By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Nebraska’s basketball locker room filled with disappointment and determination after its season-ending defeat on Wednesday, but not necessarily relief.
Any exhaling would imply players were anxious for the tweet from Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst following the Huskers’ 76-67 overtime loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament.
“Look forward to next season of @HuskerHoops under @CoachMiles leadership…the future is bright! GBR!”
Sure, those words are nice to see and all, but it’s pretty much what sophomore forward Michael Jacobson had always firmly believed while many outside the program simply speculated.
Eichorst’s words came as little surprise to him.
“We had a good feeling about Coach Miles,” Jacobson said. “We wanted to fight for him, we wanted to play for him.”
Now, Jacobson said, the time has come to prove so with on-court results.
“I think we’re doing the right things, I really do,” Jacobson said. “It didn’t work out this year like we had it planned, definitely not. But I’m excited to be back. I know we’ve got guys who are going to work as hard as ever. I think we’re going to have more of a bond, because we realize, ‘OK, you’ve got to put the work in.’ I think next year will be more of a brotherhood.”
Nebraska loses one senior, Tai Webster, from a team that went 12-19 against the toughest nonconference schedule in the nation, and the toughest by a Big Ten Conference team in the last decade.
In conference play, the Huskers finished 6-12, with three one-point defeats.
“It’s huge to have continuity,” Jacobson said. “Everybody has to be on the same page. That’s what the best programs have. That’s what winning programs have. That’s what you have to do to get to the NCAA Tournament and win games in the postseason. I think you have to have continuity and be together. If you’re not on the same page, it’s really hard to be going forward in the right direction."
Miles, who finished his fifth season with Nebraska, was appreciative of Eichorst ending any job speculation. Eichorst had informed Miles and his staff before Wednesday’s game he’d be making such a statement at the conclusion of Nebraska’s final game.
“I want to come through for Shawn. I want to come through for Husker fans. I want to validate his faith in us,” Miles said. “We’re going to work our butts off. I’ve got an excellent staff, we’ve got a good, young corps …
“But for Shawn to end any speculation immediately after the season, I greatly appreciate it. It’s what he said he was going to do the whole time. They’re invested in us, and we want to see that investment pay off.”
Miles’ future was never a topic or a concern in the Nebraska locker room, both Miles and Jacobson said.
“I don’t want my guys to worry about that, so we just don’t even talk about it,” Miles said. “Speculation is speculation. It is what it is. I look forward to next season. I think Husker basketball will be tough to deal with. If we’re looking for a model, you don’t have to go far for Minnesota.”
The Gophers were 8-23 last season but are now destined for the NCAA Tournament after finishing fourth in the Big Ten.
“Now, can we make that flip? I don’t know,” Miles said. “But if we’re making the NCAA Tournament next year, we know we’ve done it right.”
Sophomore wing Jack McVeigh, like Jacobson, seemed unfazed by Eichorst confirming Miles’ return, noting that’s what he wanted, and that’s what he expected.
“If you asked every player, that’s what they would say. Obviously, the people above recognize that, you know?” McVeigh said.
“(Miles) and the staff, you can see their passion for it. It shows, their love for the game, and for winning and everything. They have passion for the support and passion for Nebraska. It really shows, and that’s why it’s easy to buy in to what they believe in. You see how bad they want it.”
Freshman Isaiah Roby is another player who badly wanted Nebraska to break through this season. He badly wanted to be the heralded newcomer to help that feat, too.
“I came in with a lot of potential, and sometimes potential is dangerous,” Roby said. “Sometimes you don’t reach potential, then you’re just a mediocre player. That’s kind of the same way I feel with our team. If you don’t reach your own potential, we’ll just be a mediocre team. But I’m really optimistic about our team.”
Roby said he “definitely” expected more out of himself – he averaged 3.2 points and three rebounds while playing all but one game he missed because of an ankle injury.
“I mean, it’s the Big Ten. It’s a beast. It’s going to fuel me to be a different player next year,” Roby said. “My game is kind of laid back, kind of feel the game out, and at this level, I’m not big enough, I’m not strong enough to do that yet.”
He wants to “attack all aspects of his game” in offseason workouts.
“I go to the gym, I’ll bring a guy with me,” Roby said, “because if I’m getting better, I want my teammates getting better, too.”
Roby is among three true freshmen who played significant minutes this season and is part of the corps of a talented, young group.
Of course, the Big Ten is loaded with young talent across the board. Consider that Maryland won 24 games with a team that started three freshmen … none of whom was voted to the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
Nebraska is adding to the young talent pool, too. Miles will travel soon to visit signed recruit Nana Akenten, a 6-foot-6 guard from Illinois who’s had an outstanding senior season.
“I think he can really help us,” Miles said. “He’s a super athlete and an excellent shooter. He’s got every chance to help us.”
Miles said Nebraska’s No. 1 priority for next season is improved three-point shooting. Nebraska played 13 games this season in which it shot 30 percent or lower from three-point range, and went 1-12 in those games.
“My goodness,” Miles said. “Everybody talks about our three-point defense – which hurts us in a great way, and we’re going to get better at that. … But we need to make threes, for cryin’ out loud.”
Miles anticipates a nonconference schedule that’s a tad bit more forgiving next season, too.
“We bit off a big chunk scheduling with this group,” Miles said. “We’ll have a challenging schedule next year. I don’t know that I want it being number-one-or-two-or-three-in-the-country challenging. Maybe 15 or 30. But we’re going to have unbelievable games."
The Huskers will host Kansas, play at Creighton and play a game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, with a site to be determined. Because the event is beginning a new contract, it’s possible Nebraska may play a road game for a second consecutive year.
Nebraska may also play in the Gavitt Games, a series between Big East and Big Ten Conference teams. The Huskers played in the inaugural event last season, at Villanova. Those games and sites will be released in the spring.
And if the nonconference isn't challenging enough for pre-Christmas games, fear not -- the Big Ten Conference season will begin in early December with two games, as the league works to squeeze in 18 games before next year's Big Ten Tournament, which will be played a week earlier than normal, at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.