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Before Big Ten play, Nebraska finding motivation where it can

December 31, 2018

LINCOLN — With a cup of coffee in hand and a hat shielding his eyes from the lights in the rafters, Tim Miles leaned back in a chair courtside at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday and, per usual, shot it straight.

Yeah, it bugs him that his team dropped out of the AP Top 25 after winning by 24 in its one game last week.

“It motivates me,” he said.

And in these dregs of the season, with just three games in three weeks before Big Ten play, sometimes motivation is hard to come by. Not anymore.

Nebraska is 10-2 and No. 23 in the coaches poll, but dropped from No. 25 in the AP poll to others receiving votes. In BTN analyst Andy Katz’s Power 36 poll, Nebraska dropped from the top 20 out of the poll completely.

“It’s one of two things,” Miles said. “Either people don’t care enough to pay attention, and everybody is busy so I understand that, or just the fact that Nebraska’s tradition isn’t as strong as maybe some other people’s.”

Miles said on his radio show last week that if Nebraska’s jersey said something else, the Huskers would be a top-15 team.

But they will have to wait until after the New Year for Big Ten play to prove their worth.

Saturday’s game will be an exhibition for Division II Southwest Minnesota State and a tuneup for Nebraska. Miles coached the Mustangs from 1997 to 2001. They were 28-7 in his final year and reached the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.

Southwest Minnesota State is 7-4 this season and coached by Brad Bigler, whom Miles coached in the late 1990s at the school.

The larger narrative, though, is that Nebraska remains just out of the national conversation in spite of its best start in years. The Huskers received a vote as high as 12 in the last AP poll, but 21 voters held Nebraska out of the Top 25. Nebraska even dropped from a No. 4 seed in ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology to a No. 5 seed.

In his 23 years as a head coach, Miles has often used slights like this to motivate his team. It was a large narrative inside the locker room for Nebraska’s 2013-14 run to the NCAA tournament.

But he said that’s not been a driving force for this team just yet.

“First of all, the guys can’t control it, so why would you say anything to them when they can’t control it. So I just haven’t said much to them,” he said.

But he senses they understand “what’s going on.” And all they can do is take care of what’s ahead of them. The team had three days off around Christmas. Everyone returned to campus, including freshman Amir Harris, who has been out with mononucleosis. He won’t play on Saturday. Miles said a few other players have “aches and pains,” but he didn’t rule anyone else out for Saturday.

The game counts for NU, so Miles expects Saturday to be productive. A win or loss, however, will not impact the Huskers’ NCAA NET rating, which is what replaced the RPI this season. In that rating system, which is used by the NCAA tournament selection committee, Nebraska is No. 14.

Miles said NU scheduled the Mustangs partly because of his connection to the school, but also because he knows his team can get better with this game.

Bigler’s screen-and-roll plays are effective, Miles said. “He makes you guard slips. He makes you guard a bunch of different actions that way, and so that’s good for you, especially going into league play. I’m glad we can have them here, and we want to beat the heck out of them if we can.”

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