The Nebraska women’s basketball team won its ninth straight game Sunday and its third straight by 17 points or more so I felt compelled to pop the question.
Are these No. 20 Huskers playing as well, right now, as the 2010 crew that finished 32-2, won the Big 12 and advanced to the Sweet 16? And, believe me, I qualified the question to account for different players, different styles and all the other things coach Connie Yori would lodge as a nitpick because, well, Yori is a good coach in part because she nitpicks.
But, still, Yori wasn’t biting in the least.
“That team was a lot better,” she said after NU’s 66-46 win over Iowa. “We had a lot more pieces in place. And we had a good scorer at every spot. We were really good scoring team. Plus we were a really good defensive team.”
That team wore down opponents because Yori used ten players with some regularity; close games could become blowouts the minute Nebraska finally pressed them to the wall. I thought, at least from afar, that the Huskers hit their own wall late in that season, playing with less energy and perhaps confidence before bowing to an athletic Kentucky team in the Sweet 16.
Yori insists this Husker team isn’t very healthy — three players will have offseason surgery so far — but she’s relented from the usual pressure defense she prefers to play a softer, more pack-it-in approach. It’s a little zone and a little man in its effect on offenses. NU first used it to beat Michigan State 59-54 and has allowed just 51.5 points per game since switching to that approach.
Nebraska also hasn’t lost a game. That run has the Huskers second in the Big Ten. I don’t think they’ll get a crack at first — I suspect Penn State ices the league crown at Minnesota Thursday night — but it’s guaranteed NU a first-round bye at the league tournament. That’s important to Yori, who still ties the Huskers’ first-round loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament and struggles early this season to injuries incurred during that four-game, four-day run in Indianapolis last year. Jordan Hooper and Hailie Sample both came out of that tournament with stress reactions that turned into stress fractures that turned into an offseason spent off their feet.
This year, NU would have to win three in suburban Chicago to capture the Big Ten crown. It’s basically guaranteed itself the No. 3 seed already, if you play out all the scenarios, and winning one of the last two games (at Wisconsin, home vs. Penn State) gets them the No. 2 or the No. 1, should the Nittany Lions open the door with a loss at Minnesota.
As far as NCAA Tournament seeds are concerned, Nebraska looks set for the 4-6 range, depending on how the season ends. A 3 seed is iffy, given bad losses already to Maryland and Penn State, who hover in that 2-3 seed territory. A 4 or 5 seed — would could pair NU in a bracket with Colorado out in Boulder — seems about right. Few regions this year are close to Lincoln, and one that is — Iowa City — will likely feature Iowa. Unless the Hawkeyes fritter away a bid down the stretch. Which could happen. If it does, look for the Huskers and old, dependable rival Iowa State to head there. Since Ohio State’s not making it to the NCAA Tourney without winning the Big Ten Tournament — not happening — Columbus is a wide open regional.
On the awards front, I’d have to think guard Lindsey Moore and forward Jordan Hooper look good for first-team All-Big Ten, with Moore, Hooper, Penn State duo Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley and Illinois forward Karisma Penn battling for Big Ten Player of the Year honors. (Ohio State guard Tayler Hill is a wonderful player, yes, but the Buckeyes have underachieved, and Hill’s propensity to do too much is part of why.) If I had to put odds on a player winning it, it’s Lucas. If I voted right now, I’d pick Moore — who’s put Nebraska on track after a sluggish December and early January — but I’d like to see her match up with Bentley one more time. If PSU sweeps and finishes three games clear of every opponent, it’s hard not to reward Lucas or Bentley.
Could Yori sneak in there for Big Ten Coach of the Year? Again — get a share of the league crown, and I say sure. Three games back? Probably not. But she’s pushed all the right button with this bunch. She trusted freshman guard Rachel Theriot to work through struggles, and Theriot has. Other coaches might have pulled the plug on Theriot starting and playing so many minutes. Yori’s found ways to get Hooper the ball inside the paint, which in turn opens up the rest of the floor. She’s modified her defense. She’s kept her reserves confident and willing to shoot shots when they’re open. A lot of those shots don’t go in — I wince at a few — but Yori’s philosophy is: If you’re playing college basketball, you need to make open shots within your range.
How far can NU go? That depends on seeding and matchups. But NU’s more prepared, I think, for the postseason grind this year. More experienced. Whatever happens in the next two games, Nebraska’s rescued its season and set itself up for another Sweet 16 run — just like the 2010 team had.