Look, I had no illusions that Nebraska would make the NCAA Tournament. Tim Miles’ squad was always NIT-bound ever since they crapped the bed against Michigan. But I—and most people—thought they were something like the 7th or 8th team left out. The NIT committee apparently thought differently, giving the Huskers a No. 5 seed, making them somewhere between the 17th and 20th team left out.
It’s such a disparity that I have to wonder if something else isn’t going on. Why make Nebraska the five and Mississippi State their four? You know the NIT people would rather hold a game in Lincoln than Starkville. Those Husker fans sell their arena out for mediocre basketball games all the time.
No, I think for logistical reasons Nebraska was unable to host a game in Lincoln and informed the NIT committee as such. After last year’s debacle with Indiana, it doesn’t surprise me that neither side would want to publicize that decision.
But despite being road dogs, Nebraska could still make a run at an NIT title. The Cornhuskers have famously never won an NCAA tournament game, but they did win the NIT back in 1996. Let’s see what it will take for them to do it again.
First up for the Huskers are the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Ben Howland’s squad was a respectable 9-9 in the SEC, making more of their 2-point shots than average and missing way more threes and free throws than average. The Bulldogs are also in the top 12 in the nation in blocked shots, though surprisingly for a team that’s good at 2’s and blocks, they aren’t more than an average rebounding team.
Between Mississippi State’s bad shooting and Nebraska’s good defense, the game plan here will be to hold the opposition under fifty and try to grind out a win. Neither team plays particularly fast, so this isn’t likely to be beautiful basketball, but it doesn’t need to be. Survive and advance is the name of the game.
If They Advance
Baylor lurks in the second round, assuming the Bears get past the Wagner Seahwaks of the NEC, which they should. Nebraska’s former conference mates have the No. 1 seed in Region 2, and with a No. 34 ranking on KenPom and five Tier A victories, they deserve it.
Unlike Mississippi State, Baylor is an excellent rebounding team, particularly on the offensive glass, where they are among the country’s top ten. That’s bad news for the Huskers, since they are among the bottom twenty at giving up offensive rebounds. Second-chance points will make or break Nebraska’s chances here.
The Road to Madison Square Garden
Rounding out Region 2 are Vermont, Middle Tennessee, Northern Kentucky, and Louisville. On paper, the Louisville Cardinals as No. 2 seed appear the most formidable, but word has leaked that their players voted not to participate in the NIT and were overruled by their (interim) AD, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see David Padgett’s squad come out with a lackluster performance and get beat.
If Louisville isn’t in the cards, the last team Nebraska will need to beat to make it to Madison Square Garden is probably Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are No. 52 on KenPom, and they are a physical bunch. They run you off the three point line, crash the boards hard, and foul their opponents more than just about anyone else in the country. Starting center Brandon Walters is particularly foul-prone.
I was in Madison Square Garden for the Big Ten Tournament, and no team there looked worse than Nebraska. With their season on the line, needing a win against a good but not great Michigan team that they had already beaten once by 20 points, Nebraska’s guards proceeded to play hero ball and try to beat their man off the dribble. The Huskers only racked up five assists in that game. It was bad.
So I’m a little skeptical that Nebraska will be able to come out and play better in games that matter less. Nebraska’s strength this year was their home court advantage, only dropping one game—a one point loss to the Kansas Jayhawks. Not getting to play at Pinnacle Bank, whether because they secretly turned down the opportunity or not, isn’t going to help Tim Miles’ team at all.
Nebraska’s 13 conference wins were the most in school history. With their four most important players all coming back next year, Husker fans should look at this season as a building block of things to come. A miracle NIT run isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but I’d bet against it.