By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Nebraska’s surprising 2-0 start to the Big Ten Conference men’s basketball season has fans and media buzzing, given the two victories came on the road.
Not only that, they came against two of the league’s upper-echelon team in Indiana, ranked No. 16 at the time, and Maryland, a team poised to crack the Top 25 until only its second Big Ten loss at home since joining the league.
The goal now for Nebraska (8-6, 2-0 Big Ten) is to defend home court – an absolute must for any team with postseason aspirations.
The Huskers’ first chance in Big Ten play is Thursday, when Iowa (9-6, 1-1) makes only its second visit to Pinnacle Bank Arena. A limited number of tickets for the 8 p.m. game (BTN) remain.
“We want to make Pinnacle Bank Arena the Vault, like it was year one, quite frankly. We haven’t done that as well since,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said at his Wednesday news conference.
“Really, we’ve concentrated more on that than being 2-0 in the league, because it’s such a long season, and every team you look at, there’s still like seven teams ahead of us in the RPI, and we’re like 46.”
Nebraska is trying for its first 3-0 start to conference play since 1975-76, when the Huskers won their first four Big Eight games. This is the first time since 1979-80 the Huskers have won their first two conference road games.
Why are the Huskers, who’ve won three straight since an upset home loss to Gardner-Webb, poised to the turn the corner?
Perhaps that nonconference schedule that features the likes of UCLA, Kansas, Creighton, Clemson, Dayton and Virginia Tech is paying more dividends than the Huskers’ 6-6 nonconference record would suggest.
“We always had confidence in ourselves," sophomore forward Michael Jacobson said. "We knew the type of schedule we had played in the nonconference, and I think we always had the belief that we’re better than what we’ve shown or what our record said.”
Counting the two Big Ten games, the Huskers have played the second-toughest schedule in the nation, according to the NCAA’s RPI as of Jan. 2. The nonconference schedule ranked seventh and was the only one in the top 10 from the Big Ten.
Now, the Huskers have to guard against a letdown.
“We’ve just got to be mentally locked in every game. That’s the biggest thing,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got to be focused, we’ve got to be locked in, we can’t be overconfident. I know we had two big wins on the road, but again, it’s only two wins. We’ve got 16 games left, so there’s a lot of work left to be done. We have to keep that mindset and keep that chip on our shoulder.”
Nebraska is also meticulously balancing on a fine line of building confidence with young players yet gaining necessary experience to meet expectations.
Rallying from a 13-point deficit, after allowing a 17-0 run, like the Huskers did in defeating Maryland 67-65, sure can help.
“I don’t know if it’s confidence, or we at least didn’t quit, we didn’t stop,” Miles said. “We stuck with what we do. When you look at those things, I’m happy and I’m proud of our guys. You can see in the locker room they’re gaining confidence or getting fired up, so I’m really excited about that part of them, that they’re sticking with it, because ‘it’ works.”
Nebraska is averaging 78.3 points per game during its three-game winning streak that began with a Dec. 20 victory over Southern to close nonconference play. The Huskers are also shooting 46 percent in that stretch.
Miles said paring down the offense is one reason for the increased productivity.
“I took my playbook and I took these 11 actions and put them in the trash, and so I left these 11,” Miles said. “Now we’re more predictable, but we also run our stuff with better pace because we’re running things more often.”
Still, a Nebraska team that’s been inconsistent from three-point range – the Huskers made four three-pointers in the first half at Maryland and none in the second half – is looking for more ways to score. Miles described it as “drinking from the cup of easy baskets,” and said the Huskers need to score more in transition.
“We need baskets,” Miles said, “so we need to run.”
Iowa is also a team that likes to run, not unlike Creighton. The Hawkeyes, like Nebraska, are young, and boast sharp-shooting guard Peter Jok, who’s averaging 22.1 points per game.
“The way he uses screens, the way he gets down in transition, he’s really a good player, and he can shoot with a millimeter of space," Miles said. "Those are things you have to watch. It’s going to take everybody.”
Thursday’s game marks the beginning of a stretch in which the Huskers play three of four games at home.
Yes, it’s an enormous opportunity for a team many predicted would finish toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
It’s also only January.
“It’s one of those things where we try to stay within ourselves,” Jacobson said. “We try to remember we’re a family, we’re a group of guys that really want to make something special happen here. We try to do what we’re best at and play to our strengths."
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.