By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Nebraska’s 74-66 loss to Northwestern on Sunday before 15,053 fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena ended the far-fetched idea that Tim Miles’ basketball team would go undefeated in the Big Ten Conference.
Now, let’s dispel an even sillier notion – that this defeat ends a feel-good story, that the Huskers are destined to spiral back to the bottom of the league.
That’s not happening.
“This is a good team we played. I mean, a really good team,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “They’re going to win a lot of games in our league.”
So will Northwestern (13-4, 2-2 Big Ten).
The Wildcats were somewhat in desperation mode after losing two straight games, at Michigan State and home to Minnesota. If they’re to make their first-ever NCAA Tournament – and Northwestern looked like such a team Sunday – Collins knows his Wildcats can’t afford losing streaks in conference play.
Same goes for Nebraska (9-7, 3-1). The Huskers built momentum after road victories against Indiana and Maryland and Thursday’s double-overtime thriller at home against Iowa.
The Huskers have a week off before playing at Michigan, then return home to face Ohio State. Like Northwestern, they’ll need to fend off losing streaks to stay in the Big Ten Conference race – and rest assured, it will be a race like no other.
To wit: Two weeks into conference play, no unbeaten teams exist.
“Here’s the thing. Everybody’s going to lose some games in conference,” Collins said. “The league is too good. It’s reality. You guys are looking at some scores, ‘Man, I can’t believe this team won this game, I can’t believe this …’ Well, that’s going to happen all year long.
“I think the league is as good and as even as it’s been in my four years. There is no upper, middle, lower tier. That will be determined by who wins close games. But I think this a very even league this year.”
Nebraska won three close games to start Big Ten play, which certainly caught the attention of Collins. He had his team well-prepared for what essentially was a must-win game for the Wildcats.
“We’re playing as confident a team as you can play,” Collins said. “You look at their record and it’s a little bit misleading. Look who they’ve played? They had one game they’d like to have back. Everybody’s, ‘Oh, they lost to Gardner-Webb.’ Well, all of us kind of have a game or two where you’re a little bit braindead in the nonconference before Christmas. But you look at who this team’s played – the Creightons, the Clemsons, the UCLAs.
“So for us to be able to come in here and kind of steal one on the road was huge for our team and our program.”
Tough teams will emerge as the Big Ten Conference grind unfolds. Nebraska showed its toughness in winning at Indiana and Maryland before fending off Iowa. Northwestern showed its toughness by weathering a mindboggling 14-0 run in the final 1:42 of the first half that turned a 10-point Wildcat lead into a 37-33 advantage for the Huskers at halftime.
Yes, Collins admitted, his team was a big shell-shocked at the break.
“We didn’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” he said. “That was a real critical time for our team, how we would regroup at halftime.”
Collins was also happy his team met the challenge at what he’s said many times is one of his favorite venues for college hoops.
“I love playing here just because of the fans here. You should be really proud (of) Coach Miles and what he’s built,” Collins said. “It’s just a great environment for college basketball. I know the students weren’t here, but it was loud, it was red.
“You guys have some of the best fans, which is cool. To come in here and to play in this kind of environment, to come back from the deficit we had, I thought it showed a lot of toughness. That’s something we’re trying to build within our team. We know we have good players, and we know we have a good team. Can we be tough enough? And in this league, you’ve got to be incredibly tough to win.”
Nebraska’s proven its toughness, too, which is why the Huskers, despite a home setback, can’t be written off so early.
Players, notably Michael Jacobson, frowned upon the thought the Huskers were feeling the effects of playing only three days after a 50-minute late-night game against Iowa. Because of that, Miles made this game a one-day prep, and was very pleased with the one practice it had on Saturday, noting the team’s strong focus.
“(Northwestern) had one action they got us on like three times that we defended six times yesterday perfectly each time,” Miles said. “But you get out there and you get hit in the mouth and pretty soon you forget. Other things start to bother you and you don’t do your job. That was disappointing.”
The Huskers were a step off in defending the three-pointer – Northwestern made 11 in 24 attempts – and didn’t win as many 50-50 balls as it had been winning during its four-game winning streak.
“They had defensive edge and we didn’t,” Miles said. “We were not up to the fight. They took the fight to us.”
Hey, it happens. It just can’t happen often – not for teams wanting to stay in the thick of what’s shaping to be an unpredictable, zany conference season.