Despite immensely high preseason expectations and a plethora of returning players, the Nebraska Cornhuskers haven’t been able to live up to the hype this season. The Huskers have struggled with inconsistent play since Big Ten play started and now find themselves heading into the Big Ten Tournament as the 13th seed.
But can Nebraska save its season in Chicago with an exciting run through the Big Ten Tournament? Let’s take a look.
As the 13th seed, Nebraska will be forced to open up play in the Big Ten Tournament in the dreaded slate of Wednesday games. The Huskers will face off against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at 6:30PM in what should be an intriguing matchup.
Heading into the game, neither team has much momentum. Nebraska may have pulled off an upset win over Iowa on Sunday evening, but have lost four of the team’s last five games. Meanwhile, Rutgers lost its last two games of the regular season and four of six heading into Wednesday’s matchup. And both teams were well under .500 during Big Ten play.
The two teams only met once during the regular season on January 21st, when Rutgers grabbed a 76-69 victory over the Huskers at home. James Palmer led Nebraska with 22 points and Montez Mathis had 20 points for the Scarlet Knights. The teams are 2-2 against one another over the last four matchups.
On paper, this is a game that Nebraska should win. KenPom favors Nebraska and gives the Huskers a 62 percent chance of winning. And even despite the recent struggles, Nebraska is playing better basketball at the moment. Fans might be down about the Huskers, but none of the recent losses have been shocking. After all, losing games against the top three seeds in the Big Ten Tournament shouldn’t be viewed that negatively. Nebraska was an underdog in those games.
But with that said, this game looks pretty even. Nebraska might be a little better overall, but Rutgers is a really good defensive team that can muck things up. Expect things to be ugly for stretches and for it to be a low-scoring affair. The key for Nebraska will be trying to slow down Geo Baker.
-If They Advance
Should Nebraska take care of Rutgers on Wednesday, it will then face off against Maryland on Thursday afternoon. The Terps entered the Big Ten Tournament as a five seed, narrowly missing out on the double-bye to Wisconsin.
There’s little denying that Maryland is a better team than Nebraska on paper. The Terps are 18th nationally on KenPom and an easy bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando are two of the better players in the league and Jalen Smith has been really good for a freshman.
However, Maryland has been pretty inconsistent as well. The Terps may have a 13-7 record in Big Ten play, but the team also lost to Illinois, Penn State, and Seton Hall already this season. And considering that only one of those three games happened on the road, there’s clearly some upset potential with Maryland.
Additionally, despite the fact that Maryland went 2-0 against the Huskers in the regular season, Nebraska narrowly lost in the meeting on January 2nd and kept things close for awhile in the second meeting on February 6th. Nebraska will also have the advantage of having already played the day before when the two teams would meet on Thursday. The key to the game for Nebraska would clearly be slowing down Fernando.
Should Nebraska get past Maryland, it would then face Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. Like the potential matchup with the Terps, we know the Badgers are a better team than the Huskers. Wisconsin is 12th nationally on KenPom and is playing really good basketball, having won five of its last six games. The Badgers also won the only regular season matchup against the Huskers in Lincoln in late January.
However, Wisconsin (like Maryland) has also shown some upset potential. The Badgers dropped games to Indiana, Minnesota, and Western Kentucky so far this season (all are roughly even or below Nebraska on KenPom) and nearly dropped games to teams like Northwestern and Ohio State as well.
More simply put, a game against Wisconsin is one that Nebraska could win. The key would be finding a way to slow down Ethan Happ. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that this is where the fatigue would likely start to factor in for the Huskers. This would theoretically be the team’s third game in three days and Wisconsin would have fresh legs. It would be a tough win to get, but it’s certainly possible.
After that, Nebraska would likely be looking at Michigan State in the semi-finals and then either Michigan or Purdue in a potential championship game. Those three teams are all ranked above Maryland and Wisconsin on KenPom, so things would be getting even tougher at that point.
Despite having a losing record in conference play, Nebraska actually projects to be in decent position to win a game or two in Chicago. The Huskers will be favored on Wednesday and could very well surprise a Maryland team playing its first game of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.
But things are poised to get substantially tougher after that. Nebraska would be looking at a game against a very good Wisconsin team on Friday for its third game in three days and would then potentially get Michigan State after that. As such, it’s pretty difficult to see Nebraska making it far past Friday.
And this could make things pretty interesting. Tim Miles has been on the hot seat for much of this season and many think he will get the boot if the Huskers miss the NCAA Tournament. And with the team’s 16-15 overall record, it’s going to take a deep run in Chicago for the Huskers to have a chance at achieving that goal.
On that point, I would like to recognize something, though. Nebraska does still have a shot at an at-large NCAA bid. It’s very narrow, but a trip to Saturday would probably be enough to get the Huskers firmly into the conversation. After all, that would add three wins to Nebraska’s resume, including two against top 25 opponents. Even with a potential loss on Saturday, that might be enough.
All told, Nebraska is setup for an interesting week in Chicago. Can the Huskers pull off some magic and save Miles? We will have to wait and see.