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Is It Time To Look At Nebraska As An NCAA Tournament Contender?

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Can the Huskers make the NCAA Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Thursday’s matchup against Michigan, the excitement was palpable in Lincoln. The Nebraska Cornhuskers had built some momentum and were looking to score a huge win on prime time television. It was a great opportunity for the program to prove it was relevant once against on the college basketball landscape.

Of course, Nebraska ended up doing just that. The Huskers came out firing and never looked back. And, outside of a few short runs by the Wolverines, Nebraska controlled the game from start to finish. Ultimately, Nebraska grabbed a 72-52 win and improved to 14-7 overall and 5-3 in Big Ten play this season.

With Thursday’s win, Nebraska has now won three of its last four games and seven of its last nine games, debating back to a tight loss to Kansas on December 16th. Outside of an overtime loss to Penn State on the road last Friday, there’s little debating that Nebraska has played really well for over a month.

So, is it time to start talking about Nebraska’s NCAA Tournament chances?

Eh, probably not yet.

Some might scoff at that response, but it’s important to keep things in context. And, right now, Nebraska still has a lot of work to do to get into the Tournament discussion. Beating Michigan was a great start, but it’s far from the last step, either.

And why do I say that?

Let’s take a look.

To start, we should look at what Nebraska has done to date. As of Friday morning, Nebraska sits at 14-7 overall and 5-3 in Big Ten play this season. The Huskers are rated 65th on KenPom and 63rd in RPI. All told, it’s a pretty “meh” resume.

While Nebraska has separated itself from the basement of college basketball, being ranked in the 60s in those kind of statistical measures isn’t exactly great. For perspective, let’s take a look at last year’s First Four teams. Remember, these were the last teams to make the cut as at-large qualifiers. Here’s the list:

2017 NCAA Tournament First Four KenPom Ratings:

  • #29 - Kansas State
  • #30 - Wake Forest
  • #55 - Providence
  • #61 - USC

2017 NCAA Tournament First Four RPI* Ratings:

  • #39 - Wake Forest
  • #41 - USC
  • #55 - Kansas State
  • #55 - Providence

Things change on a yearly basis, but those lists should offer some context about what is needed to make the cut on Selection Sunday. And, remember, many regarded last season as one of the weaker bubble groups in quite some time. So, if Nebraska is going to make it, it will likely need to be toward the top of that group this time around.

As of now, there’s no debating that Nebraska isn’t on the right side of that bubble. In fact, TRank projects the Huskers as the 25th team outside the bracket at the moment. Given auto-bids, that’s probably not even good enough to make the NIT.

So, what does Nebraska need to do to make the cut?

The obvious answer is to keep winning games, but it’s really more complicated than that. If the Huskers win out the rest of the way, there’s no debating that Nebraska will make the cut. However, we all know that’s tremendously unlikely. Even the world’s biggest Husker fans would admit that winning 10 to 15 games in a row probably isn’t going to happen without something weird happening.

A more realistic projection puts Nebraska somewhere around 19 to 21 wins by the end of the regular season. In fact, KenPom projects the Huskers to finish the regular season at 19-12 overall and 10-8 in Big Ten play. With 10 games remaining, that would mean the Huskers win somewhere around half of the team’s currently scheduled games. The Big Ten Tournament is a mess, so we won’t get into projecting that right now.

Generally speaking, 20-win teams are in good shape heading into Selection Sunday. The 20-win mark is often regarded as a “tipping point” of sorts, where teams start moving off the bubble and firmly into the field.

Unfortunately, with a down Big Ten and very little to show from non-conference play, that 20-win mark probably isn’t all that telling for this Nebraska squad. The Huskers played a lot of sub-200 teams in non-conference play and it’s going to hurt the team’s profile heading into the postseason.

And that profile might not improve all that much going forward, either.

While Nebraska gets plenty of “winnable” games in the coming weeks, most of the games come against pretty weak competition. The Huskers get Ohio State on the road next week and Maryland at home in February, but the remainder of the schedule is filled with teams like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Rutgers.

More simply put, the issue for Nebraska is that adding a bunch of wins over teams like Illinois and Rutgers won’t boost its resume all that much. The Huskers will certainly “move up” by beating these teams, but not much. And the jumps will continue to be smaller as Nebraska starts being compared to the better teams in the nation.

Additionally, Nebraska also runs the risk of losing to these opponents too. Unlike losses to teams like Kansas or Purdue, losing to an Illinois or Rutgers would be a huge blow for the team’s RPI. And, unfortunately, Nebraska will probably drop at least one of these games. In fact, Nebraska is actually an underdog (per KenPom) against Illinois and Wisconsin and a minor favorite in games against Penn State and Rutgers.

The overall story here is a simple one for the Huskers. Yes, an NCAA Tournament bid is still possible. In fact, it wouldn’t even take a magical run in the Big Ten Tournament to get there. If Nebraska can get hot late, making it on Selection Sunday is on the table.

However, we need to tamper expectations a bit. Nebraska is still solidly on the outside looking in at the moment and doing “ok” down the stretch won’t be enough. The Huskers will have to score some road wins and protect home court to have a chance. And, even if the team does that, a loss to a team like Rutgers could still ruin it.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that Nebraska could really improve its NIT odds with a few wins over the next few weeks. With a manageable schedule, the Huskers stand a reasonable shot at making the NIT.

Nebraska fans should be excited about where this team is trending, but let’s take a calm down for a second before we start penciling in the Huskers to the NCAA Tournament. There’s still some real work to do before that discussion should begin.