Nebraska — yes Nebraska — just can’t stop winning.
That’s right, the perennial basketball basement-dweller, a program that’s never seen a win in the NCAA tournament, is riding a five-game winning streak and currently sits in sixth place in the Big Ten standings with an 8-6 conference record.
How are the Huskers doing this in the second year of the Tim Miles Era?
It’s a mix. Terran Petteway has been amazing, playing his way right into the conference Player of the Year conversation with a Big Ten-leading 18.4 points per game, ahead of the likes of Gary Harris and Nik Stauskas. Then there’s the strong Nebraska defense, which ranks sixth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, better than Michigan State and Iowa. And finally there’s the uncanny home-court advantage at Pinnacle Bank Arena, where the Huskers are 13-1, including 6-1 in conference play.
Since the Huskers started raising eyebrows, the question has been whether this team can reach the tournament. How about asking the last guy who had to coach against them, Purdue’s Matt Painter.
“There's no doubt that they could get into the NCAA tournament and do some damage if they can get there,” Painter said after the Huskers’ 76-57 beatdown of the Boilermakers over the weekend. “They have to get off 9-9 (conference record). You have to get off of it. They can possibly do that as we get into the Big Ten Tournament. I haven't dissected them, but it comes down to your quality wins. Obviously, the win at Michigan State really helps them. ... If they can be as consistent defensively and generate baskets, they have a chance. Petteway is so good. ... There's no doubt that they're going to be close here, but they probably have to get one more good one. Especially if they can get one of those away from home, that's really going to help them.
“I would just say that if they can get that consistency and get another win like they did the other day at Michigan State, now they're really working toward getting in that tournament and doing some damage. They could beat some people in the tournament. If you get them on a neutral court, they could beat a lot of people.”
At times, you’d think the general strength of the Big Ten would be enough to land one more team in the Big Dance outside the five ranked teams at the top of the conference (Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State). But is Nebraska getting enough respect to get in?
Ken Pomeroy’s rankings have the Huskers at No. 49, while ESPN’s Daily RPI has them ranked 46th, putting them right in bubble territory. And one coach gave them a vote in the USA Today coaches poll this week.
Miles said he hasn't used the no-one-believes-in-us message to motivate this season, but there’s still at least a bit of an underdog mentality in Lincoln. When asked if he knew who voted for his team in the coaches poll, Miles queried back:
“Does my mom got a vote?”
In all seriousness, though, the Huskers’ tournament hopes could hinge on the regular-season finale against Wisconsin, a game where that Pinnacle Bank Arena magic could strike. The three contests before that one — against Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana — figure to favor the Huskers, making the game vs. the Badgers a big one.
It’s a tough ask for a still up-and-coming program, but it’s something the Huskers think they can do.
“These guys really have a will to put Nebraska on the map,” Miles said, “and I think that’s truly what they want to do.”