Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Miles Reacts To Huskers' NCAA Miss

By Brian Rosenthal

As teams beginning with the letter ‘N’ popped up on the big television screen overlooking the basketball court at the Hendricks Training Complex, Nebraska basketball players seated in the front row began dropping their heads.

Others looked on with blank stares.

In the new NCAA Tournament selection show format, all 68 teams – first automatic qualifiers, then at-large teams – were announced in alphabetical order. After North Carolina State – listed as “NC State” on the screen – popped up, doubt crept in.

Then Nevada surfaced, and Nebraska’s fate was sealed.

The Huskers won’t play in the NCAA Tournament, despite a 22-10 overall record, and a 13-5 mark and fourth-place finish in the Big Ten Conference. In fact, as it turns out, the Huskers weren't even on the bubble, given their seeding for the National Invitation Tournament.

Nebraska is a No. 5 seed, meaning the Huskers won't even host an NIT game. They'll play at No. 4 seed Mississippi State -- a team Nebraska defeated in an October exhibition game -- Wednesday at 8 p.m. in Starkville, Mississippi.

“I just feel bad for our guys,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “They were able to make history during the regular season by winning as much as they did (a school record 13 conference wins), and then made history which they didn’t want to make, which is the only team in the Big Ten to win 13 games and not make it.”

The previous 61 Big Ten teams to reach that mark made the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska, with an RPI of 56, broke that streak. Virginia Tech, NC State and Arizona State were at-large selections with higher RPIs.

Nebraska, though, wasn’t even in consideration.

A slap in the face, perhaps?

"A little bit," Miles said. "I really do feel like we got slapped in the face. We can still do something about it. That's the good news. I hope we rally and respond, and that the guys feel the same way I do."

By and large, Nebraska's overall resume lacked quality victories.

Indeed, Nebraska’s only Quadrant One victory came at home over Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan. Miles now wonders had Nebraska defeated Kansas – the Huskers lost by one point on a late 3-pointer – if even that would have been enough. That’s only two Quadrant One victories, and the last team in the field – Syracuse – had four such wins.

Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona State and Syracuse set a record for most at-large teams with losing conference records. The previous record was three. But as the committee has long said, conference records and finish mean little.

The overall body of work is what the committee wants, and Nebraska’s overall resume, lacking big-time wins, wasn’t enough -- not even for a home game in the NIT. (The NCAA seeds both tournaments).

“You do what you can,” Miles said. “I really thought the one metric in our favor was the strength of record. It was better than almost 20 teams that were either on the bubble or in the field (No. 32). It takes how a top level NCAA team would do with your record, it runs it 10,000 times, and if you outperform that, the higher your ranking. We did.”

That, Miles said, was Nebraska’s strongest metric, while predictive metrics weren’t in the Huskers’ favor.

“The way the league broke this year, we just didn’t have any top 100 wins, home or away,” Miles said. “We were able to win on the road, but we only had limited chances against tournament-caliber teams. It’s how our schedule broke.”

In the nonconference, losing to Central Florida in the first round of the Advocare Invitational in November cost Nebraska dearly. It set the Huskers up with a game against Marist (RPI 324) instead of West Virginia (27). Nebraska also scheduled Delaware State, which finished with worst RPI in the nation, at 351.

Other nonconference opponents didn’t meet expectations. Miles scheduled North Dakota, which won 22 games and won the Big Sky Conference Tournament last season, but one of three returning starters – a 7-foot center – left the team as a graduate transfer. Still picked fifth in the Big Sky, the Hawks finished 12-20 overall, and 6-12 in the conference, with an RPI of 221.

Miles also scheduled a couple of teams from Conference-USA – a respected mid-level conference – that didn’t necessarily pan out.

“You just try to pick and choose the best you can,” Miles said. “Especially a team with a whole bunch of newcomers, we wanted to give them an opportunity to win, so we put some winnable wins on the schedule, too.”

Miles could have helped his team’s RPI and strength of schedule by playing an NCAA Division II team – or even by scheduling one fewer game and playing nobody – but decided otherwise.

Currently on the 2018-19 schedule are USC (an NCAA bubble team left out), Texas Tech (an NCAA Tournament at-large team) and Missouri State, which will be welcoming a new head coach after faltering upon high expectations in the Missouri Valley Conference this season. Nebraska will play two of those teams at a tournament in Kansas City.

“Is that going to be enough?” Miles said in offering a rhetorical question. “We’ve had it the other way where we were number three in nonconference schedule and went 12-18. So you really have to try to manage your schedule the best you can and get opportunities.”

Ideally, and normally, those will come in the form of Big Ten Conference teams. An unbalanced schedule helped the Huskers pile up victories but hurt their overall strength of schedule in what many pundits considered a down year for the league. Next season, the Big Ten is moving to a 20-game schedule, meaning the Huskers will have more opportunities.

“If our league is better – which I think it will be – our opportunity will be there,” Miles said. “It’s a guessing game, a little bit, but it’s got to be an educated guess.”

As for the NIT, does Miles expect an upset team with something to prove, or is he fearful of a letdown in disappointment?

“You never know how your guys are going to react until the ball goes up in the air,” Miles said. “The best thing that can happen is play as soon as possible. The sooner, the better.”

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

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