The first game of the NIT tells you everything you need to know about the status of a team and where the players’ heads are at.
No one truly wants to play in the NIT; it’s a consolation for missing out on the real goal, the NCAA Tournament. That being said, the NIT does offer 32 teams the opportunity to extend their season. Some teams choose to make the most of it, and some don’t.
Nebraska didn’t a year ago. After winning 22 games and finishing fourth in the Big Ten, the Huskers missed out on the Big Dance and then didn’t even get a home game in the NIT; they were a No. 5 seed and had to travel to Mississippi State.
The Huskers lost that game, scoring 59 points and barely cracking 35 percent from the field. They didn’t show up.
Fast-forward a year and the Huskers missed the NCAA Tournament once again, though this time they earned a No. 4 seed and a chance to open the tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena against Butler.
The Huskers found themselves down 14-2 before they could even catch their breath, and it looked like history was about to repeat itself. Instead, however, the Huskers regrouped and pulled out an 80-76 victory, extending the season by at least one more game.
“Last year, we felt like it was a letdown to be in the NIT because of the season we had, winning 23 games [sic], fourth in the Big Ten,” junior forward Isaiah Roby said. “I’m not going to lie, the locker room was down about playing in the NIT. This year, we went to Chicago and we feel like we earned our spot in the NIT. This year we are definitely playing to win it all.”
The Huskers likely would have missed out on the NIT as well had they not staged a furious comeback to beat Iowa on senior day before winning two more games in the Big Ten Tournament. Like Roby said, they earned their invitation and seem determined to make the most of it.
Another big difference is that the core of the team is made up primarily of seniors and Roby, who might have an opportunity to make a leap to the professional ranks after this year if that is a path he chooses. This is the last ride for James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr., Tanner Borchardt and Johnny Trueblood, and they’re not ready for it to come to an end.
At one point, the Huskers had lost 11 of 13 games and had lost their second-leading scorer to a torn ACL. Postseason dreams were snuffed out and it became clear that the most anticipated season of the Tim Miles era was not destined to have a happy ending.
“Honestly, there’s this weight of expectation, there’s this disappointment, and you finally kind of get to the rock bottom, quote-unquote, and then you bounce back and you find small victories as a team, as a coaching staff and build up from there,” Miles said. “We try to stay positive with them, stay aggressive and never quit and keep fighting. That’s what we’ve done and that’s what the kids have embraced and they’ve done a phenomenal job.”
The 16-point comeback and overtime win over Iowa on senior day was a small victory. So was avenging a loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament, and then doing the same with Maryland. Taking Wisconsin to the brink in the Big Ten quarterfinals was a small victory as well. Taking down Butler was another. This team doesn’t look anything like the one that had lost 11 our of 13 games — both in who is on the court and in the way they are playing.
“I would say it’s obvious even on the court,” Roby said. “I give credit to guys like Johnny bringing a spark to the team, they’re doing the dirty stuff. He’s getting offensive rebounds and that’s going to spark our team. We are playing with a different type of edge right now and that’s what’s helping us win these games.”
Miles and his merry band of six have accomplished some truly impressive things over the last couple of weeks. Trueblood, a walk-on who had played nothing but garbage time minutes prior to that Iowa game, has been a revelation. The Huskers have outscored their opponents by 54 points with him on the floor since he’s joined the rotation. Each of Nebraska’s big three — Palmer, Watson and Roby — have looked like the best player on the floor depending on the game. The Huskers have rediscovered that scrappy defense that had come and gone during the second half of the season.
But all of this recent success begs the question: where was this before? Why wasn’t Miles able to push these buttons sooner? How is the team playing better with primarily a six-man rotation than it did when it had everyone but Copeland available? This run has been fun, but no matter how it ends it shouldn’t change your opinion about Miles and the job he’s done at Nebraska. He’s got seven years of data points you can examine. Two or three or four or five more games shouldn’t outweigh those seven years, especially when most of the players responsible for this recent success will not return next season.
Judge Tim Miles for what he’s done over the course of his seven-year tenure in Lincoln, and admire this run for what it is — a group of upperclassmen playing for each other and for their injured teammates and for their embattled coach and even for the fans that continue to support them (Nebraska’s 10,103 announced attendance was the highest of any game from the first round of the NIT).
The Huskers could have given up several different times over the last couple of weeks, and they could have mailed it in during their first NIT game. That they didn’t shows that if they’re going to go down, they’re going to go down swinging. Like Roby said, they’re playing to win it all, no matter how short their bench is and no matter what the future might bring.
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.