Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Taking "Win To Get In" Approach for NCAA

By Brian Rosenthal

Anton Gill seemed sincere when he said he doesn’t pay attention to where noted NCAA Tournament bracketologists have – or don’t have – the Nebraska men’s basketball team in their latest mock tournaments.

“Honestly, I don’t look at it, at all,” said Gill, a senior guard for the Huskers. “It’s too stressful. I just try to come in, get ready for practice, just take it day-by-day, I guess.”

It’s a mindset all Nebraska players have adhered to during the Huskers’ five-game winning streak, and it would behoove them to keep it through the remainder of February, at least.

Win these last four games, and Nebraska (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten Conference) would almost certainly be a lock for an at-large bid.

“I kind of like that we hold our own destiny,” Gill said. “We win out, that will be like, eight, nine games in a row, top four in the Big Ten. It’s hard to look past that and not see a tournament team.”

Indeed, no Big Ten team with at least 20 overall wins and fewer than seven conference losses has missed the NCAA tournament.

But what if Nebraska stubs its toe – whether Tuesday night at home against Maryland, or Sunday at Illinois? Or what about those final two home games, against Indiana and resurgent Penn State?

Nebraska coach Tim Miles said he doesn’t present his players with the forecasted numbers, only with their current status.

“We’re close,” Miles said. “We don’t know where we’re at. Some people have us in, some people don’t. Most people don’t, I’d say, probably. But the season’s not over, and our chance for our resume is not over.”

Most national pundits have Nebraska, currently with an RPI of 53, on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but on the outside, looking in. Of course, that’s if the season ended today, and remarkably, it doesn’t.

Nebraska’s dilemma, however, is that it’s lacking quality victories, and none of the final four foes presents an opportunity to change that.

“That’s just the way it goes. We haven’t won enough big games,” Miles said. “We’ve had some bad luck. There’s no doubt we’ve had some bad luck with our schedule.”

For example, Nebraska, which received 15 votes for Monday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, did have a quality victory in December over a Minnesota team ranked as high as No. 12 in the nation.

That was a good Minnesota team. The one currently playing is not; because of player attrition, the result of a suspension and injuries, the Gophers have plummeted.

And because of the quirky Big Ten schedule this season – squeezing in 18 games to play the Big Tournament a week earlier than normal in order to play at Madison Square Garden – Nebraska is among very few Big Ten teams that saw the Gophers at their strongest.

Nebraska, currently in sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten, also had only once crack at each of the league’s top three teams, and none at home. The Huskers went 0-3 on the road against Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State.

The Huskers have no Top 100 RPI losses, although a defeat to UCF isn’t aging well, given the Knights lost 7-6 center Tacko Fall to a season-ending shoulder injury in January. He averaged 11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in the Knights' 12-6 start; they’re currently 3-3 without him.

“All we can do is do what’s in front of us now,” Miles said. “Penn State looked terrific last night. They looked really good. They’re going to be an important game, too.”

Penn State, unlike Nebraska, has multiple opportunities to boost its NCAA resume, with all four remaining games against top five teams in the Big Ten standings. The Nittany Lions are 18-9 overall and 8-6 in the Big Ten after winning 74-52 at Illinois on Sunday night.

“That team should be in the NCAA Tournament,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said after the game. “That’s an NCAA Tournament team.”

We’ll see what he says about Nebraska come Sunday afternoon.

Williams’ team also in hunt

Meanwhile, the Nebraska women’s basketball team has five victories over teams in the Top 50 of the RPI – including three on the road – boasts a perfect 8-0 record in road games, is tied for second place in the Big Ten … and still is the first team out of ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Crème’s latest projection.

So second-year coach Amy Williams must likely use the same formula as Miles – win to get it.

Nebraska (18-7, 9-3 Big Ten) has games this week at Michigan State and at Indiana, plays Penn State at home and concludes the regular season at current Big Ten frontrunner Maryland.

Oddly enough, Michigan State (15-11, 5-8) has an RPI of 52 – or 11 spots higher than Nebraska – despite just snapping a six-game losing streak. So it at least presents the Huskers with an opportunity to boost their RPI with yet another road victory.

Indiana (13-12, 6-6) has an RPI of 74, and Penn State (14-12, 5-8) sits at 83. Maryland (22-3, 11-1) has the Big Ten’s best RPI at 13.

So, what’s dragging Nebraska?

For starters, a November 67-66 home loss to Clemson, with a current RPI of 141, isn’t helping maters. The nonconference schedule, while arguably conducive for a team coming off a seven-win season, includes victories over San Jose State (RPI 252), UMKC (267), Coastal Carolina (275) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (336).

The Big Ten women’s track record for placing teams in the NCAA Tournament is more in flux than the men’s. Consider last year that Michigan won 11 conference games and placed third, and had an RPI in the 30s, yet wasn’t among the five Big Ten teams that earned an NCAA Tournament bid.

Best the Huskers not test fate and keep piling up victories – both the men and women.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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