We continue our look at the Huskers’ tournament résumé with three games remaining before the conference tournament begins.
Where They're At
Who are the majors? The traditional Power 5 conferences plus the American and Big East? The Big East isn’t the conference your grandpa remembers but it’s still pretty darn good — four KenPom top-25 programs and two of the top four teams in the country. And the American? No. 5 Cincinnati (23-2, 12-0 AAC) is playing at a level that demands respect while seven of the other 12 teams sit inside the top 100 in RPI.
Why am I bringing this up? Of those 87 programs stretched over seven conferences, only four have been hotter down the stretch than the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Want to take the Big East and American out of the conversation and just focus on the Power 5? Only two teams — Texas Tech and Michigan State — have longer winning streaks right now.
When we first started this back on Jan. 17, the Huskers needed to win and then win again and then keep winning. Well, they’ve won six straight and eight of their last nine. Since Jan. 17, Nebraska has jumped 30 spots in ESPN’s BPI (from 88th to 58th), 33 spots in KenPom (from 88th to 52nd) and 22 spots in Sagarin (from 81st to 59th). The Huskers are up to 51st in RPI.
If you want to poke holes in the boat, bring up the nonconference strength of schedule which is … pretty bad. Per KenPom, Nebraska is No. 269 out of 351 programs in that regard. While that doesn’t look great, it’s probably not going to kill the Huskers in the long run if they keep winning, something head coach Tim Miles said on Tuesday: “If we can just keep winning games, I think we’ll have an impressive résumé either way.”
And he’s right. They have zero Group 1 wins in six tries, that bad non-con schedule and are still at No. 51 in RPI. The Huskers have checked a few boxes in recent weeks with their win over Michigan (a Group 1 win at the time) and their recent 70-66 home win over Maryland. The Terps entered Pinnacle Bank Arena just 17-10 and 6-8 in conference play, but they were a top-40 KenPom team (still are) with wins over Butler and Penn State, two more top-40 KenPom teams.
Nebraska is still only 2-6 in games against top-50 schools in both BPI and KenPom, but it was 0-4, with three coming against top-10 teams. Nebraska also has a strength of record that sits at 28th-best in the country, according to ESPN.
The RPI system alone isn’t very steady, but it’s one the committee seems to be heavily relying on based on the recent release of its top 16 teams and it doesn’t seem to be burying the Huskers just yet. That’s good.
What They're Saying
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi just updated his bracket Thursday morning, the Huskers are in his “First Four Out” with Syracuse, Baylor and St. Bonaventure. The last four teams Lunardi has getting in: North Carolina State, Texas, UCLA and USC. The Huskers are only ahead of North Carolina State in the major ratings, but the Wolfpack have five top-50 wins. North Carolina State should make the tournament.
If there’s a team in that group the Huskers could bump, it might have to be USC. Texas has five Group 1 wins, same as the Wolfpack, and they’re above the Huskers in everything but RPI. UCLA is three spots ahead of the Huskers in KenPom and just beat Arizona. USC, however, has three Group 2 losses and a Group 4 loss to Princeton (RPI No. 207) at home. The Trojans have also lost three straight games.
USC plays Oregon at 8 p.m. Thursday night and Oregon State at 10 p.m. on Saturday, for those interested.
CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm isn’t a believer. Despite everything, Nebraska is nowhere close to the “Last Four In” or “First Four Out,” buried in the bubble behind a Michigan team the Huskers already beat.
What Needs to Happen
Over the course of the next week, the Huskers will play Illinois (BPI No. 104/KenPom No. 113/RPI No. 183) on the road on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and Indiana (KenPom No. 73/BPI No. 75/ RPI No. 108) at home on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
There’s a slight difference in meaning between “must-win” and “can’t-lose,” and Indiana is closer to a must-win game than Illinois, but the Huskers can’t afford to lose either of these games. A win over either won’t move the needle on the Huskers’ tournament chances on their own merit, but a loss certainly would. Oh, and eight straight wins heading into a rematch at home against Penn State to close out the season sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
The Huskers have already beaten Illinois once this season, though it took a buzzer-beater from James Palmer Jr. to do it. That win kick-started this winning streak and the Huskers are playing better basketball now than they were then.
As for Indiana, this will be the first meeting of the season. The Hoosiers are giving up almost 70 points a game; the Huskers are 16-2 when they score 70 or more and they’ve done it in 12 of 15 games at home this season. The Hoosiers are 2-7 in road games this season; Nebraska is 14-1 at home. Sensing a pattern?
Not much has changed from the first time we did this. The Huskers can’t afford a slip-up here. Just keep winning.
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.