Okay, let's play a quick game to start things off. If you predicted this year's Nebraska's Men's basketball team would make the NCAA tournament, raise your hand. Nobody? Okay, how about this one, if you predicted that same team would get a first round bye in the B1G Basketball Tournament, go ahead and let us all know. Still no one? Well, how about if you predicted Nebraska would have at least a winning record in conference play? Dang, nobody?
Don't feel too bad, I didn't either, and I am an ardent supporter of Tim Miles and #Nebrasketball, you know? Oh, and don't worry. Real prognosticators picked this team last in the B1G, second to last, or at minimum a team that would be mired in 3-5 conference win territory. If that wasn't bad enough, Coach Miles himself joked that he was voted the same as the Women's team preseason - 12th - except there's was 12th in the nation and his was 12th in his conference of 12. Moreover, he said he couldn't blame the voters.
Bottom line, even though the Cornhuskers were opening up a brand new arena, Tim Miles was sowing excitement, and they still have arguably the nicest facilities in the midwest, you would have been hard pressed to really set up expectations at a high level for Nebraska. What made things worse was the fact that for much of the early season, you were probably right. What follows is a recap of the early, mid, and late acts of the Nebrasketball season. It was a wild one, and one that hopefully sets them up for the future.
Act I: The NonCon Mehs
The key to the season was not exactly a player, but rather this brand new arena that created such a stir in Nebraska that fans sold the place out in the Summer. For context, Nebraska has not been a good team for a while and they sold out an unseen new building. Of course it helped that Coach Tim Miles was bringing in some quality basketball and promised that he was not going to take on the ills of the past regimes. He was coming into town to change the culture and make Nebraska relevant, or at least he would go down swinging. Little did he know how his team would respond.
While the NonCon was nothing to write home about quality wise, it was fun to kick off the new home against the previous year's darling - FGCU. In fact, Nebraska played decent enough to secure a 8-4 record. While the UAB loss would be a bad loss for the rest of the year, there was certainly no shame in losing to Creighton, Cincinnati, or UMass. Of course, it was always about the way a team loses that made you feel uneasy. In the marquee in-state game against Creighton - one in which Nebraska broke out some slick black uniforms - Nebraska got run out of the building. I was there, and let me tell you, I did not like what I saw one bit.
Act II: Some Early Conference Woes and Flipping the Switch
So there we were, somewhere outside of
Barstow the B1G quality of play. It was an ugly thing, and after consecutive losses to Iowa and Ohio State - both of which were hardly what anybody could call competitive - we were staring down the barrel of Michigan. Now, I know that Michigan hadn't exactly proven a lot yet, but they were Michigan and we were suddenly a team that had lost three games in a row and were reeling. There wasn't enough talent on either side of the court, and if you were Tim Miles, you were probably preparing the, "Hey, keep coming to the arena," even though we were hardly out of any contention. I remember it feeling that bad at the time.
If none of you all remember the Michigan game, just refer to it as the time that Nebraska almost beat Michigan on a tip drill. Props to the Wolverines for securing what would be the only visitor win on the PBA floor, but they were probably to exhausted to understand just how big an accomplishment that was. In fact, to a lot of us Nebraska fans, we were just trying to figure out if this team had finally gotten it or if Michigan was just playing bad. A date with a pretty bad Purdue would help make sense of things, but that ended up going even more poorly. Nebraska would go on to lose it's 5th of 6 games and force the Huskers to play with their backs against the wall at home. An OSU team that manhandled them a week and a half before was coming to town and I went there.
As you know, that ended up being a pretty big day for Nebraska hoops. Sure, Ohio State was reeling themselves, but a win is a win and let me tell you, seeing what a great crowd and arena can do for the energy of a team is amazing. Suddenly things didn't feel so bad, but that didn't last team with this team as they would go on to lose at Penn State and then kick its most consistent scorer off the team. Tim Miles meant business and it would take all hands on deck to get this team to the NIT at best.
Act III: The Finishing Stretch
Nebraska beat Minnesota and I dedicated a piece with MNWildcat to the idea that Nebraska was getting better. Little did we know that our little poll would be prescient. In the next 13 games, Nebraska went on a run. Which is to say that Nebraska did something no Nebrasketball team has done in twenty years. In one of the toughest conferences, Tim Miles coached his butt off and Nebraska went dancing.
So what happened? Well, a lot can be attributed to the coaching up of Terran Petteway, an All-B1G performer when it was all said and done. He showed he could - and would - shoot from anywhere, and when the pressure became even more intense, he seemed to light it up just a little bit more. Add to that a late uptick in the previously coming-off-injury Shavon Shields as well as the deep shooting from Walter Pitchford, the defense of Benny Parker, and the do whatever it takes attitude by the rest of this team, you had an incredible change of script that we don't usually see. Nebraska slowly pulled its way up the B1G standings and talk of the NCAA tournament became real. Along the way, Nebraska held court at home and even went out and knocked MSU down in East Lansing. Again, with the power of hindsight, we probably shouldn't have been so surprised at the jump in year over year talent - with all of those guys sans Shields - redshirting. Still, none of us Husker fans expected success so quick.
The Epilogue: The Elusive Win and the Future
So Nebrasketball finished less than desirably with a beating by the Baylor Bears. Oh, and Coach Miles got kicked out of the game for trying to point out a clock malfunction, so hearing about his apparent temper problem was also a fun way to go out, but that is all water under the bridge. This season was always about making process, and what an impressive thing that was. Nebraska is still one of two major Basketball programs (those in the Big 5 conferences) without a NCAA Tournament win, but they're right on the edge of that. Tim Miles has a plan and is sticking to it, and if he can continue to get recruits to see what he's building, it's only a matter of time before big things happen in Lincoln.
By all accounts, people now know about Nebraska and that was the first step. Again, if you had asked me what would qualify as a success this season, I would have said .500 ball. This team went out and did that and more, and I will always have the Ohio State game at home, the win at Michigan State, and the Wisconsin season end cherry on the top. I will have the excitement of sitting nervous as they name the schools off for the Big Dance. And if we're being honest, I think that is more than I could have asked for and really makes me excited for what comes next.
This conference is not getting any easier as we have added another strong basketball program in Maryland and other teams Nebraska had to scratch and claw over to move up. Miles and Company know that to stay on top they're going to have to work harder than everyone else. Still, they accomplished a lot this season and that should go a long way. We bring back the gang next year and will add some front court talent in Jacob Hammond from Oklahoma as well as a 3* PG Tarin Smith out of New Jersey. I'm not sure what next year contains, but this year was awesome and I'm more excited about Nebraska basketball than I've been in years. Hats off to a great year and here's hoping it only gets better.