With the Huskers’ fighting for their tournament lives over the last month of their schedule, we’re kicking off a weekly look at national projections and what exactly the Huskers need to do to make it to the Big Dance.
Where They Are
It’s mid-January and the Huskers have already bested their win total from a season ago. Last year’s team finished 12-19 while this year’s iteration of Nebrasketball is 13-7 following a last-second win over Illinois on Monday night.
According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Huskers have less than a 0.1 percent chance to win the Big Ten and their projected win-loss record over their final 11 sits at 4.8-6.2, thanks to a remaining schedule that includes home contests with 16-4 Michigan and 14-6 Maryland and a road tilt with 15-4 Ohio State. All three rank inside the top 50 in BPI; the Huskers are 0-5 against such schools this season.
Overall, the Huskers rank 88th in BPI, 12th among Big Ten schools. Their strength of schedule ranks 25th (4th in the conference) and their strength of record ranks 60th (7th in the conference). They’re all over the board but basically it boils down to this: Nebraska hasn’t played a cupcake schedule but it hasn’t gotten any resume-boosting wins that you need come March.
Using BPI again, their best win comes against Minnesota, a team that currently sits at No. 56 but is trending down. The next best is a 15-point win over Northwestern, who sits at No. 61. Nebraska also has losses to No. 76 UCF (Nov. 23) and No. 89 St. Johns (Nov. 16) that could potentially weigh it down, but both came early in the season away from home. Fortunately for their tournament hopes, they didn’t drop Monday night’s game against Illinois (No. 95). That would have been a major blow.
KenPom ratings have the Huskers at No. 85 with a bad non-conference schedule (No. 278 in non-conference SOS) and a winless record against top-50 teams (0-4). Sagarin ratings have Nebraska at No. 81 and, again, winless in four tries against top-50 teams.
Who’s Saying What
We’ll start with Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology.
He currently has five teams from the Big Ten entering the dance; Nebraska is not one of them, nor are they on his bubble. Lunardi has Purdue earning a No. 1 seed, Michigan State garnering a No. 3 seed, Michigan and Ohio State each earning No. 6 seeds and Maryland getting a play-in game as a No. 11 seed. That’s three remaining games for Nebraska against tournament teams, two of them at home where the Huskers are 10-1.
Jerry Palm, from CBS Sports, has something similar.
Purdue is a two-seed, Michigan State a four-seed with Michigan and Ohio State earning six-seeds. Palm only has four Big Ten squads in the field, though, with Maryland as one of his first four out.
USA Today’s Shelby Mast offers hope though. Mast gives four Big Ten schools a bid: a one-seed to Purdue, a six-seed to Ohio State, a seven-seed to Michigan State and an eight-seed to Michigan. But, Mast has three more Big Ten schools up for consideration for at-large bids — Minnesota, who the Huskers beat, Maryland, who the Huskers could beat, and the Huskers. He also has Boston College and Central Florida in this group, both of which help the Huskers.
What Needs to Happen
Since we’ll be doing this weekly, let’s just look at the next week of games: Nebraska plays Michigan at home on Thursday and at Ohio State on Monday, Jan. 22. Ideally, Nebraska needs to win both.
Both would be upsets — Ohio State is ranked No. 22 in the AP poll, Michigan No. 23 — but winning both gives the Huskers two wins over not just top-50 teams in BPI, but two wins over top-20 teams. Given their winless record in that area, getting on a roll could prove beneficial.
It would also give the Huskers a little bit wider margin for error over the remaining regular season schedule. We’ll go more in-depth later, but there are a handful of games remaining that the Huskers just can’t lose and a number of games where they need wins.
Beating both the Wolverines and the Buckeyes means dropping another of those “need a win” games doesn’t kill you. Losing one while remaining competitive probably doesn’t kill you either, those “need a win” games just become more important. Losing both could likely end the discussion.
It’s not crazy to suggest the Huskers could do it. They almost pulled the upset against Kansas on Dec. 17 and they were competitive with Purdue on the road for the majority of the game. Thursday night’s game could be the start of a major run, or it could apply some serious pressure.
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.