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Nebraska’s Row to Hoe in Madison Square Garden

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Can the Huskers play themselves into the NCAA Tournament?

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

For the second time in the Tim Miles era, the Nebraska Cornhuskers went undefeated at home and earned a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. In 2014, the Huskers lost their only BTT game to Ohio State, but still made it to the NCAAs as an 11 seed, losing to Baylor. This year, most bracketologists have the Cornhuskers on the outside looking in. A few wins in midtown Manhattan could change that, though.

Opening Round

As a double-bye team, Nebraska doesn’t know for sure who their opening round opponent will be, but the odds-on favorite is the 5 seed, the Michigan Wolverines. The two teams both finished at 13-5 on the season, but the Huskers hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their 20-point home win over the Wolverines.

The other possibility is that Michigan is upset by the winner of the 12/13 game, in which case the Huskers would either face Illinois or Iowa. The Huskers split the season series with Illinois and beat Iowa in their only meeting.

Assuming the Huskers do square off against the Wolverines, it will be a battle between two teams that don’t rely on a traditional post game. Michigan has the best stretch center in the country in Mo Wagner, while Nebraska mans most of their post minutes with 6’8” Isaiah Roby and 6’9” Isaac Copeland, with 6’11” Jordy Tshimanga seeing the floor less than 30% of available minutes. Roby reminds me a lot of Michigan’s DJ Wilson, who rode an outstanding performance in last year’s Big Ten Tournament all the way to the No. 17 pick in the NBA draft. Roby isn’t that good yet, but neither was Wilson at this point last season.

If They Advance

Nebraska’s most likely Saturday opponent should they win their game on Friday is the Michigan State Spartans, with an outside chance at Maryland or Wisconsin. Nebraska lost their lone game against the Spartans in East Lansing by 29 back in December. They swept Wisconsin and won their lone home game against Maryland.

Michigan State’s offense isn’t clicking quite as well as it was in December, and Nebraska is a much more coherent basketball team than they were the last time the two met, but the Spartans are ranked No. 2 in the country for a reason, and you’d have to think that Tom Izzo’s squad would be favored. True, Nick Ward at 6’8” doesn’t tower over the Huskers front line, and 6’11” Jaren Jackson is known more for his three point stroke than his post game, so the Huskers might have a chance. That said, Michigan State is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and Nebraska is one of the worst. My guess is that unless the Huskers can gain extra possessions from the sometimes turnover-prone Spartans, second-chance points will be the difference.

Overall

Despite a top-four seed and the double-bye that comes with it, not many people are picking the Cornhuskers to win it all in Madison Square Garden. A more realistic goal would be to pick up enough quality wins to bolster their resume and make the Big Dance. A win over Michigan may be enough, but a win over both Michigan and Michigan State should seal the deal.

Embarrassingly, Nebraska remains the only power conference school never to have won an NCAA tournament game. But the Huskers had never won 13 conference games before this season, either. There’s a first time for everything. Tim Miles is one of the most likable guys in college basketball. I’m not sure how many Nebraska fans will fly into the Big Apple to watch their team play, but for the good of the league I’ll be there cheering them on.