Now six games in to its first ever season as members of the Big Ten Conference, Nebraska is finally starting to get a good idea of what life is like in its new league.
Having started conference play at 1-5, the Huskers have definitely had a rough introduction into the Big Ten, but with every game head coach Doc Sadler's team gets under its belt, he says NU's confidence has only continued to rise.
"Obviously getting in the league now, you're getting a pretty good feel for what's going on," Sadler said during his interview on the weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference on Monday. "The league from top to bottom with some teams, I think it's definitely showed the parity, with our team in particular. I think in the last three ball games that we've had most of our team together, I think we've started playing better.
"I think our confidence is going back up in the right direction."
After suffering three straight drubbings to open league play, Nebraska has been far more competitive the past three games since the return of junior center Jorge Brian Diaz and junior guard Dylan Talley from injury.
While they've gone just 1-2 during that stretch, the Huskers have been in position to win in the final minutes of all three gamez, including two road trips at Illinois and Wisconsin. In Sunday night's loss to the Badgers, the Huskers had the ball trailing by just three points with 18 seconds to go.
Nebraska couldn't make enough plays to pull off the upset, but Sadler said the improvement was obvious from the Huskers 24-point loss at home to Wisconsin to open league play back on Dec. 27.
"I think more than anything it's our confidence," Sadler said. "It's something that to be able to go on the court and have at least two of what you thought would be three of your best players back on the court with the other players, their confidence more than anything else, you can just see in practice and in games now the look in their eyes. They believe they can play with these people. I'm not for sure they were just hoping they could play with some of these teams earlier.
"There's so many different things, but probably the biggest thing is just their overall confidence. We may be 1-5, but I think the last three ball games when we've had those guys (Diaz and Talley), we could be 0-3 or we could easily be 3-0 in all three of those games, and they know that."
Even though Nebraska played against some of the best teams with the best talent in the country the past few years as members of the Big 12 Conference, Sadler said the Big Ten was a completely different animal in terms of the overall depth, experience and coaching on every single team from top to bottom.
As has been shown with several upsets around the league already this season, he added that winning on the road in the Big Ten was as difficult as any conference in the nation.
"I think there's two things, and no disrespect to the Big 12, because I thought it was a great league, but the home court advantage in this league is to me probably as good as there is in the country," Sadler said. "I mean, everybody's got good coaches, but not everybody has the home court advantage this league has. You add those two things together, it makes it very, very difficult."
Things definitely won't get any easier for the Huskers this week, as they play host to No. 13 Indiana on Wednesday and then a rematch at home against No. 6 Ohio State on Saturday night.
Unless Nebraska can find a way to get over the hump and pull out some close games, a 1-7 start to Big Ten play is definite possibility. However, with the way he's seen his team get better with every game, Sadler said he's confident the Huskers will continue to put up a fight.
"Even though two of the (past) three games were losses, I thought we did some better things," Sadler said. "Obviously with this week with Indiana on Wednesday and Ohio State on Saturday, with both games being at home, I think it's a very big week. We don't have a lot of time to prepare for them after playing Wisconsin (Sunday), but it's one that I know our guys are going to be looking forward to."
Around the rim
***Sadler was asked by a Columbus, Ohio, reporter what kind of difference teams could expect to see from the Huskers with the return of Diaz and Talley. While he said the two both add much needed elements offensively, Sadler said they wouldn't be the only keys to beating a team like Ohio State.
"Well, if you're talking about Ohio State, I don't know if they're going to do much different," Sadler said. "But with us, obviously it gives us a low post presence that we can throw the ball down there and maybe get some easier looks on the perimeter because we do throw it down there.
"With Talley, he's still not even close to being back to where he was earlier, but you know he can really shoot the basketball. When he's given a little bit of an opening, he is probably our best threat on the perimeter to knock down shots. The two of them kind of gives you an inside-out approach. Defensively, you're allowed to play maybe one-on-one a little more on the post with Diaz because of his length, but it doesn't change a whole lot."
***In Nebraska's last two seasons in the Big 12, the conference ranked as the top one or two nationally in terms of overall power rankings. As luck would have it, the Big Ten is currently the top-rated league in the country in NU's first season as a member.
"Well, I'm definitely not buying any lottery tickets or anything like that because of the luck (we're) talking about," Sadler said. "You know, that's been the fun part of it. Obviously you enjoy competing and everything, but it has been two or three years of great basketball every single night. Our basketball team has to play at such a high level, and we've gotten so close in so many instances, but at some point, we've got to get over this hump of playing people close.
"Going to Wisconsin and Illinois, we got close. You can't ask much more that to be in a ball game in the last minute, and we were in that situation so many times in the Big 12… We've just got to figure out how to win some of these close games."