It's a problem that Nebraska head coach Tim Miles has spent his first 10 months on the job trying to solve, but after the Huskers' 19-point drubbing at the hands of No. 23 Minnesota on Tuesday, it's clear he's still no closer to finding an answer.
Known for his track record of turning perennial losing programs into contenders everywhere he's coached, Miles knows one of the most important issues to address from the very beginning is creating a winning mentality within the program.
Several times this season, the Huskers have gone into games focused and confident they could and would win, and the results on the court certainly reflected that. Too many other times, though, they seem to mentally forfeit before the ball is even tipped.
"Looking at the Minnesota game, I'm like, 'OK, we were prepared,'" Miles said. "I really felt like we were prepared. I asked the guys, 'What did they do that surprised you?' Some of the ego won't let you admit the truth, but I thought they knew what to expect, and then we just missed plays. We've got to operate with a chip on our shoulder if we're going to be able to be in these games and win some of these games. I don't think we operated that way.
"I think we operated like, 'OK, we're doing OK. We're doing fine.' It's just such a fine line in mentality. It's the difference between going out and playing really well and putting yourself in position to win and actually winning, or going out there and getting dunked on between nine and 11 times."
It's not even necessarily simply a matter of being intimidated by top-level competition, either. Outside of road losses Ohio State and Minnesota, Nebraska has actually played some of its best basketball against the better teams in the Big Ten, including consecutive close road losses at Michigan and Michigan State and then at home to Wisconsin.
The inability to consistently bring the same confidence the Huskers had in those games every time they take the court, though, is one of primary reasons they are currently sitting at 2-7 in Big Ten play and ahead of only Penn State (0-9) in the conference standings.
"Honestly I think that if we think we can win, then we play that way," Miles said. "Like Southern Cal, Penn State, Northwestern, just off the top of my head, Valpo even early in the year, Tulane - there were times where we were pressing the issue and we were the aggressor, and then there were times I think where we go out there like Ohio State last time and we just don't prepare - you get conditioned to winning and you get conditioned to a losing mentally, and it's what you expect of yourself. I just don't think we expect enough out of ourselves. I don't think we're there yet. I think we have to continue to work on that.
"There are three things: you either do your job, or you don't know, or you don't care. You do your job, that means the coaching is there, the players' mentality is there. You do your job, everything goes well. You don't know means you're unprepared, somehow, someway, and that's on the coaches. Or you don't care, and why you don't care is because you're selfish, because you're insecure - maybe you don't believe it or whatever it might be. It doesn't matter, because there's no noble 'I don't care' in there. It sounds harsh, but at the end of the day, you don't care enough about having the mentality and the team and the program pride we're talking about to get it done. We're not doing the job half the time - Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue at home, Minnesota at Minnesota - half the time, it looks to me like we don't care or we don't know.
"I ask the guys all the time in film, 'What is it? You don't know or you don't care?' It's got to be one or the other. It's like pregnancy - you are or you're not. It's pretty clear, and that's the way I view it. I think it's easy - you've got to change the way you think. And I think our mental preparation, I think if we think we can win, we decide 'OK, we've got a chance.' How sad is that? Whether you think you can or you can't - whatever that old quote is - the decision's already made. It's true though, and I think that's an issue with us."
Senior forward Brandon Ubel has experience some of the worst lows in recent program history over the past four years. In his eyes, the Huskers have always seemed to have problems with letting the hype of their more highly regarded opponents effect their confidence far too much before even stepping on the court.
"We talked about it a lot as a team, especially (Thursday)," Ubel said. "We probably spent over an hour talking about it, just different things. It's easy to have a lot of confidence against, and no disrespect to them, but a team like Penn State or Northwestern or somebody like that where you feel like you might have more talent that them. But then you go up against a Minnesota or an Ohio State and you look across and see guys that are projected to go to the NBA and they're ranked and all that.
"We just need to look at that more as 'I want to prove I'm better than them and they're not going to do what they normally do against us', instead of looking at them like, 'Wow, they're really good.' That's the biggest thing, just looking across at it as a challenge to prove that we're better than them and that we can play with them and beat them."
For Miles, simple intimidation is not an excuse he'll ever tolerate.
"I don't care, honestly," Miles said. "I don't care. I'm not sympathetic to a bad mentality. I'm not sympathetic to, 'I'm not sure I can do this.' That's not going to get us very far in life. It's not going to get us very far with this basketball team."
In the days following previous bad losses this season, Miles took the approach of not grilling his players too much about what went wrong and why the game played out the way it did. After Nebraska got back from Minnesota, though, he decided to ask them point blank what the problem was both Tuesday night and so many times throughout the season.
"I'm just really curious to know what matters," Miles said. "We can sit here and say for instance, I challenge the seniors. You look me in the eye and say 'I want to win eight league games.' But half the time we come out and this is what we get from a mentality standpoint. What's accurate? What's real? What do we really want? It's very frustrating, because I think it's something we can control. Now, does that mean we would've won all those games or won one of them or two? I don't know, but at least we would've felt better about our performance. Purdue, the kids fought back and did a nice job. We showed no fight against Ohio State, and I thought if it wasn't for Ray Gallegos it would've been Ohio State all over again in Minneapolis."
The good news in all of this is that changing the culture of a program is nothing new for Miles, who most recently took a Colorado State team that was 7-25 his first season in 2007-08 to the NCAA Tournament last year.
As frustrating as things might be for Nebraska at the moment, Miles knows the only way to develop a winning attitude is to experience consistent success over an extended period of time.
"You always deal with it. You always deal with it," Miles said. "It's not mutually exclusive to Nebraska. It's the way it is. Again, like I said, you can condition your mind to expect to lose just as easily as you can to win. Ohio State, they expect to win. It's that simple. They win games I think on sheer expectation. 'We are The Ohio State Buckeyes.' And they play accordingly."