March 15, 2013

Win shows Huskers headed in the right direction

CHICAGO - The looks on the faces down press row and throughout the United Center ranged from surprised to downright shocked when the final buzzer sounded and Nebraska's bench was the one jumping in celebration on Thursday night.

This was Nebraska - the team picked by 23 out of 24 Big Ten Conference beat writers in an unofficial pre-season poll to finish in the cellar of the conference standings this year. The Huskers were supposed to struggle mightily in their first season under head coach Tim Miles with a lineup rotation that generally featured no more than six or seven scholarship players.

So it's safe to say that no one expected No. 10-seed Nebraska to knock off No. 7 Purdue - a team that had just knocked off Wisconsin and Minnesota and nearly upset Michigan in its past three games - in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Well, almost no one.

"We were picked dead last by everybody but my mom," Miles said following the Huskers' 57-55 win over the Boilermakers. "We at least out performed that expectation. Sometimes you got to creep to crawl to walk to run. And that's where we're at right now. So I think that the idea to bring a team in, understand the process, what it takes to win, it's important for us. Especially since Purdue's playing great basketball. And so to be able to beat the hottest team in the league, probably, was a good accomplishment for this group."

Whenever the talk of post-season play came up towards the latter portion of the regular season, Miles quickly passed on questions of whether he would be open to playing in lower-tier tournaments such as the CBI or the CIT.

His focus was never lower than the NIT, and he never ruled out the Huskers' chances of even making the NCAA Tournament.

It's that kind of hope - no, that kind of expectation of success that makes what Miles and his staff (assistants Chris Harriman, Craig Smith and Ben Johnson) have accomplished in this debut season so impressive. One of the top priorities when Miles first took over was to complete a total overhaul in terms of the culture within and surround Nebraska basketball.

After more than decade of dwelling in failure and irrelevance, the Husker players truly believe they can eventually compete with the elite programs in college for maybe the first time since former coach Danny Nee.

"Obviously when you go in picked last, you kind of feel like nobody believes in you but yourselves," senior forward Brandon Ubel said. "But we don't need anybody outside to believe in us, because if everybody in that locker room, the coaching staff and everybody believes, then we'll be fine. That's what we did. We came into this game believing we could win."

There were good reasons why some expected Nebraska to struggle to even win more than a couple games in the Big Ten, widely regarded as the best conference in the country this season. It had a first-year coach inheriting a team that finished just 12-18 overall and 4-14 in league play and a roster with only three players boasting any sort of extensive playing experience, just to name a couple.

Some media, fans and even former players were also upset NU didn't land a bigger name to replace the departed Doc Sadler as head coach, and they openly voiced their displeasure with the hiring of Miles initially.

But what the Huskers have lacked in talent and numbers they've made up for with sheer effort and heart. Outside of a handful of blowout losses, Nebraska has given every opponent it's faced all they could handle, including going on the road and giving scares to some of the Big Ten's best.

"Coach has drove that into us since he got here," senior guard Dylan Talley said. "As a team, we've got a bunch of heart, and we're trying to show that every time out, every day in practice and every game out there. If we play together and we play with heart, good things are going to happen.

"Not a lot of people thought we could do (beat Purdue), but we did it. We'll always believe in ourselves."

In some ways, Thursday night's win could be taken as a culmination of a season full of obstacles, successes, frustrating set backs and unforgettable memories. The players certainly aren't viewing it that way, though.

For them, the victory was merely one small step of a long journey to reshape the entire outlook and foundation of Nebraska basketball.

"It's the start of it, I guess," Ubel said. "We're not done with what we want to get done, because if we want to play in post-season like we want to, we've got to come out tomorrow with the same intensity, same focus, same excitement and try to win another game. Tonight's over. We've got to look ahead and try to keep winning."


Around the rim

***As excited as the team was about pulling off the upset, the Huskers didn't get much time to celebrate before shifting their focus on to Friday's second-round match-up with No. 2-seed Ohio State, which tips off at 5:30 p.m. CT and will be shown on Big Ten Network.

"Coach told us after this game, he said he'll give us until dinner to celebrate this one," Ubel said. "We all kind of laughed, but it's true. We've go to get in the film room; got to get focused in on what they do well and try and take away those things; try and take away Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, who's been playing really well too. Hopefully we can come out and execute those game plans as well as we did tonight."

***The scene in Nebraska's locker room after the game was hardly full of guys jumping for joy over the victory. The players and coaches were obviously happy about the win, but it was clear they weren't satisfied with just making it out of the first round. Talley, for example, was on the phone talking to a friend or family member about Ohio State even before media made it to the locker room for post-game interviews.

***That attitude from the players can be directly attributed to the coaching staff. Harriman made sure to announce to everyone in the locker room that he had made it a point to pack four different game suits for the trip to Chicago - one for each round of the Big Ten Tournament.

***The general response from other Big Ten media about Nebraska's win was definitely a bit stunned over the outcome. I was asked several times if I had packed enough outfits for more than one day for the trip. Fortunately, I did.

***The crowd for the Nebraska-Purdue game was definitely sparse to say the least and the smattering of Boilermaker fans barely out-numbered the Husker fans in red. However, the tournament posted sellouts for both two-game sessions on the day. The first session drew 19,470 fans, while 19,667 were listed for the second session. The United Center's capacity is listed at 19,087.


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