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Mike Lopresti | | January 15, 2019

Why Nebraska basketball is off to its best conference start since joining the Big Ten

Nebraska takes down No. 25 Indiana

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – When the bad news came from the NCAA selection committee last March, the coach for Nebraska neither minced his words nor hid his hurt.

“I really do feel,” Tim Miles said that day, “like we got slapped in the face.”

The Cornhuskers had won 22 games, and gone 13-5 in the Big Ten, and that had not been enough to get invited to the NCAA Tournament, its non-league schedule being deemed too pale. Since the bracket expended to 64 teams in 1985, only two teams from a power conference had ever won 13 league games and not received a bid. It had never happened in the Big Ten.

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“There we were, the only team ever,” Miles said 10 months later, after a glorious win over Indiana Monday night. “That’s not the history you want to make. I think our guys are very committed to get to the NCAA, and make a run once we get there.”

Or as senior guard Glynn Watson Jr. put it, “We have a chip on our shoulder.”

Yeah, you can tell. The 13-4 Cornhuskers have been up to all manners of first-time-in-a-long-time feats.

The 66-51 whipping they put on No. 25 Indiana in Bloomington Monday night was their biggest winning margin over a ranked opponent in 26 years. They mashed Seton Hall by 23 points – breaking a seven-game losing streak against the Big East going back to 2007. Rolled over Creighton by 19, snapping a seven-game losing streak against their in-state cousins. Blew past Oklahoma State by 23, their first victory against the Big 12 since they left for the Big Ten in 2011.They won at Clemson, only the Tigers’ second home loss in their last 20 games.

Seton Hall, Creighton, Oklahoma State, Clemson. That made four wins over the other power conferences, and Nebraska hadn’t done that in 23 years. Have your metrics computers chew on that a while, selection committee.

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“Last year, we didn’t get a lot of respect,” senior forward Isaac Copeland Jr. said. “I think this year we’re going to have a lot more respect come March. “

There’s more. The 13-4 record is Nebraska’s best start since joining the Big Ten eight years ago. The 20 consecutive home victories is its longest streak in 51 years. The 10-1 non-conference record represents only the fourth time since World War II the Cornhuskers had only one non-league defeat.

James Palmer Jr. is the first Nebraska player to ever be on the John Wooden Award mid-season top 25 watch list for national player of the year. Now scoring 19 points a game, Palmer has a chance to be only the seventh Nebraska player in history to average 20 for a season. The last guy to do it was 21 years ago – Tyronn Lue, better known as the man who coached LeBron James to his only NBA title in Cleveland.

The Cornhuskers opened the season by topping 80 points four games in a row. That hadn’t happened in 22 years. But none of this counts unless they can pile up enough credit not to be denied when the NCAA bracket is filled. And after last March, they want to leave nothing to chance.

“We’ll have a hard practice, I’ll stop practice and say, `I’m not going to let you fail in this. I know what our dreams of, I know what we’re looking for, and we’re going to do it,”’ Miles said. “We’re just fully committed to the cause.”

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Committed? Their defense, a lethal concoction of man-to-man and 1-3-1 zone, took a Hoosiers offense with the nation’s second best field goal percentage (51.8), and shut it down to 36.5 percent.  The 51 points were the fewest Indiana has scored in a game — the seventh time Nebraska has held an opponent to its season low.

Committed? Tanner Borchardt came off the bench for seven points and five rebounds with a numb jaw. He has dental problems and was scheduled for root canal Tuesday. Watson was so focused, he didn’t even notice how Indiana cut an early 18-point Nebraska lead to three, before the Cornhuskers re-established command.   “They cut it to three?” he said afterward. “I don’t even know, I was just playing the game . . . playing until it says zero.”

It was an important night, because Nebraska had dropped Big Ten road games at Minnesota, Maryland and Iowa, and the Cornhuskers didn’t want that rap hung around their necks in March. “Any road win means a lot to us,” Copeland said.

It’s all part of Nebraska’s determination not to be left outside this time, with its noses pressed to the windows of the NCAA Tournament. “I tell them,” Miles said, “I want you to stay in the moment, I want you to appreciate the opportunity and keep going forward and achieve more. Because we’ve got more in us.”

Now the Cornhuskers go home and Thursday play – oh-oh – Michigan State.  “I started watching Michigan State (tapes), turned it off and turned on The Shining, just to make myself feel better,” Miles said, trading one horror movie for another. “They’ve won 18 straight league games, right? We’ve won 20 straight at home. Something’s got to give. I don’t think we’re going to tie.”

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