Nebraska did not receive the news it was hoping for on Sunday, but regardless near future holds more basketball for the Huskers as Nebraska will travel to Mississippi State in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday.
“I think it was tough at first,” senior guard Evan Taylor said. “It was a heartbreak for us not to get in the tournament, but then for us to be a 5 seed [in the NIT] was like, man. Practice yesterday was really competitive, so that’s a good sign that guys are going to go out there and give it their all. We feel like we can win the tournament.”
Despite a 22-10 record, the Huskers were chosen as a No. 5 seed while the Bulldogs were a No. 4 seed, setting up a trip to Starkville for the Huskers rather than a home game like many expected. The low seeding is adding insult to the injury of missing out on the NCAA Tournament, and the Huskers are using that to fuel their run.
“It was disappointing, but it is what it is,” senior guard Anton Gill said. “Obviously we didn’t do enough down the stretch to get in. We still believe we have a good team, still believe that we should have been a part of that field, so we’ll definitely use that to motivate us going through this.”
Gill said there was plenty of trash talk going on at Monday’s practice and the team is looking forward to taking that frustration out on someone else. This will be Nebraska’s second trip to Starkville this season after the Huskers beat the Bulldogs in a charity exhibition prior to the start of the season.
“I thought yesterday was a spirited practice,” Coach Tim Miles said. “I thought it was one of our better ones we’ve had in two weeks and that’s all we’ve done for two weeks is practice. We decided to change it up a little bit — instead of practicing here we’re going to go there and get a practice in and it helps that we’ve already been there a couple times to shoot and then play. But this will be different. What we saw of them the second half I think is what we’re going to see a lot more of, which is great athleticism, great pressure, great transition.”
The first meeting was about four-and-a-half-months ago, and Miles doesn’t see too much value in closely studying it again.
“I’ve watched the charity game a little bit, and I just think when you get down to the end of the SEC or Big Ten season, your intensity is ratcheted up so much, you play so much harder,” Miles said. “They’ve just had a natural improvement and look like an end-of-year team that’s well-coached. Ben Howland does an excellent job. They’ve got extreme athleticism and they've really shot the ball well. I’m hoping for a little bit of a return to the mean because their numbers haven’t been great but they’ve shot the ball — especially the Peters kid — really well the last three games.”
Sophomore Lamar Peters has averaged over 20 points per game over the last three for Mississippi State, shooting 13-of-23 from 3 during that span. Overall, Peters is the fourth-leading scorer on the team. The Weatherspoon brothers — junior Quinndary and freshman Nick — lead the way with 14.8 and 11.1 points per game, respectively.
“The challenge they present is they have really good guards starting with Lamar Peters who’s really good,” Taylor said. “Just containing him off ball screens. They do a lot of three-guard stuff so it will be different for us to defend.”
Another difference the Huskers will have to adjust to is the new rules the NIT is experimenting with. The tournament is moving the 3-point line back and expanding the lane (which the Huskers simulated on their practice court with tape on Monday), matching the rules for international play. It is also using four quarters rather than two halves and the shot clock only resets to 20 rather than 30 following an offensive rebound.
“Yesterday was the first day that we brought them up with the guys,” Miles said. “We got a couple three-second calls which was unique. The shot clock on the offensive rebound didn’t really seem to impact anything. We have almost every practice officiated and clocked and statted I didn’t notice a lot of the 3-point shooting difference either.”
One player who shouldn’t have to make too big of an adjustment is freshman wing Thorir Thorbjarnarson, an Icelandic native who has only appeared in nine games this season.
“Thor Thorbjarnarson says now we’re in his element,” Miles joked. “We may have to just give him a little run.”
The NIT isn’t where the Huskers wanted to be, but any postseason offers another chance for the team to spend time together, particularly the seniors, and Taylor and Gill both said they’re looking forward to the experience.
“These guys are my family,” Taylor said. “Any time I get an opportunity to go out and do what I love with the guys that I love and the guys that I put in work with, even if it is the NIT, it’s a blessing so I’m looking forward to it and making the best of it.”
Miles said he’s excited that his seniors’ careers have been extended with the postseason opportunity.
“I think it’s really cool for our seniors to be in the postseason,” Miles said. “There’s just not that many spots. I think the NIT, as I said the other night, is an improved product when you have your 8-seeds, 7-seeds and three of your four 6-seeds are all league champions, I think that helps. And that’s why you see more upsets and I think that when you look at things, I think this will be a good experience for our guys and it can be a lot of fun. But you’ve got to go out and play winning basketball, too.”
Since the Huskers went one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament, Nebraska hasn’t played since March 2, and Miles is a little worried about rust.
“That’s what I think I’m most concerned about with only three games in 22 days is getting back to executing well, defending a game plan, just being locked into everything because you lose some of that without competition,” Miles said. “We’ve scrimmaged each other, we’ve let them draft teams, we've split teams equally, we’ve timed it, we’ve played halves and stuff like that but we need to be out and get booed a little bit and stuff like that to really feel good.”
Nebraska will get that chance in Starkville at 8 p.m. on Wednesday. Richard Cross and Paul Biancardi will call the game on ESPN 2.
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.