There was at least one person that felt like the Nebraska basketball program could be something other than a footnote in the Big Ten this season, a conference that has become universally known as the deepest group in the country.
“We were picked dead last by everybody but my mom,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said.
Those to predict the Cornhuskers to finish at the bottom of the conference weren’t far off. Nebraska’s five regular-season conference wins were only good enough for tenth place in the final Big Ten standings, above only Northwestern (4-14) and Penn State (2-16).
But Miles’ mother still has hope for something even bigger.
That’s because Nebraska, the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten tournament, stayed alive to advance after a 57-55 upset over Purdue in the first-round game in Chicago’s United Center last night.
“We at least outperformed that expectation,” Miles said in regards to his mother’s prediction. “Sometimes you have to creep to crawl to walk to run. That’s where we’re at right now. To be able to beat the hottest team in the league was a good accomplishment for this group.”
Miles described Nebraska’s win over the Boilermakers as a good program win, perhaps a sign of life for things to come for a team that most had figured would only spend a day in Chicago.
It was the Cornhuskers’ opponent – No. 7-seed Purdue – that had become the fashionable pick to make noise in the Big Ten tournament.
That’s because the Boilermakers finished the regular season winning two of their final three games, including a 69-56 win at then-No. 17 Wisconsin. Purdue then played close with Michigan in a five-point loss to the Wolverines before finishing the regular season slate with an 89-73 victory over Minnesota.
“Purdue was hot,” said Shavon Shields, who scored a game-high 19 points in the win. “Almost everyone didn't expect us to win this game. So we had to match their intensity and excitement around them and win the game.”
It was almost as if the Big Ten regular season wasn’t enough of an indication that upsets were bound to happen. The Cornhuskers, however, didn’t mind being forgotten about and now they’re onto a quarterfinal game against No. 2-seed Ohio State at 6:30 p.m.
The Buckeyes, however, are a tougher out than Purdue. Ohio State enters the conference tournament having won its last five games, including wins against two top-five foes during that span.
“We’re playing awesome basketball right now,” said Buckeyes forward Deshaun Thomas, who led the Big Ten in scoring with 19.7 points. “We're trusting in the system and we're playing our roles. We know once we come and play our best defense, we're the best defensive team in the country in my eyes. We just have to keep it going.”
That’s precisely the same mission Nebraska has, a team that can only advance to the NCAA Tournament by completing what would be the most improbable run to the Big Ten tournament championship in the event’s 16-year history.
“It t's the start of it,” Nebraska forward Brandon Ubel said. “We're not done with what we want to get done. Because if we want to play postseason like we want to, we got to come out tomorrow with the same intensity, same focus, same excitement, and try and win another game. The (Purdue game) is over, and we have to look ahead and try and keep winning.”
But again, Nebraska will be overlooked.
Miles, though, has his team believing it has a shot. Ohio State defeated Nebraska twice this season, but in their second meeting in Lincoln on Feb. 2 the Cornhuskers had a chance to make it a one-possession game with less than three minutes remaining. OSU eventually won the game 63-56, but the Cornhuskers aren’t afraid.
“That’s what we told them, that it was a game down the stretch, and we were right there,” Miles said. “A few other things go our way and we could have come out on top. That’s what you have to cling to. That’s what you have to build your case on.
“Our guys will be ready to go. … We’ll just play a low-possession game and see what happens.”
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