Before the Big Ten Conference schedule even kicked off, Wednesday night's home game against Penn State was one of the few that most fans had circled as a game Nebraska should be favored to win.
After an 0-4 start to league play, however, it's hard to assume anything for the Huskers at the moment.
Even though the Nittany Lions (9-8 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten), are only slightly above Nebraska in the conference standings, NU knows it's in no position to take any game for granted as it continues to search for its first Big Ten victory.
"You can't really say that they're a must-win team, because I guess guys look at us and look at our record and say we're a must-win, even though we know we're much better than what our record shows," senior point guard Bo Spencer said. "Teams have to prepare for each other every night, because on any night anyone can be beat. It just so happens we haven't got any of those victories."
One of Nebraska's biggest problems in league play has been finding ways to score points, as it ranks dead last in the conference with 61.6 points per game. Penn State has been almost just as bad, though, ranking 11th in the Big Ten with 64.0 ppg.
The Nittany Lions' offense has picked up the past two games, averaging 76.5 ppg in a 65-45 rout of Purdue and an 88-82 loss to then-No. 12 Indiana. Penn State also prides itself on a scrappy style of play that focuses on stingy defense, something NU head coach Doc Sadler knows a thing or two about.
"I really enjoy watching them," Sadler said. "They play as hard as any team that we're going to play all year. That's a credit to (PSU head coach (Patrick Chambers) and a credit to his players. They're shooting the ball - wow - the last two games they're shooting the ball the way you've got to shoot to beat Purdue by 20 and be down by two with 30-some seconds to go against Indiana. They're playing with great enthusiasm, they're playing with great energy, and they're making jump shots."
With 14 games remaining in the regular season, a win on Wednesday night would provide a huge lift for a Nebraska team desperate for something to finally feel good about again.
Especially when you consider the following three games are against the likes of Wisconsin, at now-No. 8 Indiana and home against No. 5 Ohio State, the Huskers know they have to take advantage of every single opportunity they get the rest of the way.
Should they end up falling to Penn State for their fifth loss in a row, the worst-case scenario of an 0-8 start to the Big Ten schedule suddenly becomes a lot more realistic.
"That's basically what we tell each other, just keep pushing and keep focusing," Spencer said. "We didn't think it would be like this, but we've still got 14 more games left, so it can easily be turned around. We can easily go on a long win streak, but we just have to stay with it. We've got to get it, but we've got to be patient about it also. We can't force it or go out there and try to win it on our own.
"That's our biggest thing, just trying to get this first Big Ten win and try to reel off a few victories. We're really focusing on tomorrow night and coming out and trying to get this first big win. That's what it's all about."
Around the rim
***Junior center Jorge Brian Diaz returned to play in his first game in nearly three weeks against Illinois on Saturday. While he was able to play 22 minutes, he suffered yet another set back when he rolled his ankle late in the first half. He came back in the second half and played the rest of the game, but Sadler said Diaz didn't practice Monday and was listed as "50/50" for Wednesday night's game against Penn State.
***Junior guard Dylan Talley also returned to the court against Illinois for the first time since Dec. 10 after sitting out with a lingering quad injury. Talley played 28 minutes against Illinois, and while Sadler said he was obviously pretty sore after the game, Talley should be good to go against the Nittany Lions.
***After Saturday's loss, Sadler admitted that he maybe played guys like Talley and Diaz a little too much. However, he said as long as they're healthy enough to step on the court, he wasn't going to change the way he played anybody.
"If they're healthy enough to play, we're going to play them," Sadler said. "You can't worry about it…. If I think somebody else would be more productive out there than I'll play those people. But right now, experience wise I just think that those guys tired are probably giving us more than some other guys might, especially on the road."
***Apparently several Huskers missed Monday's practice while dealing with 24-hour virus that made its way around the NU locker room. Most of the players were back in practice on Tuesday.