Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

NU Notes: Steep Challenge Awaits Huskers

By Brian Rosenthal

Before we delve into the steep challenge that awaits Nebraska as it begins the Big Ten Conference men’s basketball tournament on Wednesday, let’s revisit a track record of teams overcoming adversity to do the improbable: Win a tournament title.

Nobody expected last-place Georgia to win four games in four days in the 2008 Southeastern Conference Tournament, let alone three games in a 30-hour time period. Thanks to a tornado that forced the tournament to relocate and reschedule, that's exactly what Georgia did. The Bulldogs played two games in one day before clinching the title.

In 2017, Michigan arrived the morning of its Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal game with Illinois in Washington, D.C., because its plane had slid off the runway on takeoff the previous day. While nobody suffered injury, Michigan couldn’t retrieve its belongings from the plane, so the Wolverines wore practice uniforms. They won the tournament.

As for the mere improbability of winning five games in five days? Well, Connecticut did it in 2011 in the Big East Tournament, albeit with a team ranked No. 21 nationally. The Huskies also won the NCAA Tournament that year.

So then, could Nebraska, with its depleted roster, maybe, well …

“You mean are we about to become a movie?” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

Hey, television shows documented the Georgia and Michigan dramas, so if No. 13 seed Nebraska (16-15, 6-14 Big Ten), with a mere six scholarship players, could win five games in five days and win its first conference tournament title since 1994…

“It’d make for a wild story if we pulled it off,” senior guard Johnny Trueblood said.

Trueblood is one of two walk-ons that will push Nebraska’s total roster to a whopping eight players heading into its play-in game against No. 12 seed Rutgers (14-16, 7-13) at the United Center in Chicago.

The Huskers have already played their last 11 games without senior Isaac Copeland, who’s out with an ACL tear. Freshman Nana Akenten remains suspended, sophomore guard Thomas Allen won’t play Wednesday because of an ankle sprain and freshman Amir Harris is facing knee surgery after damaging meniscus.

Miles said Harris, who scored the game-winning basket with 10 seconds remaining in overtime to beat Iowa on Sunday, isn’t certain when he hurt his knee. Miles remembers Harris coming to the huddle early in the second half and being “finicky” with his knee.

Whatever the case, the knee swelled overnight to the point Harris couldn’t straighten his leg, and an MRI revealed the injury. Harris will have surgery once the swelling subsides, Miles said.

“I feel horrible for Amir, especially coming off such a great game,” Trueblood said. “He was finally kind of finding his rhythm, and then that happens to him.”

Trueblood, who came off the bench to play a season-high 18 minutes against Iowa, will start in place of Harris, who was starting in place of Akenten. Miles was pleased with Trueblood, who contributed with four assists and six rebounds, saying he was in position on defense and made sure the ball moved on offense.

Nebraska, should it avenge its 76-69 loss to Rutgers in January, would play Maryland, and if it wins that game, would play Wisconsin in the quarterfinals.

“I think the guys are excited to play,” Miles said. “I think they’re ready to compete. Certainly, things have to go right. They have to fall in a certain order for us. I think we’re aware of that.

“I think there’s some adventure and fun to this, too. That’s the way the guys look at it, too. They want to keep playing.”

Big Spring for Bradley

He’s certainly slimmed up and looks much faster bursting through holes, which is exactly what the Nebraska coaching staff was hoping to see this spring from sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley.

With sophomore Maurice Washington limited in his practices, the Huskers are down to Bradley and senior Wyatt Mazour, who joined the team as a walk-on, as scholarship running backs. Assistant coach Ryan Held’s room will grow with freshmen scholarship players this fall, but for the spring season, Bradley will get ample reps.

“I want to see him be more consistent in everything he does – being able to understand the play, be more physical, make better second-level and third-level decisions and generally just make more plays,” Held said. “He’s had a good offseason and he’ll get some good reps this spring, so we can see what he’ll be able to do.”

After playing in seven games as a true freshman in 2017, when he ran 24 times for 93 yards and caught four passes for 38 yards, Bradley redshirted last season.

“He needed to be more explosive, be quicker, be faster – the whole nine yards,” Held said. “He’s at a pretty good weight right now, I think. He bought into the offseason program. He had a lot better spring this spring than he did last spring for sure.”

Another name to keep an eye on this spring is Brody Belt, a redshirted freshman walk-on from Millard West. Held said Belt has been consistent and understands the offense and has made some plays.

“He had a great day (Monday). He’s had a really good offseason,” Held said. “I like where he’s at right now.”

Former Husker Gary Dies

Nebraska Athletics mourns the loss of a second former Husker football player within the last week.

Russell Gary, an All-Big Eight safety in 1980 and a 2013 inductee into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame, died Sunday in Minneapolis of an apparent heart attack. He was 59.

Former Nebraska center Tom Davis, an All-American in 1977, died last week in Denver at the age of 63.

Gary led the Blackshirts as a junior and senior. A native of Minneapolis, he came to Nebraska as an I-back, but switched to safety during spring ball as a sophomore in 1978. He started three games at safety as a sophomore before a knee injury sidelined him. Gary returned to the starting lineup as a junior and led the Husker defensive backs with 50 total tackles in 1979 and 62 stops in 1980, and Nebraska led the Big Eight in total defense both seasons.

In April 1981, Gary was drafted by the New Orleans Saints as the first player taken in the second round (29th overall). After the Saints waived him in October 1986, Gary signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and closed his seven-year NFL career by playing 12 games with the Eagles in 1987. He then retired.

Gary had been an assistant football coach at Concordia (St. Paul) since 2004.

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

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