INDIANAPOLIS - Maybe the worst part about Nebraska's 71-67 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday wasn't the fact that it was an epic 18-point collapse that ended its chances at a conference title. It was also that the Huskers had a chance to put an end to any remaining doubt about their NCAA Tournament hopes with a victory, and all they ended up doing was creating as many questions as ever.
Had Nebraska been able to finish the job after jumping out to big lead in the second half, it would have firmly locked itself into the field of 64 and potentially earned as high as an eight-seed in the Big Dance if its Big Ten tourney run went any longer. Instead, the Huskers are left waiting until Sunday to see if they will finally snap their 15-year streak without a March Madness appearance.
Head coach Tim Miles isn't necessarily worried about his team's chances of making the NCAA Tournament, but he knows his work has just begun if Nebraska is going to have any chance at winning once they get there.
"I think we're a tournament team," Miles said. "I think we're a team good enough to win in the tournament. I mean, you just look at our body of work - and even, we lost to Illinois who was playing lights-out and just lost to a great Michigan team. And other than that, we haven't lost many games recently in the past two months. I know that early we weren't the team we are now, but I know they have to consider your full body of work."
While Nebraska waits to see where it ends up in the NCAA Tournament bracket, it can look back on a regular season that vastly exceeded expectations for a program in just the second year under Miles and his staff. With a roster full of new faces who had never played a game together going into the season opener, the Huskers still managed to win 19 games - including eight of their final 10 to close out the regular season - and earn the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
That sudden turnaround was largely made in part to the emergence of transfers Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchford, who ended up being two of Nebraska's top scoring options much of the year. With 20 points against the Buckeyes, Petteway notched his 11th 20-point game of the season and upped his season point total to 561, good for seventh place on NU's all-time list and the most since Tyronn Lue's 603 back in 1996-97. Assuming the Huskers can punch a ticket to their first NCAA Tournament since 1998, it would be hard to argue Miles's second season in Lincoln as anything short of a gleaming success.
"I think it's going to be a great first step to do it in Year Two, considering where we started," Miles said. "You look at where you started and where you are now and where you want to be, maybe we stretched out the where we are now quicker than people thought. I'd feel really good about it, but our goals are to go to the NCAA and win, so it'll just be on to the next goal."
For now, as Pitchford put it, Nebraska will move on from Friday's loss and "use it as fuel by letting it burn" over the next couple of days until it learns its postseason fate. With possibly as much as a full week before they get to return to action again, though, the frustrating defeat will probably sting the Huskers a little longer than they would like.
"I really think that we're better than Ohio State, but we can't prove that," Miles said. "They blew us out and they beat us on a neutral court, so they win the series. I can think what I want, but that doesn't make it true."
Officiating takes its toll on Huskers
Miles has never been one to blame the officials for a loss, but the inconsistency with which Friday's game was called was definitely difficult to ignore. Not only were there twice as many fouls called in the second half than there were in the first, the fouls and violations that weren't called were almost as questionable as the ones that were.
Ohio State guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott wreaked havoc on Nebraska's backcourt with aggressive pressure defense from baseline to baseline, which played a big part in NU turning the ball over seven times in the final 13 minutes. The calls also seemed to get a bit touchy when the Huskers were on defense, as Petteway fouled out with a minute left and Shavon Shields and Benny Parker both watched from the bench for much of the second half with four fouls each.
One of the worst examples was when there was no whistle, as Parker was undercut while going up for a layup and no foul was called. Parker had to leave the game temporally with a right ankle injury, and Miles was so fired up about the no-call that he actually had to be restrained by Shields and assistant coach Kenya Hunter.
"I just thought we had a clean move to the rim and we end up into the standard and hurt," Miles said. "He's a pretty critical part of our team. He's as important as those other guys who are scoring. I just don't know how you get body slammed into the standard and they stand there and look at it… I was pretty mad. I don't know. I'm Irish, so there's some of that in there."
Ohio State's press was even more effective because Shields, who is regarded as NU's best inbounds passer, had to sit most of the second half. As a result, the Buckeyes forced several turnovers and timeouts by flustering the Huskers on every inbounds pass. Miles said Nebraska even prepared for that exact situation in practice by doing inbound pass drills with six defenders on the floor or even four-on-six situations. Miles also said the Huskers used four different press break plays to counter OSU's pressure, but Parker's absence made it a struggle just to get the ball past halfcourt.
"The fact that Scott and Craft got so physical out front was really advantageous for Ohio State," Miles said, clearing his throat in a hinting manner. "I just don't think we handled that very well."
Selection Sunday event planned at PBA
As Nebraska waits to find out where it ends up in the Big Dace, the team will host an NCAA selection show watch party for fans to watch along with them on Sunday afternoon at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The event will be free and open to the public, as Husker fans are invited for the largest NCAA watch party in Lincoln. Select Pinnacle Bank Arena concession stands will be open for the Sunday's event, as the arena doors will open at 4 p.m. and the program will begin at 4:30 p.m. The NCAA Selection Show begins at 5 p.m. on CBS.