After seeing its share of both highs and lows over the past 31 games, Nebraska's regular season ended with a thud in a 74-60 loss at Iowa on Saturday. While their 14-17 overall record and 5-13 mark in Big Ten Conference play were definitely disappointing, the Huskers have already turned the page with a new, optimistic outlook.
Beginning with Thursday's showdown with Purdue in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, Nebraska will begin a completely new season, so to speak, with one last chance at keeping its post-season hopes alive coming along with it.
"That's the only way to look at it," head coach Tim Miles said during Monday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference. "You have to look at this as a new beginning. Everything else is behind you, water under the bridge, whatever cliché you want to add in there. Now it's just survive and advance. It's just win a game and live to the next day, win a game, live to the next day. All of those things apply, and that's the way it is.
"Some of college basketball has already been living that for a week, and now we get our week at it. That's the way it is from here on out, and that's what makes college basketball a more beautiful thing."
The Huskers enter the tournament as the No. 10 seed against the No. 7 Boilermakers. Should they find a way to knock off Purdue, they'll move on to face No. 2-seed Ohio State in the second round on Friday.
Considering Nebraska's struggles in conference play this year, it would be a monumental accomplishment to say the least for it to make a serious run through the tournament, especially with so many other teams vying for NCAA Tournament positioning or their own post-season fate, let alone a Big Ten title.
That's why Miles has his team focused on Purdue and Purdue alone at this point. The Boilermakers won the only meeting with NU this season 65-56 in Lincoln. With senior Brandon Ubel out with an elbow injury, the Huskers rallied back from a 20-point deficit early in the second half to get within five with six minutes remaining in the game.
However, Purdue's D.J. Byrd helped keep Nebraska at arm's length with four 3-pointers in the second half to cut the comeback short. With Ubel back in the lineup and 13 more Big Ten games under their belts, Miles said both teams would look much different the second time around.
"I think a lot of people forget we didn't have Brandon for that game, and that hurt us," Miles said. "We got down, we came back and then I think D.J. Byrd really just hurt us down the stretch and he made plays, and that's why they won the game. On the flip side, I think that Purdue is playing maybe - they're the hottest team in the Big Ten the way I see it. They have played really well. I think they're playing at their best and I think their confidence is at the highest it's been all year.
"So that obviously makes that a tough match-up. You look at their resume, and they're not going to be an at-large NCAA team, and they've got work to do to even get into the NIT. But at the same time, I think if you ask them how they feel about themselves, they feel better about themselves than they have all season, and rightfully so."
Purdue head coach Matt Painter agreed, saying the Huskers had made noticeable improvements over the course of the season since the first time they played.
"I just watched them versus Minnesota, and the thing that I noticed is - two things really - was their ability to grind it out and their ability to have discipline to have open shots," Painter said. "They just put Minnesota on defense for long periods of time, and that's what they have to do to win. We're the same way. We need to be more patient, and it took us a while to learn that. They have more discipline, and we didn't play them with Ubel. They're obviously a much better team with him, and so we were fortunate enough to catch them at the right time. They'll be an improved team just from that fact."
Painter also added that NU was a completely different team with Ubel on the floor, as he praised the 6-foot-10 forward's versatile skill set.
"He has size, so he can help you on the defensive end on that back line, but he can also go out and guard," Painter said. "It's also the same versatile attribute that he has offensively. He can pass and catch the ball, and it seems simple, but when you have size and you can catch and pass the basketball, the ball doesn't stop with you and you get good movement on offense. He can knock down the perimeter shot, he can drive the ball, he can play out of the post. I just think his versatility and his size give people match-up problems."
With his first regular season as a Big Ten head coach now in the books, Miles said he, his assistant coaches and his players all grew from the grind of the conference slate. Regardless of how Nebraska's second season plays out in Chicago, Miles said he'll look back fondly on his first step towards building the Huskers back into a winners.
"I didn't quite know what to expect, because you never do," Miles said. "You can say you do, but all I kept saying to myself was, 'God, these guys are the next game. These guys are really good. Holy cow.' You know it's only going to make you better. It's going to make your program better, your team better. It's going to make my staff and myself better coaches. So you just kind of embrace the challenge. Now at the end you kind of realize what a grind it was. I've got a whole bunch of new gray hair to thank the Big Ten for. It's been a good experience, though."