I think it was about two weeks ago, after back-to-back wins over Northwestern (Nebraska’s first road win of the season) and Illinois, that I felt like I had to talk people out of falling for this Huskers basketball team. At that point, they were 13-10 and 5-6 in the conference, and only three games removed from the loss at Michigan, which was one of the most painful games I’ve seen in years.
But for some reason, fans were bringing up the NCAA tournament after beating two lower-tier teams in the B1G. Every time I heard mention of the tournament, I laughed (or responded with an ‘LOL’ if it was via text, something I never do, but it felt necessary in this instance) and tried to talk some sense into whichever overzealous Husker homer was suggesting anything more than the NIT.
Even Tim Miles implied that the NIT (and a 9-9 B1G record) was a realistic goal and they would need to go on a crazy run to even think about the Big Dance.
Just a few days later, the Huskers beat #9 Michigan State on the road and the bubble talk became real and I became wrong about it. It’s okay, don’t feel bad for me. I’m wrong all the time, and in this case it was a good thing to be wrong about.
After that, many fans expected a letdown because it’s hard to forget how many times that’s happened here. Win a big game, lose a bad one. It’s just the way it’s been forever. That was before Tim Miles, Terran Petteway, and Pinnacle Bank Arena. Things feel different now, and two blowout wins after beating a top-10 opponent seem to point to the reality that things have in fact changed.
But, there are still a lot of things that need to happen before Nebraska earns a trip to the Big Dance. It’s been a fun run, but how optimistic should we be? Well, I have good news and bad news.
Let’s start with the bad news: Nebraska can help itself out by winning (obviously) but ultimately their postseason fate will be out of their hands.
I’ve read a lot of about getting to 19 or 20 wins, or finishing 10-8 in the conference to get in. The reality is there is no magic number to guarantee a tournament berth. A lot of fans think 19 isn’t enough, or that 20 gets you in, but it’s far more complicated than just the number of wins.
Take Iowa last year for example. They finished 21-12 and 9-9 in the B1G, but were left out of the NCAA tournament in part because they didn’t perform well enough against the RPI top 50. They had four top-50 wins, but nine top-50 losses to go along with them. They also had three losses outside of the RPI top 100.
To compare, as I write this Nebraska is 3-6 against the RPI top 50, with three losses outside of the top 100.
It’s almost pointless to compare past seasons with the current one because of all the variables, but it does give you a sense of what the selection committee may be looking for.
So, let’s say that Nebraska goes 3-1 the rest of the regular season, and 1-1 in the B1G tournament. That would leave the Huskers at 20-12, and 11-7 in the conference. Does that sound like a good enough resume?
The answer isn’t an easy one. As I said earlier, total wins isn’t the only factor to consider.
Look at it like a job interview. You grab the prospective employer’s attention with a cover letter, then they take a look at the resume. If they are still interested they’ll ask you in for an interview.
The win total is sort of like the cover letter. If it’s good enough, the committee will look closer at the resume (RPI, KenPom rankings, conference record, last ten games, road wins, top 50 wins/losses, etc…) After that, it’s up to the eye test to decide if a team gets in or not. Nebraska currently stacks up pretty favorably in that regard, but the rest of the season will determine how closely the committee scours the resume.
Another, possibly more important, thing to consider is how many spots will even be available for bubble teams. For example: San Diego State and New Mexico are virtual NCAA tournament locks, but if neither wins the conference tourney, and say Boise State wins it, that takes away a spot from a bubble team. If Indiana State knocks off Wichita State in the Missouri Valley, there goes another bubble team. Nebraska needs the favorites to win.
That also applies to the remainder of the regular season, except in a few strange cases, like Minnesota. As of now, Minnesota is 48th in the RPI, two spots below Nebraska, and is also firmly on the bubble. Do we want them to lose so that they can’t take a tournament bid away from Nebraska?
In my opinion, no. Nebraska beat Minnesota, which counts as a top-50 win. If Minnesota drops out of the top 50, Nebraska loses a top-50 win and the resume takes a big hit. If there is enough room, both Nebraska and Minnesota could of course make the tournament. It’s not an either/or situation, more like either/or/neither/both, so for the time being, I think them staying in the RPI top 50 is better for Nebraska than if the Gophers were to lose a few games and remove themselves from the discussion.
As selection Sunday approaches, I’ll try to get you a better list of who we want to win and lose, but right now, there’s still too much to consider in the amount of time I have available.
Now, the good news.
First of all, this team has all the confidence in the world right now and coach Miles has found the perfect lineup balance for the team. David Rivers and Benny Parker have become the ideal complements to Petteway, Shavon Shields, and Walter Pitchford. Everybody on the team knows, and is comfortable with, their role and how it helps the team.
There aren’t guys out there taking dumb shots just because they want to get theirs, while better scorers stand around and watch in frustration. In addition, the team defense has never looked better. Parker is everywhere, and Miles seems to have a great game plan for every team he faces.
Besides the way the Huskers are playing, more good news comes in the form of the schedule. After the Michigan State win, I figured that a 5-1 finish would be all but assure the Huskers got in the tournament, but it felt impossible.
Now, with two more wins in the books, 5-1 has become 3-1 and that seems well within reach. Two of the games are on the road against teams near the bottom of the league standings, in Illinois and Indian, although Indiana is never an easy win. The two remaining home games are against 12-16 Northwestern and recently unstoppable Wisconsin.
Now, as you probably know, all wins and losses aren’t created equal, so just going 3-1 may not be good enough depending on who the Huskers beat and who they lose to.
Would a loss to Wisconsin hurt less after two more road wins, including one at Indiana? Would a road loss to Illinois be bad enough to keep the Huskers out if they also beat Wisconsin and Indiana? And what if the only loss is to Northwestern? Tough question without obvious answers.
It still seems like a 3-1 finish is a kind of pie-in-the-sky goal, and although it should be reachable, would a 2-2 finish be too much to overcome in the eyes of the selection committee? Again, it would depend on who the wins and losses came against, but I don’t think it would be disastrous, as long as some of the other bubble teams also lose along the way. A win or two in the B1G tournament will go a long way to deciding where the Huskers end up playing their postseason basketball.
I mentioned earlier that I don’t like to look too much at history when it comes to NCAA tournament selections since there are unique situations every year. However, when you look at the Huskers’ potential conference records, it’s worth comparing to past B1G teams.
If Nebraska goes 3-1 to close out the year, that would put them at 19-11 and 11-7 in the B1G. I went back to 2007-08 to look at B1G records and get an idea of what impresses the selection committee. Good news: a team that went 11-7 in B1G play has never been left out of the Big Dance.
If Nebraska finishes 2-2, they would end up 18-12 and 10-8 in the B1G. If you don’t factor in any potential conference tournament wins, this scenario could spell trouble for the Big Red. Since 07-08, three teams have been left out the NCAA tournament at 10-8; Ohio State in 07-08 (19-13 overall,) Penn State in 08-09 (22-11 overall,) and Illinois in 09-10 (19-14 overall.) Interestingly, but not necessarily related, both Ohio State and Penn State won the NIT.
There have also been teams to win fewer than 20 games and go 9-9 in conference play and still make the tournament, but I don’t believe that is a possibility for Nebraska, as that would mean they finished the last four games 1-3.
All of which is a long way of saying: Nebraska needs to leave no doubt. I can’t see any scenario in which Nebraska would be left out of the NCAA tournament with an 11-7 record in what is arguably the best conference in college basketball. However, the committee has done some pretty strange things in the past and sometimes there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason why one team gets in and another doesn’t.
Nebraska currently sits at 46th in the RPI and 49th in the KenPom rankings. Three wins in the next four, including one over Wisconsin would likely move the Huskers into the high 40s or low 30s, and that could be extremely important on selection day. Teams from major conferences ranked that highly in the RPI are rarely left out, but it has happened. Also working in Nebraska’s favor is the strength of schedule, where the Huskers are currently ranked 19th.
Regardless of how this all plays out, this has been a fun season and certainly one that shows this is a program that is on the rise in a big way. Keep in mind that just two weeks ago, most of us would have been happy enough with a 9-9 league record and an NIT berth.
Don’t lose that perspective if things go south a little. At the start of the season, 9-9 seemed impossible and Nebraska was picked to finish dead last in the B1G, without much objection from fans, media, or really even Tim Miles. An NCAA tournament appearance would be a welcome surprise, but don’t bail on these guys if it doesn’t happen. Nobody should have reasonably expected Tim Miles to turn things around in the second year, so please don’t view this season as anything less than a success no matter how it ends.
Of course, we all hope this ends with not only an NCAA tourney appearance, but the program’s first ever win. Is it reasonable? Probably not, but so far this team has outperformed all reasonable expectations, so let’s just enjoy it.
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