To say the deck is stacked against Nebraska going into head coach Tim Miles's second season would be a bit of an understatement. Based on his confidence level about the Huskers' chances this year at the annual Big Ten Conference Media Day on Thursday in Chicago, though, it seems Miles is embracing that underdog role with open arms.
With a roster full of young and new faces who have never played live game together about to embark on a brutal schedule in easily the best conference in college basketball, it's easy to see why Nebraska was picked 12th in an unofficial preseason poll by the league's primary media outlets. The Big Ten only publishes its preseason top three, but chances are it too would have had NU in the same spot had its list gone further.
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Miles has been well aware of the outside expectations for his team for some time now, which is why he took the main podium on Thursday morning with a big grin and a swagger of a coach determined to prove everyone wrong.
"I see we're picked 12th out of 12 again," Miles said to open his interview. "And it's not just by you guys. I see it's by everybody. Like anybody, you take that to heart a little bit. I remember I was looking at all the things, and I wanted to feel better. And I came home to talk to my wife and she says: 'Why aren't you out recruiting?' Getting no slack at home. I understand why we are - facts in life are really interesting. I've always tried to ignore them."
One of the main reasons Miles was hired two years ago was his proven track record of turning losing programs into winners at every stop he's made. He compared the situation at Nebraska right now to his time Mayville (N.D.) State, where he turned a 2-22 into a winner, and at Southwest Minnesota State, which had one winning season in 13 years before he took over and led them to a conference championship. The same pattern held true at his later stops at North Dakota State and then Colorado State, where he first made his way into the national spotlight by leading the once 7-25 Rams to the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Miles' debut season at Nebraska last year was viewed as somewhat of a success in the fact that he managed to lead the Huskers to five conference wins and a victory over Purdue in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament despite playing just six scholarship players. As nice as it was to have some semblance of success in his first season, though, Miles said his goal of turning the Huskers into Big Ten contenders has only just begun.
"In Nebraska we're not viewed as much, obviously, and I just - I'm a dreamer," Miles said. "I really do believe in Nebraska. I really do believe in what we are doing and how we can do it. And I just love what the commitment is from our administration. I love the fan support, and I believe in our guys. So I don't think we're going to end up 12th, and I think it's going to be a good thing… At the end of the day I know we have a way. I know it works. It's worked every little place you've never heard of and some others you might have heard a little bit about of, and it's going to work in Nebraska."
The No. 1 hurdle for the Huskers this year will be finding a way to get its cast of talented-but-inexperienced players to gel as a team as quickly as possible. There's no arguing that NU's roster should be significantly more athletic and talented as a whole than it was in 2012-13, but with the amount of inexperience it has with maybe the exception of lone senior Ray Gallegos, Miles said he's preparing himself for some serious ups and downs this season.
"Now, this team's interesting," Miles said. "You know, we're young. We're impulsive. I don't know if you ever were young or impulsive. But these guys, somebody said, 'Oh, they're going to be like a roller coaster.' I said, 'No, we're going to be like an EKG.' I mean, it's going to be an interesting year. I like our guys, though. They have a great appetite for work. We were lifting at 6:15 a.m. all fall and we had guys in the gym at 5:30 (a.m.) on a regular basis doing their shooting and doing their ball handling, working themselves into a lather at 5:30 a.m. I was up at 5:30, but I was running to the can. That's about it."
Given that Nebraska's program doesn't exactly catch the attention of the rest of the Big Ten and national media at this point, Miles was asked just two questions following his lively opening statement. One of which had to do with the new Pinnacle Bank Arena and the overall revamped excitement for Husker basketball this season. Miles said that while the arena and the two-year-old Hendricks Center practice facility have been great additions for the program and for recruiting, the only way NU was going to truly get out of the rut it's been in for more than a decade was to produce on the court and start winning games.
It will be an up-hill battle for the Huskers to get there, but the hope is that history will repeat itself and Miles will once again lift a program out of the cellar and turn Nebraska into a legitimate national contender. It's more than just hope for Miles, though. In his mind, it's merely a matter of time.
"We are more than just a 'whatever' school," Miles said. "And when I say 'whatever', it's because you don't have to peel the onion back far to find out (NU women's head coach Connie Yori) and I are both picked 12th. She's 12th in the country; I'm 12th in the league. You look at our women's basketball, has great success, and gymnastics has been good. And obviously football has been a hallmark program forever. Our women's softball team: Rhonda Revelle had them in the World Series last year. And Darin Erstad was in the Big Ten championship game in baseball I think. We won the bowling deal. I watched that on ESPN. I was going nuts.
"So I just can't say enough about Nebraska, and it's just time for men's basketball to do our part."