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Huskers embark on challenging five-game stretch in improved Big Ten

January 3, 2019

LINCOLN — There’s a whiteboard in Nebraska’s film room.

It’s the last thing players see before leaving. Written in black marker, every team in the Big Ten has its record posted. Overall and conference.

Six slots down is Nebraska at 11-2 and 1-1, thanks to a win over Illinois and a loss at Minnesota in mid-December. The Huskers’ record, though, is written in bright red.

There’s no more hiding in plain sight this year.

“I don’t think we’re a surprise to anybody anymore,” Nebraska forward Isaac Copeland said.

Last year, Tim Miles’ team made a big jump in the Big Ten, finishing 13-5 and tying for fourth in the conference. That was tied for the best finish by Nebraska in the conference, and its highest since 2013-14. With the 13 wins, and ensuing NCAA tournament snub, expectations were raised in Lincoln this year with four starters returning.

And now, after the best nonconference display since 2003 has raised hopes for an NCAA tournament bid and perhaps win, a much improved Big Ten Conference awaits a Nebraska team on the rise — a team about to get tested for 2½ straight months.

“It’s about to get real,” Miles said Monday. “I think we have a veteran team, so I expect them to act accordingly.”

Up first is a matchup at Maryland on Wednesday evening. The Terrapins are 10-3, with their best win coming against Penn State, 66-59, on Dec. 1. Mark Turgeon’s team lost at home to Seton Hall 78-74 Dec. 22 and is coming off a 78-64 win over Radford on Saturday.

Maryland is one of the youngest teams in the country, but boasts three dynamic players in guard Anthony Cowan and 6-10 forwards Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith.

Maryland’s height could hit Nebraska hard if junior Isaiah Roby is unable to play. Roby was held out of Saturday’s win over Southwest Minnesota State with a groin injury.

Miles said after the game he was worried about the injury, but Roby was back at practice this week. Sources said if Saturday’s game would have been against a Big Ten team, Roby would’ve likely played.

Miles said Tuesday that Roby will be a game-time decision.

The larger battle for Nebraska, though, isn’t Maryland. It’s the entire conference, which is better than last year. And Nebraska won’t have much time to warm up to the competition.

After Maryland, Nebraska will travel to No. 25 Iowa on Sunday, then play Penn State, visit No. 21 Indiana and host No. 8 Michigan State. In that span, Ken Pomeroy projects Nebraska will go 3-2 with a one-point loss to Maryland, a two-point win over Indiana and a one-point win over Michigan State.

“These first five games I think everybody knows if you run the computers we’re picked to lose four out of the first five,” Miles said. “So obviously anything we can do outside of that that would be making hay.”

The conference season will be a fight. Every single score projection by Pomeroy’s computers is within 10 points for Nebraska’s next 18 conference games. He projects the Huskers to play 10 games within five points.

“The Big Ten is crazy this year,” Copeland said.

As Nebraska rolled through nonconference games, players kept an eye on other Big Ten teams. Senior guard Glynn Watson said he’s a basketball junkie. Whatever is on at night, he’ll watch. And he’s noticed how much better teams are this year.

“I’m ready to get rolling,” he said.

For Miles and the program, there is extra pressure in the coming months. Before the year, Athletic Director Bill Moos said he would judge Miles’ year on how the team played in the Big Ten.

Moos told The World-Herald before the season he hopes Nebraska repeats its success from last year in the conference, which would be 13 wins. Moos gave Miles a one-year extension after last year’s 22-win season.

For Nebraska, 13 wins could be attainable with the expanded 20-game conference schedule. But Nebraska is projected to finish 12-8 and 22-9 on the season. That projects to be good for sixth in the conference.

And that would be fine with Miles, he said. With that record, Nebraska would more than likely be in the NCAA tournament, and a high enough seed to make a run in the league tournament in March.

“We’re a middle-of-the-pack team now, just by the way it is, but a lot of times you say, ‘OK, well, we’re sixth in the league,’ and you sit there and you say, ‘Oh, that’s not so good,’” Miles said. “Well, there’s 14 teams in the league and eight of them are gonna go to the NCAA tournament for sure. So sixth could still be a Sweet 16 type of team.”

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