This is a feeling I am acutely familiar with when watching Nebraska Basketball. I can name many times where it looks like we will knock off the big fish, only to succumb to 'our place' on the basketball table. In a sport where we have endured drubbings, jokes about NCAA Tournament wins - or lack thereof - and the constant whisperings of hope in the corridors, the only thing that can be counted on as a Nebrasketball fan is dread. No lead is safe. No wins are guaranteed. Heck, for most of us, we believe that a magical 24 point shot will be created and we'll lose on some wing and a prayer. It's the life we live, and for the most part, it's probably a great coping mechanism.
Under past Nebraska coaches, the dread by fans is not so far away from the dread of players and staff either. Doc Sadler's teams played scared in tough environments. Sure, he had a few nice wins, but you would be kidding yourself if you believed his teams had confidence to overcome history. Same goes for Barry Collier's teams, who were more often just happy to be there. In fact, I would argue you would have to go back to Danny Nee for some semblance of swagger and confidence - deserved or not - to find a time when Nebraska fans and players alike believing in good things against all odds. Even then, the roller coaster that was the Nee era only fueled this somewhat self-hating and terrible cycle of dread.
That is what I had to remind myself to do this afternoon as Nebraska clung to the slimmest of leads over the hometeam Spartans. The same Spartans who were on top of the best league in basketball. The same Spartans who had not lost to an unranked team at home in forever. The same Spartans who were a Top Ten team with stars back from injury. The same Spartans coached by a legend.
As Michigan State looked poised to take a lead, I had to forcefully work to accept that fate for Nebrasketball is generally an unkind thing. "We just don't win these games." I kept telling myself, in something of an apologetic way. I was prepared for the Moral Victory. I am very good at the Nebrasketball Moral Victory. Lucky for me, Nebraska is being helmed by a man who does not believe in your Moral Victories.
Nebraska had no business being in this game today. As 13.5 point 'dogs to the hometeam - and only one true road win on the season, at Northwestern which was oh so scary - Nebraska stared the bully in the face and stepped up. There would be no ceding victory to the conquerors, there would be no playing scared, and there would be no lack of confidence. "US ALWAYS" Miles reiterated before the game. This was a team that was led to believe that they were as good as anyone in their path. This was a team led by Terran Petteway, who hit shot after shot that had no business going down. This was a team led by Walter Pitchford who played through pain. This was a team where Benny Parker, David Rivers, Ray Gallegos, and Leslee Smith showed the world what aggressive, relentless defense looked like. Despite a down day by Shavon Shields, this team decided today they would put a stake in the ground and not relent.
And why? Because Tim Miles said so, that's why. Bill Simmons is an oft-maligned writer, but he has coined some remarkable and apt descriptions of situations in sports. One of my favorite references is this notion of "Irrational Confidence" - or - that moment when a player or team stops remembering who they are and goes into a mode where they believe they can do no wrong. Sure, that is part of why Nebraska shot a ridiculous 30 3-pt shots today, but more importantly, it was a healthy does of confidence despite what the paper said that gave them the win today. Coach Miles knew his team could respond and they did.
A change is coming to Lincoln these days. New arena. New facilities. New confidence. For as great as this win is, we in Nebraska know all too well what a comedown can look like. I remember it back in 1991. We win and then we lose. Up and down. Still, it seems like these players are a little different. They are more athletic. They have a jump in their step. They have changed.
Even if this season suffers some comedowns from this afternoon, Nebraska has proven it can play with anyone. Sure, that also means it can lose to anyone too, but the B1G is officially on notice that Tim Miles and Co. are out for blood. Michigan State knew that and didn't fight back, and now the rest of the way out, Nebraska is suddenly playing for a bubble bid. Something that most all of us thought ridiculous a short week ago. For a team that has been much maligned over the years, this is crazy. With just the hopes of some pride coming out of today, Nebraska came away with much, much more. They came away with a chance to be special. Should be a fun few weeks for Nebrasketball.
Nebraska 60 - Michigan State 51. This is just the start.