The March to March: Huskers Need a Strong Closing Argument in NYC
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

The March to March: Huskers Need a Strong Closing Argument in NYC

March 01, 2018
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The Big Ten tournament is here, so let's take one last look at the Huskers’ tournament résumé.

Where They're At

They racked up 22 regular season wins, 13 of them in conference. Out of their 31 games, they won 22 of them in a major college basketball conference. Out of their 18 games in that major college basketball conference, they won 13 of them. That’s pretty damn good, no?

Still, the Huskers are unsure of their tournament fate.

You’ve probably seen that stat floating around the internet in recent days: of the 306 major conference schools to win 13 league games since the tournament field expanded in 1985, 304 of them have made the tournament. The two teams that didn’t make it came from the same conference in the same season, Oregon and Washington in 2011-12.

So let’s look at those teams.

Oregon finished second in the conference at 24-10 on the year, won six of its last seven regular-season games and then lost in its first game of the conference tournament to Colorado. The Ducks ranked 62nd in RPI, 89th in strength of schedule and 124th in non-conference strength of schedule. Against teams in the top-100 of the RPI, the Ducks went 5-8 with a winless record in five games against the top 50.

Washington had a similar team sheet. The Huskies went 24-11 and 14-4 in league play to finish with the regular-season crown, they won 10 of their last 12 regular-season games but also lost in their first game of the conference tournament. Washington ranked 70th in RPI, 93rd in strength of schedule and 60th in non-conference strength of schedule (about the only difference between the two teams). The Huskies went 4-8 against the top 100 teams in RPI but, like the Ducks, were winless against the top-50 in four tries.

Those two teams might be two of the better comparisons for Nebraska right now that are out there; not perfect comparisons, but comparisons nonetheless to a team that is pretty unique in its composition. The Huskers rank 55th in RPI heading into the Big Ten tournament. That’s better than where Oregon or Washington sat, but Nebraska is ranked 126th in strength of schedule and 291st in non-conference strength of schedule (yikes) with a 1-5 record against RPI top-50 teams and a 5-8 record against RPI top-100 teams. 

A major difference between Nebraska now and the Ducks and Huskies then? Conference strength. The Pac-12 in 2011-12 was ranked 10th in conference RPI; the Big Ten this season is sixth. The Pac-12 then had zero teams inside the top-25; the Big Ten has four this year. And yet Nebraska didn’t exactly reap the full benefits of the conference’s strength because of their schedule. 

The big three in the conference — Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State — only met the Huskers once each this season and none of them traveled to Lincoln. That hurts. Nebraska did, however, play four of the five worst teams in the conference by RPI twice and lost to one of those teams (Illinois). 

As a whole, the Big Ten’s standing is getting a pretty sizable bump from those top three. The conference has seven teams outside the top-100 in RPI. That’s half the league. By comparison, the SEC only has two and only one of the other top-10 conferences by RPI this season has more. The Atlantic 10 has, wait for it, 11. (New rule: no numbers in conference names, please.)

Does the RPI have serious flaws? Yes, yes it does. But it’s the system that gets used. So it’s the system that matters. (If you want to read about one possible way to change that system, Brandon Vogel had this incredibly interesting idea earlier in the week.) Personally, I like KenPom rankings, where the Huskers sit at No. 50. If you’re curious where the Huskies and Ducks sat in KenPom, they were 56th and 59th, respectively.

Now to the other side of the argument and the part that makes this such a difficult discussion. Look at the way the Huskers have played in the last two months. They were asked to win and keep winning; save for one slip-up in Champaign, Illinois, (a costly one albeit) they’ve done what was asked of them. In their last 13 games, they’ve won 10 times. 

Compare that to a team like Oklahoma — darlings of the new quadrant system with six “Q1” wins — who has lost 10 of its last 13 games and ask yourself, “Which team would I rather spend money on to go see in a tournament game?” One looks hot, the other looks like it doesn’t care. The eye test is an important tool here and Vogel had another excellent piece on how it fits into this mess.

There’s a difference between securing your tournament bid and earning it. The Huskers feel like they've earned a spot in the Big Dance given what they have done with what they were given. Tim Miles didn’t ask for Minnesota to crater, he didn’t ask for Northwestern to inexplicably regress like it has, he didn’t ask for Wisconsin to end its nearly two-decades-long NCAA Tournament streak. For the sake of being blunt, the Huskers got screwed by an unexpectedly weak conference schedule and a one-point loss in their make-or-break non-conference game. They’ve done their part down the stretch to try and compensate for that, but it is what it is.

What They’re Saying

The first section was pretty long so let’s keep this section short. Most of you are tired of hearing what bracketologists think anyway.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Huskers third on his first four out. Nebraska will need some help from teams like Texas, USC, Louisville and Syracuse.

CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm still doesn’t like the Huskers. USA Today’s Shelby Mast has Nebraska as one of the first four out and The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel doesn’t have Nebraska close.

Moving on.

What Needs to Happen

The Huskers’ goal in New York City this weekend, according to Miles, is simple: “Three more wins and we get to shut everybody up.” Because if they win three games at The Garden, they’re automatically into the tournament. Boy, wouldn't that be nice from a simplicity standpoint?

Realistically, Nebraska needs at least one win to go into Selection Sunday feeling any semblance of comfort.

They begin play on Friday against what could be an exhausted No. 5 seed Michigan (the Wolverines needed overtime to dispatch a feisty Iowa squad). It’s a rematch and it’s a must-win; a one-game exit would end the tournament talk. The Huskers would still only have one RPI top-50 win and it would be at home. The committee likes teams that can win going away and losing your first game of the conference tournament after a week off to prepare would not be received well.

Beating Michigan again gives the Huskers a second Quad 1 win and likely bumps them inside the RPI top-50. That's a good start. If you want to feel safe and secure, you need to win one more, hopefully against No. 1 seed Michigan State. Beat the conference’s regular-season champion in the conference tournament and you’re definitely in.  

If they make it to the title game, the Huskers will undoubtedly want to win it. Being one game away from knowing your fate is infinitely better than waiting a week for someone else to tell you. But, they might not need to win the whole enchilada. 

Playing on Sunday means Nebraska would have three Quad 1 wins — same as two of Lunardi’s last four in, Louisville and Providence, with a better record — and a serious case. 

Strap in, it's going to be a stressful weekend.

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