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Signs of progress in Ann Arbor

At the end of the year, Nebraska’s game last night won’t look like much more than a fairly non-descript 15-point loss to Michigan. In the great overhaul of Nebraska basketball, it might turn out to be significantly more.

Progress in year one under Tim Miles hasn’t always been easy to see. The Huskers are woefully short on scorers, ranking last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, 11th in scoring margin, and 10th in field goal percentage. When the Huskers miss shots – which they do more than 65-percent of the time – their perimeter-heavy offense rarely leaves Nebraska in a position for second-chance points. The Huskers rank 312th nationally with just 7.5 per game.

But the Huskers are having some success on the other end and that’s important. Talent can hide a lot of offensive shortcomings, but defense? As countless coaches have no doubt noted over the years, any team can play good team defense if they’re willing to buy in and, most importantly, work.

As the Huskers showed against Michigan, they’re willing to work. Forget moral victories, this was better for Nebraska basketball fans. The Huskers looked like they had an identity. A tough, man-to-man defense identity.

Michigan entered Wednesday’s game averaging 80.7 points per game. That ranked eighth nationally and second in the Big Ten, trailing only national scoring leader Indiana. The Wolverines ranked third nationally in shooting percentage (51.7%), second in effective field goal percentage (59.3%), and 15th in assists per game (16.5).

Nebraska held Michigan to 62 points (including some late gimme free throws), 38.9-percent shooting, a 41.7 effective field goal percentage, and just six assists. But nearly a third of Michigan’s points, 19 of 62 to be exact, came on second chance opportunities. Michigan coach John Beilein said after the game that the Wolverines got an offensive rebound on 48-percent of the shots it missed.

“You may not believe this, but that was a great win,” Beilein said. “There are so many things that stats will tell you that would back up my statement.”

This was the second game in a row where second-chance points probably were the difference between winning and losing for the Huskers. That’s fatal for a team, like Nebraska, that’s essentially trying to shorten every game its in to cover up the deficiencies on the offensive end.

But it’s how the Huskers have to do it right now. There’s no immediate help coming on that front. Nebraska will live and die in Big Ten play with how well Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos shoot and whatever else Brandon Ubel, who has grown considerably under Miles, can offer. That wasn’t enough against No. 2 Michigan, but it wasn’t that far off either thanks to a) a solid game plan and b) the one thing Nebraska can control — effort.

“As coaches, we love these type of wins,” Beilein said. “You don’t always like coaching them, but when you look back at them, these are the type of wins that build teams.”

You could maybe say the same about the loss for the Huskers. Nebraska, right now, is a hard team to watch but an easy team to root for.

That alone is a sign of progress.