I have watched enough Nebraska Cornhuskers basketball to know how this story would end. Whether it was the Kansas Jayhawks burying a corner three to win at the buzzer, or Marc Loving hitting a game winning layup for the Ohio State Buckeyes’ great escape, I was used to Nebraska losing games late. This game seemed like all of the talent, all of the momentum, all of the gritty wins would go out the door with a black mark of a loss to a winless-in-conference Illinois Fighting Illini team that didn’t look good at all.
On a night where both teams looked like middle-aged men throwing up 3-point shots at the local YMCA, somehow, someway, both teams hit miracle shots. The first dagger would be Michael Finke, and this is where I thought things had ended. Down two, 20 seconds or so to go, Illinois ran about as good a play as you can imagine. Michael Finke gets a pass and drains a 3 as Isaiah Roby comes over and fouls him for the mythical 4 point play. Just look at this madness:
You just cannot make this stuff up when you’re a Nebraska basketball fan. All night, Nebraska weathered terrible rebounding, mediocre shooting, and a sluggish night altogether and they looked like they would be going down again at home to a team they were favored to beat. Sure, there were 9 seconds left, but this is what happens to Nebraska. Until it isn’t.
Sometimes you are more than what everyone thinks you are. James Palmer Jr. - with Fighting Illini defenders doing their job - hits the miracle last second shot, and Nebraska keeps its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It wasn’t pretty, and a lot of people are probably right to say that luck shouldn’t make you think big, but Nebraska has a shot.
The Case Against the Nebraska Cornhuskers
Let’s start with the part I would rather not talk about. Nebraska doesn’t exactly scream, “Great resume.” If you use WarrenNolan as the starting point for RPI, Nebraska is a bubbly 70th. While teams in that range can make the tournament as an at-large, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement in the selection room.
Digging deeper, Nebraska’s not really looking good from a wins/losses POV either. 13-7 isn’t terrible, but they are now 1-5 away from Pinnacle Bank Arena, and have yet to snag any form of signature win. That OT loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions last weekend could - see: will - come back to haunt them in the selection room, and if I’d have to guess, they need to secure at least 20 wins and hopefully a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament. The Big Ten isn’t going to send a ton of teams to the tournament with their overall RPI somewhere in the 6th best realm. This team needs wins in a hurry.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, KenPom doesn’t really like Nebraska that much either.
The Case For the Nebraska Cornhuskers
Okay, so the resume is thin, but what about that race to 20 wins? Turns out that it’s possible. There are 11 games left on the schedule. Of those, 6 are at home, with road games against Ohio State, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. That... is not exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. Even if you chalk up losses to Ohio State and Maryland, Nebraska suddenly has a path to seven more wins in a much more appreciable way.
Unfortunately, that also means that significant wins will be harder to come by than potentially disastrous losses. But hey, Nebraska has shown to be able to play with pretty much everyone and if they can beat Iowa, Penn State, Indiana, and Rutgers at home, and then take out Rutgers or Illinois on the road, we’re talking about taking two from @Minnesota, @Ohio State, @Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maryland.
Still, Nebraska needs a big win and that’s what they’ll need to try and secure tonight.
Why the Michigan Wolverines are a big game
Nebraska can secure 20+ wins for the season and miss the NCAA tournament. The resume doesn’t have a bad loss, but they need some big wins. Michigan could provide that. This year, the Huskers have looked good at PBR, and for once the talent seems to be there to at least go toe-to-toe defensively with anyone. Sure, John Beilein is going to be bringing one of the hottest teams in the conference to Lincoln, but the trio of Glynn Watson, James Palmer, and Isaac Copeland are solid two-way players that can score in bunches when they need to.
If Nebraska wins tonight, the path to the Big Dance looks a little clearer. If they lose, it’s not over yet either, but Tim Miles’ crew needs to do what they can to protect home court. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the the season plays out. Hopefully it’s not just another typical Nebrasketball season.