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February 18, 2014
Huskers fully buying in to 'Us Always' motto
Tim Miles had already used the phrase a couple times earlier in the season to try and get his young and inexperienced team to come together and play as one, but it wasn't until Nebraska's frustrating road loss at Penn State on Jan. 23 that it became far more than just a motivational slogan.
When the Huskers returned to practice, that phrase was written in big letters on the team's marker board. From that point on, the only way NU could turn its struggling season around was to fully buy in to that team-first concept and to stop worrying about individual success and play only for each other.
The very next game against Minnesota on Jan. 26, the Huskers took the court wearing "Us Always" warm-up shirts, which were provided free of charge from team apparel sponsor Adidas. Since that moment, Nebraska has won five of its past six games, and is now firmly in the conversation to potentially make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
"It's just how can we be better teammates and get better each day?" sophomore forward Shavon Shields said of the "Us Always" concept. "When it's about the team first, things will be alright for us That's been huge for us, because one person's not going to lead you to wins, it's the team. So we've been focusing on being together, playing together, and that's been what's catapulted us to wins."
Nebraska's recent success has also catapulted it towards the center of the college basketball stage. Miles was on at least three different national sports radio shows on Monday, while his assistant coaches made the rounds on nearly every local sports radio station in Lincoln and Omaha.
Shields, Walter Pitchford and Terran Petteway - who was named the Big Ten Co-Player of the Week - spoke to a group of 16 reporters from various media outlets on Monday to talk about their win over No. 9 Michigan State and what could be in store for the rest of the season. To put that into perspective, there hadn't been more than 10 reporters at any other previous interview opportunity this season.
The Huskers are certainly the buzz of the town as they make their push towards the Big Dance. But the challenge for Miles and his staff now is finding the best way to handle all of this new success.
"You can't keep them from the information," Miles said. "I mean, it's on every available medium, whether it be social media, Twitter, Facebook; whether it be on Bracketology or whatever. So basically it's like, avoid the noise. None of it exists until it exists. What I mean by that is that all we can control is winning games. So anything outside of that looking beyond the finish line - the finish line is how we practice today. The finish line is how we prepare ourselves for Penn State, nothing more, nothing less.
"If you don't keep them in that mindset - the old cliche is one game at a time and just getting a little better all the time - then you're really hurting your team. We can talk and discuss the narratives, but none of them really exist until Selection Sunday."
During Monday's weekly Big Ten teleconference, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo noted one of the obvious differences between the Huskers now and where they were earlier in the year - the absence of junior point guard Deverell Biggs, who was dismissed from the team shortly after the Minnesota game. Izzo credited Miles for adjusting his lineup and how he "got rid of a bad apple", which seemed to have rallied his team together. Miles declined to comment one way or another on how Biggs' situation directly impacted the Huskers, but said he's been proud of the way his players responded to the adversity.
"You never know how those things are going to work," Miles said. "I've been a head coach 19 years and I've seen it go both ways. Usually it's just the dynamics of the team and individuals, how together the group is. It was an unfortunate situation what happened with Deverell, but at the same time, it was a decision I thought was necessary, and the guys have really rallied around each other. We've been fortunate. We've come out and we've played really good basketball."
The road to an NCAA Tournament berth is far from over for Nebraska, as their rough start to the year put it in a hole it's still trying to climb out of over the final six regular-season games and on into the conference tournament. But as long as the Huskers continue to fully embrace the slogan printed on their warm-up shirts, they truly believe that anything is possible.
"For it to mean anything, we have to buy in, and that's what's happening right now," Petteway said. "We're buying in at the right time of the season. Everybody's buying in, and it's showing on the court. You can tell in practice and the way we're playing, it's way different than the way we were playing at the beginning of the season. It just means you come to practice every day willing to get better and willing to be a better coach, a better player, whatever it is, just willing to work for your team."