Twenty-six days before Selection Sunday, Nebraska is on pace to be college basketball’s toughest bubble team to judge.
The Huskers possess a resume atypical for a power-conference program with NCAA tournament aspirations.
The case for Nebraska is that its 20-8 overall and alone in fourth place in the Big Ten with an 11-4 league record. A Big Ten team with 12 league wins has not missed the NCAA tournament since the league schedule expanded to 18 games in 2008. In fact, only 2015-16 Ohio State has not landed an NCAA bid during that span with an 11-7 Big Ten record.
The case against Nebraska is that its 20 wins are mostly empty calories. The Huskers don’t have a single Quadrant 1 victory this season and their home win against Maryland on Tuesday night was only their fourth Quadrant 2 victory of the year. Aside from drubbing Michigan by 20 at home last month, Nebraska hasn’t beaten a single other team in NCAA tournament contention.
What that means is that Nebraska is nowhere near safe despite its six-game win streak in Big Ten play. The Huskers need to keep winning to have a realistic shot of reaching the NCAA tournament for the second time under coach Tim Miles.
The good news is that Nebraska’s final three Big Ten games are all very winnable. The bad news is that beating lowly Illinois on the road and then handling Indiana and Penn State at home won’t address any of the flaws on the Huskers’ resume. They’ll need to avoid damaging losses in those games and then make a run in the Big Ten tournament in order to truly feel secure.
How deep a run in the Big Ten tournament Nebraska needs will depend on how the committee evaluates the Huskers’ resume to date.
They haven’t won a game against any of the three Big Ten teams ahead of them in the standings, but they faced Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State once apiece and all on the road. They lost both their marquee non-conference games against Kansas and Creighton, but they had two shots to beat the Jayhawks in the final 10 seconds and they pushed the Bluejays into the final minute in Omaha. They don’t get much credit anymore for defeating Minnesota on Dec. 5, but at that time the Golden Gophers still had Reggie Lynch and Amir Coffey and were ranked in the AP top 20.
That Nebraska is even in contention for an NCAA tournament bid is a pleasant surprise. Miles’ job appeared to be in jeopardy entering the season with the Huskers coming off three straight losing seasons and this year’s team projected 13th in the Big Ten preseason poll.
Having Miami transfer James Palmer and Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland available this year has been a huge boost. Those two lead Nebraska in scoring and help anchor a defense that has been stout in every area aside from keeping opponents from racking up second-chance points.
There is a precedent for a major-conference team with a 14-4 league record missing the NCAA tournament even if its exceedingly rare. It happened to outright Pac-12 champion Washington in 2012 when the Huskies accomplished next to nothing in non-league play and then crashed out of the conference tournament in their opening game.
The lesson Nebraska can learn from that Washington team is that it can’t let up and that every win counts
Anything short of a 14-4 conference record and a deep Big Ten tournament run will leave the Huskers with an anxiety-ridden wait until Selection Sunday.
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