KANSAS CITY - Watching Nebraska pull off an improbable upset over Missouri in the first round of the Big 12 Conference Tournament on Wednesday, the reaction of most Husker fans was likely something to the effect of - "Where was this all season."
According to head coach Doc Sadler, that kind of performance has been within reach all year long.
After suffering through the worst conference season in school history, Nebraska was finally rewarded for its hard work in practice with a victory that shook up the Big 12 Tournament bracket. Now, the Huskers find themselves getting ready to take on Texas A&M today at 2 p.m. for a chance to advance to the conference semifinals.
Despite how low things had gotten and the heavy criticism Sadler and his team had receiver over the course of the past 16 league games, their resiliency paid off when it needed to the most.
"In the season, you don't talk to people," Sadler said. "I go to the office. I go home. That's it. I'm not out socializing at events with everybody talking about how bad we are or how good we are. As a coach, it's been tough. But as a leader, man, you've got a choice to make - you can either grind them and give them hope by working hard and selling that 'guys, it's going to happen', or you can throw in the towel and look to next year. That wasn't happening. That wasn't going to happen."
Many fans and media alike had written off the Huskers completely following their two straight dismal losses to Colorado on Senior Night and Oklahoma State in their regular season finale.
In each of those losses, Nebraska looked like team ready to throw in the towel and start focusing on getting ready for next season. Inside the locker room, Sadler said, no one was ready to give up just yet.
Even after solidifying themselves as the 12th seed following their loss to Colorado, Sadler made it a point to keep his team's attention by calling for a 5 a.m. practice the following day. When his players showed up on time and still gave their all in practice, Sadler said he knew his team still had some fight left in it.
"My concern more than anything was to lose the team," Sadler said. "You're sitting there at 2-13 or whatever - it's hard to come to practice for those guys. It's hard to walk across campus for those guys… You've got to be concerned about a lot of things when you're 2-13. You're calling practices at 5 in the morning, you're fixing to find out a lot about your team. I promise you that. Don't get confused, I was worried about how that was going to go. But we went for two and a half hours and never picked up a basketball. We got back to guarding people."
Senior guard Ryan Anderson has also played an important role in helping to keep things from completely imploding for Nebraska this season. If nothing else, Anderson's constantly positive attitude has been a comforting rock for a young team going through the rigors of the Big 12 schedule for the first time together.
Following Wednesday's win, Anderson spoke with more confidence than he's shown all season, which undoubtedly has rubbed off on his teammates.
"We didn't come down here with the idea of just playing the game," Anderson said. "Our goal is to get to that last game. I'm not saying that out of cockiness, but I believe in my guys. I've been saying that the whole year. I believe in these guys. We put it together today, as a team. All of us. We put it together today, and that just shows you what we can do when we put it together. Whether people believe in us or not, I know what we have here."
In its first meeting back on Jan. 9 in its Big 12 opener, Nebraska played right with No. 4 seed Texas A&M until the Aggies finally pulled away in the final minutes. Back then, all but three Huskers were playing in their very first Big 12 game.
Now with 16 more conference games of experience under their belts - including a Big 12 Tournament victory - the players seem a bit more confident in their chances this time around.
That, Sadler said, is the only thing he could ask for.
"It goes back to the character of the kids," Sadler said. "For three years now, we have grinded, and we ain't letting anybody quit. If they quit, then they won't be wearing a Nebraska uniform, As I've said before, we're not going to win every game. We didn't win very many at all in conference, but you can't say that thee guys didn't compete and play hard. You can't say that."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
After starting the final four games of the regular season, freshman forward Christian Standhardinger was left out of Nebraska's starting lineup Wednesday against Missouri. In fact, he never even set foot on the court the entire game. Sadler said he kept Standhardinger on the bench because of match-up reasons, but keep an eye on how many minutes he sees today considering how well the Huskers played without him. As the old saying goes, if it ain't broke…
WHO'S HOT FOR THE HUSKERS:
Sophomore guard Brandon Richardson seemed to come up with big shot after big shot against the Tigers. Among his game-high 19 points, the four that came on one play were by far the most impressive, as Richardson hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw to end a six-minute scoring drought and give the Huskers the momentum once again.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE AGGIES:
No player worried Sadler more on Texas A&M's roster than senior guard Donald Sloan. Because of his experience and the way he controls the game on both ends of the floor, Sloan is essentially the heartbeat for the Aggies. He comes into today's game averaging 17.9 points per game, and he's scored at least 19 points in three of his past four games.