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Nebraska right on schedule to make NCAA tournament

December 15, 2018

LINCOLN — Imagine the college basketball season as a three-act play.

In the first act, you set the scene. You introduce the audience to the cast of characters, who can do what, what works and what doesn’t against rivals and nonconference foes. The second act is how those characters adapt to change in the thick of a conference season. The final act is the race to the NCAA tournament, where the drama builds and crescendoes.

Act one of the Nebraska basketball season concluded Saturday in Lincoln.

As Tim Miles emptied his bench up 19 — and the fans in red among the nearly 16,000 in Pinnacle Bank Arena screamed while Greg McDermott went down his bench and told players to remember this embarrassment — the curtains closed on an 8-2 Nebraska team getting over the hump. Team leader James Palmer scores 18.7 a game, Isaac Copeland shoots 55 percent from the floor, senior Glynn Watson averages 14.4 points and 3.8 assists and Isaiah Roby is in the middle of a resurgence.

The first act showed Nebraska flexing its muscle at home against Creighton and Seton Hall, and taking uppercuts to the chin against Texas Tech in Kansas City and Minnesota at The Barn.

Miles has always said he doesn’t know how good his team is until it’s played 10 games, but after the Creighton game, he wasn’t ready to give up what he’s learned so far.

“I need more time to assess,” he said. “We still got that Minnesota game hanging out there. We just didn’t guard the way we could. We still need to clean a lot of stuff up.”

But when you look at the numbers from the first 10 games, there is no doubt Nebraska’s first act has set it up to make a run at the NCAA tournament. Especially if you compare Nebraska’s start to teams from power conferences that won an NCAA tournament game last season as seeds 5 through 10.

There were 12 of those programs a season ago. And among those 12, the average number of wins through 10 games was 8.3, with an average strength of schedule of 24. At this point last year, No. 5 seed Clemson, which made the Sweet 16, had lost to Temple. Seton Hall, which nearly beat Final Four-bound Kansas in the second round, lost to Rhode Island. Alabama, a No. 9 seed that beat Virginia Tech in the first round, had lost to Minnesota, UCF and Arizona.

But the team Nebraska resembles most is Kansas State. The Wildcats were a No. 9 seed in last season’s tournament and made a run to the Elite Eight. They beat Creighton, UMBC and Kentucky, but lost to Loyola-Chicago in the regional final.

KSU was 8-2 in its first 10 games last year with losses to Arizona State and Tulsa. Its strength of schedule was No. 27. Nebraska is 8-2 this season, with losses to Texas Tech and Minnesota, and an SOS of 20.

The Wildcats finished the season 25-12 and fourth in the Big 12 with a 10-8 conference record. Nebraska is on pace to finish the season 21-10 and seventh in the Big Ten with an 11-9 record, according to KenPom.

The 8-2 start is Nebraska’s best under Miles in seven years. The Huskers have gone 7-3 three times, including last year and in 2013-14, the season Nebraska last made the NCAA tournament.

The next 10 games, the second act, are important. And Nebraska’s been OK at this portion of the season in the past.

Last year, Nebraska went 6-4 in the second 10-game stretch. In 2014-15, when it returned nearly everyone from the NCAA tournament team, Nebraska also went 6-4. The 2013-14 tournament team went 4-6.

The vital part of the year is the final act. After the first 20 games, Nebraska finished strong last year, 9-4, ending with 22 wins and just missing the NCAA tournament. The Terran Petteway-led Huskers finished the regular season 8-2 in 2013-14 and snagged a spot in the dance because of it.

The 2014-15 team, after starting the season 12-8, finished 1-10.

So the 8-2 start for Nebraska is the best since 2003, and it may set Nebraska up to be the next team to surprise in the tournament, but there are still two acts in this play left to watch.

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