The Nebraska Cornhuskers finished the 2014-2015 season with a 5-13 record in Big Ten conference play and a 13-18 record overall on the season. The school has had three losing seasons in the last four years and if the Cornhuskers want to improve on that, starting off on the right foot against non conference opponents will go a long way.
With that in mind, which teams are critical for the Cornhuskers to beat to get noticed early and help Nebraska reach its season goal of getting back to the NCAA Tournament.
#1. At Villanova Wildcats
The Wildcats and the Cornhuskers will meet in the middle of November this year which will be the Cornhuskers' second game of the season. The Wildcats are expected to be a top 10-15 team once again entering the 2015-2016 season, as they were a number one seed in the NCAA tournament last season when they finished with a 33-3 record.
The Wildcats will be returning key players such as Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono. The Wildcats will also be adding one of the best freshmen point guards in the country in Jalen Brunson. It will be a tall order for the Cornhuskers to try and slow down a high scoring offense that averaged 76 points a game last season.
Pulling off an upset like this on the road against a quality team like the Wildcats would be a great boost for the Cornhuskers to start their season and would be a great resume builder in March if the NCAA selection committee takes the Cornhuskers into consideration. Just being able to play the Wildcats will certainly help the Cornhuskers' RPI and will get a quick leg up on other NCAA bubble contenders to start the season. But that victory is only good if the Wildcats continue to be good throughout the season.
#2. Home vs Miami Hurricanes
The Cornhuskers will take on the Hurricanes on the first day of December. So in the first-two weeks of the season, the Cornhuskers will already have two teams on their schedule that will play a huge role in how their season will turn out.
This home game against the Hurricanes is obviously a more realistic win than winning on the road against the Wildcats and this game is also more realistic in terms of teams the Cornhuskers will most likely see around the bubble bracket as the season goes on. If these two teams are last teams under consideration by the NCAA selection committee, it would be easy way to decide which team deserves to be in the NCAA tournament. This could be looked at as a elimination game.
The Hurricanes finished the 2014-2015 season with a 25-13 record in what was a bit of an up and down season for them. The Hurricanes are certainly a team that can be caught napping. Last season, the Hurricanes suffered losses at home early in the season to Green Bay and got blown out by Eastern Kentucky.
The Cornhuskers will be the home team so given the information above, it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility for the team give the Hurricanes a beating.
#3. Home vs Rhode Island Rams
While the Rams didn't make the NCAA tournament last season and haven't had an appearance there since 1999, this is not a team to ignore. The Rams finished third in the Atlantic Ten last season with a 13-5 record in conference play and a 23-10 record overall with senior forward E.C. Matthews leading the way averaging 16.9 points a game. In fact, they could be one of the more dangerous teams in the Atlantic 10 next season.
The Rams will provide a respectable test for the Cornhuskers, but at the same time it is a game the Cornhuskers can't afford to lose. The Rams are not a good perimeter shooting team, which is one of the key traits mid major schools typically have. However, the Rams did shoot 45 percent from the field last season.
All in all, these three games are critical. But if the Cornhuskers do slip up early, they still would have a lot of opportunities in conference play to make a statement.
While the Cornhuskers need to complete these three tasks, it will be tough. If Terran Petteway - who averaged just a little bit over 18 points a game last season - returned to the team this upcoming season, they would have a solid chance, especially against the Wildcats, but Petteway is off to the NBA.
The Cornhuskers are still a work in progress. So at the moment, their first goal should be to show that they can hang with some of the toughest teams in college basketball over the course of 40 minutes and work their way up from there.