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February 16, 2014
Recent run has Huskers dreaming of Big Dance
When the final buzzer sounded in Nebraska's stunning 60-51 road upset of No. 9 Michigan State on Sunday, the Husker players celebrated momentarily at mid-court before quickly meeting their Spartan opponents at the post-game handshake line. The celebration continued a bit later in the locker room, with laughs, hugs and even a little dancing to cap off NU's first road win over a top-10 foe since 1997.
The party didn't last much more than a few minutes, though. Despite picking up the most significant win of the young Tim Miles era and taking a huge step towards earning an NCAA Tournament berth, Nebraska handled itself like a program that had been in that type of situation before - even though in reality it hasn't by any stretch of the imagination for more than a decade.
"We celebrated a little bit in the locker room, but that was one game," sophomore forward Walter Pitchford told the Husker Sports Radio Network after the win. "Now we're on to the next game and have to prepare."
Nebraska has certainly teased its fan base with NCAA Tournament bubble hopes in the past, but there's something different about the 2013-14 squad that gives far more hope than the others during the program's 15-year absence from the Big Dance.
For one, there's been an obvious upgrade in talent in just the two recruiting classes Miles and his staff have assembled since taking over in Lincoln in the spring of 2012. The Huskers have a legitimate first-team All-Big Ten Conference candidate in sophomore wing Terran Petteway, who ranks second in the league in scoring and put in 16 of his 23 points in the second half against MSU to lead the way for the win. There's also the development of holdover players like Shavon Shields, Benny Parker and David Rivers, all of which have taken tremendous strides from where they were just a year ago.
Then you have the undeniable home-court advantage Nebraska holds at the brand-new Pinnacle Bank Arena, where the Huskers are an impressive 11-1 with the one setback coming after a missed tip-in at the buzzer against Michigan. Seemingly every opposing coach and traveling reporter that has seen PBA in action has immediately vaulted it to one of the best atmospheres in the Big Ten, and NU's play at home as definitely been a reflection of the energy boost the team gets from the 15,000-plus Husker faithful.
But maybe more than anything, it's the composure, resiliency and sheer competitiveness of this season's squad that gives more reason for optimism. In the past month, Nebraska has defeated the likes of Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and now Michigan State. All that from a team that was the consensus pre-season selection to finish dead last in the conference.
"Well, I've only been here a year and half, but for us obviously it's a marquee win," Miles said of knocking off MSU. "It's really important. I think there's certain moments in time that you have to define yourself. I really believe in this group. We're coming together and figuring things out more and more every day, even in practice. As a coach - I've been a coach at NAIA basketball, Division II, for 19 years - and this group has come together really nice. This is a great win. They really earned it."
Just like Miles predicted before the season, Nebraska has definitely had an equal share of extreme lows and soaring highs. Blowout losses to Creighton, Ohio State and Michigan looked far too familiar to the same old woes that had plagued the program since Danny Nee left, and it's 0-4 start to league play justified some grumbles that it was the same story was being written by yet another coach.
But the Huskers didn't quit. Even when it looked like the season was all but lost, the team stayed focused and kept fighting. They eventually got their first Big Ten win, then finally their first conference road victory, and now NU has won three straight league games for the first time since 2010-11. That just so happened to be the last time serious NCAA Tournament talk had surrounded Nebraska like it is right now.
The Huskers had defeated Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and then upset No. 3 Texas at the Devaney Center. Problem was they went on to completely collapse the rest of the season and lose three of their four remaining regular-season games, go one-and-done in the Big 12 Tournament and then get housed by Wichita State 76-49 in the first round of the NIT.
Will things be different this time around? It's impossible to say, but the odds are surprisingly somewhat on Nebraska's side. The Huskers will likely be favored in their next four games - three of which are at home - against Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern. If they can manage to knock off Indiana again on the road and top Wisconsin at home to close out things out, they could easily be anywhere from 18-12 to 20-10 going into the Big Ten Tournament. Win a game or two in Indianapolis, and that's a resume that would be very hard to ignore by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
As fun as it might be for Nebraska fans to actually be having this discussion this late in the season, all it truly is at this point is talk. Fans have learned the hard way far too often to not get their hopes up too early, as a number of promising Husker teams - like the 2010-11 team - would only go on to squander their chances in heartbreaking fashion.
The year's Nebraska squad hasn't done anything yet, and it still has a big mountain left to climb if its going to finally achieve its personal Holy Grail of going dancing. If nothing else, though, the Huskers are giving fans a reason to believe, and with performances like the one they put on in Sunday's upset over Michigan State, it's hard not to think about those dreams potentially becoming reality.
"It just shows that we're changing the program," Petteway said. "Coach Miles and the guys we have on our staff and our players, we're changing the culture of Nebraska basketball, and this is just the beginning for us."