew it was embarking on a long-term rebuilding project. That was OK: Nebraska was building sparkling new practice facilities and was erecting a new gym, Pinnacle Bank Arena, as the cornerstone of what Lincoln, Neb., called a $344 million West Haymarket Redevelopment Project. This was a serious long-term investment at a place that had rarely even pretended to care about basketball. Miles arrived from Colorado State young and energetic and smart and and brand-conscious and self-effacing and disarmingly funny. Best of all, he was in for the long haul.
Along this timeline, "this good" is a fitting description of where Nebraska is in Miles' second season. The Cornhuskers aren't flirting with a Big Ten title, but they are engaged in deep, late-night conversations with the NCAA tournament. They're 18-11 overall and 10-7 in the Big Ten. They rebound more of their opponents' misses than any other team in the Big Ten, and they've played the second-stingiest per-possession defense (.988 points per trip) in conference play. That defense helped them overcome an early neutral-court loss to UAB, and their NCAA tournament résumé -- which includes a win at Michigan State -- is viable, if not overwhelming.
At least so far. Nebraska has one big, final regular-season chance to cement a shot at the NCAA tournament. On Sunday, the final day of the regular season, Wisconsin comes to Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Badgers are a potential No. 1 seed. A victory could put Nebraska over the top. This is, quite possibly, the biggest game in the past two decades of Nebraska basketball -- and it will take place in a new arena that represents the local community's greatest investment in the sport.
Miles might have expected to play games like this at Pinnacle Bank Arena someday. He no doubt expects many more. But no one could have foreseen the speed at which Nebraska has hurtled toward this moment. Not even The Big Handsome.