For decades, hope and fatalism have waged a war in the guts of Husker basketball fans.
And for the better part of 20 years, fatalism has kicked hope’s fanny.
Every time Nebraska takes a step in the right direction, it takes a step back. Positive momentum lasts about as long as a “Bachelor” episode. This is the rule. This is life.
What makes NU’s upset win at Michigan State so, so, so, so fascinating isn’t just that it puts Tim Miles’ team squarely on the NCAA bubble — more on that later. It also shines a spotlight on that battle between hope and fatalism. It forces every dormant Husker fan to ask the question, “Do I jump on board this time? Do I subject myself to disappointment? Is this the moment?”
No disrespect to Creighton basketball, which is first-class all the way, from its coach, to its players to its gameday atmosphere. Honest to goodness, the entertainment value of Sunday’s blowout win at CenturyLink was on par with anything in the country. CU fans are living the dream of every hoops nut (and sportswriters following them are having a blast, too). Their best player, I would argue, is the most impressive scorer in college basketball in the past decade. And their team is absolutely a Final Four candidate.
The red “N” has mystical powers in this state. And if Miles really gets it going in Lincoln, if victory becomes habit, there will be so many Husker basketball fans coming out of the woodwork Billy Bluejay won’t know what hit him. Even in Omaha (where it sometimes seems like Nebraska basketball doesn’t exist), the Huskers will be No. 1 again, not because Creighton’s base will erode, but because NU’s base will explode.
Question is, how soon? Does it begin now? This week? Or is that moment still long down the road, in the abstract?
I got an email from a friend this morning:
“You know what sucks about Nebraska winning that game? Now, for the first time in almost 20 years, I’m worried about Nebraska getting upset by somebody. It’s a weird emotion that I honestly haven’t felt in a long time. I heard some people talking this morning about Nebraska going 5-1 down the stretch and I started feeling sick to my stomach.”
Hope vs. Fatalism. Which side wins this week? Every Husker fan knows that the “Most Nebrasketball Thing Ever” would be following a win at Michigan State with a home loss to Penn State.
Does Thursday’s capacity home crowd go into a shell if NU falls behind 17-8 in the first 10 minutes? Do they take out their anxiety on the officials? Is their pessimism and panic so conspicuous that it rubs off on the Huskers on the floor? Do they basically will their team to defeat? (I’ve seen that in Lincoln numerous times. The difference between the home crowd at Creighton vs. Nebraska is significant, and reason No. 1 is Jay fans actually believe they’re going to win.)
There is a tremendous amount of scar tissue Husker basketball has to work through before it can take itself seriously. But I mean this sincerely, the law of averages is on NU’s side. Even the coldest winters eventually end, if not in March or April, then certainly in May or June.
To Husker basketball fans, this morning feels like that late-March day when you walk out the door and the sun is shining and — for the first time in months — it’s T-shirt weather. Your brain tells you to grab a jacket just in case. Your heart tells you to feel the sun on your forearms.
My sense is Husker fans will hold onto that jacket for a few more days. The wrestling match will go on. But if NU beats Penn State Thursday? If NU beats Purdue Sunday? Forget winter, folks.
It’ll be time to work on the tan.
* * *
>> Let’s talk NCAA tournament.
Last week, we charted a path to 10-8 in the Big Ten. And Friday I said that still probably wasn’t going to be good enough without a quarterfinal win in the Big Ten tournament. Why? Because the Huskers hadn’t recorded a single impressive road win or non-conference win.
Truth is, not every 10-8 is equal. And you’re better off trading a home win over Ohio State for a big road win to balance out your resumé. Which brings us to the Michigan State upset.
The reason it’s so important is it’s the first thing selection committee members will see when studying Nebraska’s profile. This is NU’s trump card if the committee is weighing “Random ACC bubble team” vs. Nebraska.
They won at Michigan State? Well, they must be legit.
Fans and most analysts don’t understand it, but coaches and stat experts do: It’s tougher to win a road game against an NIT team than a home game against the No. 20 team in the country.
From that perspective, Nebraska’s win Sunday will end up being one of the 20-30 most impressive wins in college basketball all season.
Let’s save the RPI discussions for March — that number is overrated anyway. It’s Feb. 17, let’s make the target crystal clear the rest of the way:
With the signature win already in the back pocket, it doesn’t matter how or where those victories come:
Big Ten first-round game
Big Ten quarterfinal
That’s eight potential games.* Win five and you’re dancing.**
* If the Huskers somehow get a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament, they won’t have to worry about Selection Sunday. They’ll be in.
** The only way this gets murky is if NU goes 2-4, then wins three games to get to the Big Ten tourney championship game. It probably wouldn’t be enough with an 8-10 league record. Regardless, the chances of that scenario are minuscule.
Let me present a disclaimer. There’s no such thing as an NCAA tournament resumé. You could take the exact same profile and one year it’ll produce a 10 seed, the next year it doesn’t even make the tournament. Decisions are made subjectively and some years the bubble is stronger than others (though it’s funny how every year analysts say the bubble is weak… uh guys, that’s because the tournament has 36 at-large teams and there’s only about 30 that seem worthy).
But based on selection history, based on Nebraska’s computer numbers, based on the strengths and weaknesses of NU’s profile, I feel confident saying five wins would be enough.
Anything less (a 10-8 finish with an upset loss in the first round, or a 9-9 finish with a loss in the Big Ten quarterfinal) and the Huskers would be on shaky ground. Not totally out of it, depending on what happens around the country. But sweating profusely on Selection Sunday.
Five wins. 19 for the year. With the Breslin Center trump card on the first page of the resumé.
That would get it done.
>> Miles quoted Major League’s Lou Brown last week when he said a winning streak is three games. So I’m counting on the coach (or perhaps the NU student section) to find a cardboard cutout of Rachel Phelps (or Danny Nee) with five pieces. Rip one off after each win. That would be fantastic.
>> For those of us who remember listening to Kent Pavelka 25 years ago, these play-by-play highlights from East Lansing are fantastic.
>> I get the feeling Villanova coach Jay Wright would rather not see Creighton in the Big East tournament championship. You talk about bad matchups, wow. ‘Nova could play the Jays 10 times and it might win once. Might. You can’t out-skill Creighton. You have to beat ‘em with athleticism.
>> Sometimes I get the feeling Greg McDermott doesn’t know what else to say. His team is so good sometimes (especially offensively) that all he can do is lavish praise. And I respect that he does.
Rather than consistently saying “There’s room to improve” or “We still have things to work on,” he knows his team can handle compliments. And so he dishes it publicly. It’s a sign of maturity, security and confidence. He lets Creighton fans know that, yes, he knows exactly how special this team is.
>> Had you told me Creighton would score 101 points with only 12 combined from Ethan Wragge, Austin Chatman and Jahenns Manigat, I would’ve thought Doug McDermott scored 50.
Devin Brooks (whom I highlighted Friday) had 12. Isaiah Zierden scored 13. Grant Gibbs had 11 — he didn’t miss a shot. That’s the kind of help McDermott needs in the next month.
>> How does McDermott so consistently top 25, 30, 35 points? Blistering fast starts sure don’t hurt.
Sunday McDermott had six points in the first 1:05. He had 11 points in the first 4:14.
At Butler, he had five in the first 1:39. He had 12 in the first 8:32.
At St. John’s, he had eight in the first 3:59.
Defenses know they have to stop him. And yet every game, McDermott comes out and punches ‘em in the mouth. His movement, his intensity and his skill are so difficult to prepare for, even the second time facing him.
Like Springsteen on the stage, McDermott never takes a song/possession off. He never wastes an opportunity to do something remarkable.
It’s hard to believe he only has two more games at CenturyLink.
>> Finally, I mentioned it recently, but with Creighton’s win over Villanova, the two in-state schools have combined to lose one home game in the past 365 days. By one point.
They’re 29-1. Not too shabby.