College basketball: Nebraska showing promise, but can the Cornhuskers keep it up?
LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska is out to its best start in conference play in 12 years, fresh off a 20-point win over No. 23 Michigan and looking like it has the makings of an NCAA Tournament team.
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This is a program that's had fleeting success and a history of collapsing just when it looked as if it were on the verge of a breakthrough. The next month will show whether sixth-year coach Tim Miles' team is real or a mirage.
Signs point to the former after a 72-52 home win over the Wolverines on Thursday that was the Huskers' most lopsided over a ranked opponent since 2004.
"I don't think we'll be the last team to come out here and not come away with a win," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Nebraska is good, and I'm a believer. They have a lot of weapons. We've got a few teams in this league that are really elite, and they're one of those teams that is growing leaps and bounds every single day."
Nebraska (14-7) has won five of its first eight Big Ten games, its best start in conference play since the 2005-06 team opened 5-3 in the Big 12. The Huskers are tied with Michigan for fifth place.
"It's where we hoped to be. It's what we thought we could do," Miles said. "I told the guys I was proud of them but now we're going to expect you to keep doing it. I would hope we're in a good place. I think this is a five- or six-bid league, and I want to be one of those."
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Nebraska has failed to gain traction under Miles in large part because key players have transferred. This season, however, incoming transfers have played major roles. James Palmer Jr. (Miami), Isaac Copeland (Georgetown) and Anton Gill (Louisville) are starters and graduate transfer Duby Okeke (Winthrop) has added depth.
Isaiah Roby, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, has been the biggest factor. A natural power forward, he has been playing the majority of his minutes at center. Roby scored a career-high 14 points against Michigan with three assists, two blocked shots and a steal.
"Roby as a '5 man' is a nightmare for a lot of teams," Beilein said. "He can shoot 3s as well. He's very skilled. It's a great way to play when you have a skilled big guy who can play on the perimeter or inside."
Nebraska's smaller lineup has been effective guarding the 3-point line, denying passes into the post and switching defensive assignments to counter opponent screens. The Huskers held their last two opponents to 19 percent shooting (7 of 36) on 3-pointers, and Michigan 6-11 forward Moritz Wagner was limited to just five shots in 32 minutes, with his only basket coming on a dunk.
Offensively, the Huskers have more options. Palmer, averaging 15.8 points, can hit the perimeter jumper and, with his quick first step, can also get to the basket. Copeland (12.3 ppg) is dependable around the hoop, point guard Glynn Watson can score from anywhere and Gill is shooting 46.6 percent on 3s.
The question is whether the Huskers can avoid a letdown. Since going on a late run that carried them to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, they've collapsed at the end of three straight seasons. They lost nine straight to finish 2015, nine of the last 11 to end the 2016 regular season, and eight of the last 10 in 2017.
Ohio State, at No. 19, is the highest-RPI opponent left on the regular-season schedule. No other future opponent was higher than No. 47 on Friday, and only two of the other nine were in the top 100.
The Huskers' best win coming into this week was in December against Minnesota, then No. 14 in The Associated Press poll and No 43 in the RPI. The win over Michigan (No. 30 RPI) was an attention-grabber.
"It was big for us," Roby said, adding that it gives Nebraska wins in seven of the last nine. "We're going into Ohio State and Rutgers. We have a two-game road trip. It's going to be big to keep the momentum going."