Wednesday afternoon, some 1,100 miles east of Lincoln, the 2018 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament began. As of 4 p.m., the Huskers were still in Lincoln practicing on the same court, shooting on the same hoops and watching film in the same rooms they’ve used all season. The benefits of wrapping up a double-bye, Nebraska won’t play until the quarterfinals begin on Friday.
So what’s the message when the Huskers head to New York City, a mere three games away from a Big Ten championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament?
“Three more wins and we get to shut everybody up,” head coach Tim Miles said. “If we have a chance to earn our way in, let’s do it. Let’s focus on that opportunity and let’s do it.”
Miles doesn’t want his team worried about how many games the Huskers need to win or who they need to beat or what Writer X said about Team Z when it comes to the buzz of the postseason that hasn’t left his team for over a month. “You’re probably wasting your emotional energy,” he said, and that’s not good this time of year.
The double-bye helps — the Huskers can get a little more rest before what they hope is an extended postseason run — but there are obstacles that come with waiting around.
“You always worry about the competitive impact,” Miles said. “We’ve played so few games here in February compared to what January was like, you worry about that.”
Six, in fact. Compared to 10 games in January. When the Huskers tip off against … whoever … on Friday, it will be just their second game in 10 days. Postseason runs are about rhythm and who can get hot — remember Kemba Walker’s UConn? — and maybe there’s the worry a small bit of rust begins to set in.
So, the Huskers have been working on a grab bag of things to stay fresh; not opponent-focused, but Nebraska-focused.
“Trying to worry about ourselves on press attack,” Miles said. "I didn’t like the way we attacked Penn State’s press so we tried to clean that up a little bit. Worked on some different actions that we like just for change-ups — some counters to what we already run, some zone attack. Just prepared for everything, it was like a potpourri today.”
They also worked on some screen-and-roll defense, something that's more specific to Michigan. Barring an upset from No. 12 seed Iowa on Thursday (the Hawkeyes beat Illinois on Wednesday), the Huskers will have a rematch with No. 5 seed Michigan when they open the tournament. In their only other meeting this season, Nebraska stomped the Wolverines 72-52.
“We've got six road wins, five in our league and that [Nebraska game] was one of those ones we had to sit everyone down and say 'We're not winning this one, let's get rest for the next one,’” Michigan head coach John Beilein said on a teleconference call on Monday.
That kind of stomping.
But since then, the Wolverines are playing different, playing better. They’ve won five straight, including a 74-62 upset win over then-eighth-ranked Ohio State, and have shot 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep (53 made triples) over the stretch.
“They’re doing a little more dribble-drive,” Miles said of the Michigan offense. “John’s kind of morphed his offense from more ball-screen offense to driving harder, dribble-drive, sprint guys out and they’re getting downhill more. [There are] a few challenges, you have to adjust accordingly.”
Miles was asked to take the pulse of his team, and he said he anticipates they’ll be ready. He said they’re excited and would prefer to play sooner rather than later. When guard James Palmer Jr. met with the media, he shrugged off any talk about his recent First Team All-Big Ten nomination and steered the conversation back to the only thing on his mind right now: winning.
“I just want to keep it going,” he said. "We just want to keep racking up wins and I just want to keep leading my team to wins. I’m not worried about the accolades or nothing like that. I mean, it’s a great honor to get that but we’ve got a lot of things to prove.”
It’s not necessarily an underdog attitude the Huskers are taking with them to the Big Apple, but more a sense of disrespect.
“We just really want to put on a good show,” forward Isaac Copeland said. “A lot of people doubting us, saying we’re not good enough, we don’t have enough to make it to the tournament. The opportunity is there, we just have to take it."
With the move to New York City and the condensed schedule that came as a byproduct of that move, plenty has been made about whether the Big Ten made the right decision in the grand scheme of things.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany expressed some regret about the schedule last week, and Miles said Wednesday he doesn’t expect to be back in New York City next season. Copeland said he has “mixed feelings” about the ordeal, mostly because of the long layoff after the tournament wraps up, but added that nothing beats Madison Square Garden.
"Not too many places like The Garden,” he said. “You have to be there to understand it.”
If that's the case, Copeland might be the only one on this Husker team that knows what is waiting for them on Friday. Miles hasn’t coached in the hallowed arena yet, though he does remember passing by on his way to a Shake Shack.
“As you look at this,” he said, “there could be a lot of firsts.”
Perhaps a Big Ten championship is one of them.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.