Huskers Bounce Iowa, Continue Trek to Postseason
Nebraska had stretched its lead to 16 points in the final 2 minutes against Iowa, at which point the Big Ten Network television announcers turned their attention from the game and to the season’s big picture.
The Huskers are not only on a strong path to the NCAA Tournament, analyst Jon Crispin said, but could also make “a fun run” once they get there.
Crispin, the former Penn State and UCLA player, didn’t exactly clarify what that meant, but let’s assume it’s more than Nebraska has ever done before in the NCAA Tournament, which is win a game.
He also said Nebraska (16-8 overall, 7-4 Big Ten Conference) can start eying a top-four finish in the league standings and a double-bye for the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Feb. 28 in New York.
Sure, maybe it’s too early to talk about an NCAA Tournament breakthrough, although it’s hard to argue coach Tim Miles’ simple words after Nebraska’s 98-84 victory over Iowa on Saturday night.
“We’re in a good positon,” Miles said, “we’ve just got to keep on winning.”
And that’s where Nebraska stands heading into road games at Wisconsin and Minnesota over the next 10 days.
Keep winning, keep advancing.
No matter your personal outlook or opinion, it’s feel-good stuff for a team picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten standings. Prognosticators didn’t know how transfers like James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland would mesh in their first seasons.
Well, Palmer, who led Nebraska with 28 points against Iowa, is averaging 20 points in the month of January, and Copeland has produced back-to-back games of 23 points. On the season, they’re Nebraska’s top two scorers.
“This is a really good group to coach. I’m really having a lot of fun,” Miles said. “I knew we had talent. I didn’t know how we were going to get along, share things, but these guys have been really good.”
Nebraska fans have taken notice, too. A season-high crowd of 15,982 at Pinnacle Bank Arena helped the Huskers remain unbeaten at home in Big Ten Conference play, with four league home games remaining.
If the Huskers hold serve at home, they’ll finish no worse than 11-7 in the Big Ten. Granted, that’s probably not good enough to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid – not this season, given the perceived down year for the Big Ten.
Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are four NCAA Tournament locks from the Big Ten, with teams like Nebraska, Maryland and perhaps Indiana battling for a fifth spot. Maryland and Indiana have remaining games against Purdue and Michigan State, while Nebraska has one remaining game against a team in the Top 100 of the RPI – No. 53 Maryland, at home.
That remaining schedule presents a gold opportunity for Maryland to improve its NCAA Tournament resume – or fall completely out of contention.
Nebraska, meanwhile, has little opportunity to impress before the Big Ten Tournament, what with Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State and even Indiana with RPIs of 111 and higher entering weekend games.
That’s why Miles’ mantra is to keep winning.
And winning some more.
Another road win or two could mean 12 or 13 Big Ten wins – and maybe a top four double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, given Nebraska has defeated Michigan head-to-head.
What Nebraska can ill afford is three road losses in three remaining road games. The Huskers, who’ve won at Northwestern and Rutgers, have road games remaining at Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.
They’ve beaten all three teams at home. A true NCAA-caliber team will find a way to beat ‘em on the road, too – the same way Nebraska, once up 16 points on Iowa, found a way to respond after the Hawkeyes (11-12, 2-8) had cut the deficit to two points.
Copeland, Palmer and Isaiah Roby each hit a 3-pointer as part of an 11-0 run that re-established a double-digit lead for the Huskers, who finished with the most points they’ve ever scored in a Big Ten game. It’s the most Nebraska has scored in any conference game since 2002, when it defeated Kansas State 99-82 in Lincoln in a Big 12 Conference game.
Iowa made 33 field goals, hit nine 3-pointers and shot 50 percent overall – all Big Ten opponent bests against Nebraska this season. The Hawkeyes’ 20 assists were the most by any team against the Huskers.
Yet Nebraska still won by 14 points. The Huskers shot 57.7 percent, their best mark in Big Ten play, and went 11-of-19 on 3-pointers, the first time all season they've topped 50 percent on 3-point attempts.
“Boy,” Miles said, “the boys came to play.”
Indeed, they did.
Now they’ll have to keep it up, too. Their NCAA Tournament dreams depend on it.
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.