The No. 4 seed Huskers — winners of four of their last five games — will take their newfound confidence on the road this weekend as they take on top-seeded TCU in the second round of the NIT on Sunday.
Since the Huskers fell by 15 against Michigan State in their final true road game of the regular season, the Huskers have outscored their opponents by 17 points with a four-point loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals as the only blemish.
“I feel like since the second half against Michigan State where we fought with them, we just played with a nothing to lose type of mentality,” senior center Tanner Borchardt said. “We controlled our own destiny from really that game on. If we just started losing games, the season would have been over. Obviously since the Big Ten [Tournament] started if we would have lost a game earlier on the season would have been over and we’re in the same situation now. I think it’s just go out there, have fun, control your own destiny type of play.”
Miles said his team has been good in practice and in film study despite all the distractions that spring break and the ongoing tournaments bring, though the Huskers continue to be incredibly short-handed which limits what they can do on the practice floor.
“Just some core defensive stuff and then maybe halfcourt execution, whatever it might be,” Miles said. “Not a lot of up and down, but we’re getting stuff done.”
Miles said that freshman forward Brady Heiman has practiced fully after missing the two days of practice leading up to Nebraska’s 80-76 win over Butler on Wednesday with a back issue. Heiman did go through warm-ups against the Bulldogs and was in uniform but he did not play. Sophomore guard Thomas Allen Jr. practiced a little but as he continues to rehab his sprained ankle but was not close to a full participant.
“I would think that Tom would be available like in an emergency situation and I think Brady would be ready,” Miles said.
Though the Huskers are short on bodies, they continue to have success with a core group of six players in seniors James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr., Borchardt and walk-on, Johnny Trueblood, junior Isaiah Roby and sophomore Thorir Thorbjarnarson. Miles said he’s looking for the Huskers to replicate what they did against Butler, which is the same thing they’ve been doing throughout this successful streak.
“I think the same things we’ve seen just recently which is playing with a lot of heart, we don’t lose our minds when we get down, follow the game plan and just play really hard,” Miles said. “Then we’ve got our big three — Thor, Johnny and Tanner — and then the three glue guys [Palmer, Watson and Roby] and the glue guys need to get about 70 and we’ll be fine.”
Sunday will be the first time since that Michigan State game the Huskers will play a true road game, however. The Huskers closed out the regular season with a home win over Iowa and opened the NIT at home against the Bulldogs. They went 2-1 at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago in between.
Nebraska led all first-round NIT sites in attendance with 10,103 tickets sold. TCU’s was just over 3,000. Miles said he isn’t worried about his team’s regular-season struggles on the road, however.
“Once you’ve been through the Big Ten and the way the environments are in the Big Ten on the road, not many things match that,” Miles said. “I’m sure there will be a great crowd and they’ll do a great job, but I don’t think it will be as punishing as one of those other venues are.”
The Horned Frogs were one of the first four out of the NCAA Tournament with a 20-13 record and were therefore selected as a No. 1 seed in the NIT. They beat No. 8 Sam Houston State 82-69 in the first round.
“[Desmond] Bane and some of those guys are really, really good,” Miles said. “He’s an impressive guy. Obviously Alex Robinson I watched a great deal in high school and he’s a really, really good guard. [Kouat] Noi can shoot it and then Kevin Samuel inside — he redshirted and is a nice, progressing big, very athletic. So they’ve got some tremendous athleticism. R.J. Nembhard coming off the bench looks like he’s scoring more and more. Jamie Dixon always does a great job with them.”
Bane, a 6-foot-5 wing, is the team’s leading scorer at 15.2 points per game. He also pulls down 5.6 rebounds per game and shoots 42.1 percent from 3 as well. Noi, a 6-foot-7 forward, leads the team in 3-pointers while shooting at a 36.3 percent clip and scoring 13.9 points per game. Alex Robinson, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard, led the Big 12 in assists, averaging 12.7 points and 7.1 assists. Samuel, a redshirt freshman, offers the Horned Frogs an interior presence at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, contributing 7.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while converting 67.6 percent of his shots.
“They run their stuff really well,” Miles said of what a Dixon-led team looks like. “He runs hard in transition. It’s not unlike Ben Howland who he worked under for a while or even they remind me a little bit of a Michigan State-type team, Maryland-style athletes, they’re down the floor quickly and they’re well-coached and very sound defensively.”
Controlling the pace is a focus for the Huskers heading into the game. Though TCU is a bit short-handed as well (their rotation against Sam Houston State included just eight players), Nebraska doesn’t want to get into an up-and-down game with a six- or seven-man rotation themselves.
“It will be important for us to get back and stop them,” Borchardt said. “They’re very similar to Michigan State in that they just push the ball, make or miss. If we can stop them and then control the pace on our offensive side and keep the game where we want it at, that will be good for us defensively, offensively and for our legs as well.”
No. 2 seed Creighton beat No. 3 Memphis in Omaha on Friday night, so the Jays are awaiting the winner of Sunday night’s game between the Huskers and Horned Frogs. If the Huskers pull out a win, it will set up a rematch between the in-state rivals next week. Nebraska beat Creighton 94-75 at Pinnacle Bank Arena back in early December but Round 2 would be in Omaha where the Huskers have lost seven straight games.
“It’s nice knowing who your next opponent is like we had in the Big Ten Tournament, we knew our next two or three opponents, so that’s nice,” Miles said. “They don’t have that luxury; they have an idea, maybe. So we had guys working on that last night and I think everybody would be happy to see a Creighton-Nebraska game again this year. It would be a lot of fun.”
That being said, the Huskers aren’t getting ahead of themselves. They know they have a fight on their hands Sunday night.
“Right now, all our focus is on TCU,” Borchardt said. “But just to see the possibility of a rematch in Omaha, I think the state of Nebraska would like to see that again. But first we have to take care of TCU and that’s what’s on our mind right now.”
Tipoff on Sunday is set for 8:35 p.m. CT on ESPNU with Mitch Holthus and Adrian Branch on the call.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.