LINCOLN — Big Ten basketball is a huge mountain — Mount Delany — covered with ice.
Tim Miles is down near the bottom. Good luck, Tim.
Every time you think you made progress up the hill, you hit a patch and then, boom, you're back on your keester.
John Beilein's Michigan Wolverines invade Pinnacle Bank Arena tonight. And even without the big lug, Mitch McGary, Michigan serves as a reminder that the Huskers are like the weak guy in a bar fight. Every time you get up, someone else knocks you down.
The problem with the Big Ten is, more than half the league thinks it belongs in the NCAA tournament.
That would be the good news, too.
If it will help, here's a whole new way to look at Miles' reclamation project, down in the boiler room of the Big Ten standings. And we don't mean Purdue.
The Nebrasketball coach doesn't need to worry about trading chess moves with Tom Izzo or outrecruiting Thad Matta or trying to pace faster than Tom Crean. The latter would be impossible anyway.
The focus should be on trying to catch Iowa and Purdue and Minnesota. Illinois, too.
Nebraska doesn't have to scale Mount Delany. There's treasure to be found halfway up the hill.
For an explanation, let's go to the leather-bound Big Ten record book.
In six of the past 10 seasons, the Big Ten sent at least six teams to the NCAA tournament. In three of the past five years, that number was seven.
Five of those seasons, a .500 conference record was good enough to make the NCAAs — including the 2011 season, when Michigan, Illinois, Michigan State and Penn State all made it at 9-9.
|TOM SHATEL ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the daily conversation on the Tom Shatel Facebook page.|
Twice, teams with a sub-.500 record made it: 7-9 Iowa in 2005 and Minnesota and Illinois at 8-10 last year.
That doesn't always come with a guarantee. In 2005, Indiana (10-6) was left out. Same for Iowa (9-7) in 2007. Ohio State (2008), Penn State (2009) and Illinois (2010) all missed with 10-8 records. The Hawkeyes missed at 9-9 last year.
The bottom line here is, the NCAA tournament could be as close as seventh place and nine or 10 league wins. For Nebraska, which went 5-13 last year, the gap was three games behind NCAA teams Illinois and Minnesota.
Three or four more wins. That's seemingly what Miles has to find a way to do.
Of course, that's easier written than done.
“If you can get yourself into the upper half of this league, you're looking at the NCAA,” Miles said. “Right now, our RPI is 67 and our strength of schedule is 22 and that should improve as we go.”
Buoyed by Creighton joining the Big East and the annual ACC challenge game, Nebraska's nonconference schedule should put it in decent shape. The trick will be the conference scrum.
“Everybody's trying to get to that point (upper half),” Miles said. “And that's the great part of this league. It's so deep and every night, it's hard to move forward.
“If you're home, you're trying to survive with a 'W.' If you're on the road, you're trying to scratch and claw for a 'W.' And you never get a break. It's like somebody's always stepping on your throat.”
The first thing Miles needs to do is build himself a Big Ten basketball team that can return the favor.
In this sense, moving to the Big Ten was probably a favor to Husker Hoops. The Big 12 became all about one-and-done NBA types and racehorse basketball, played with talent that seems allergic to northern weather — though Iowa State seems to be surviving nicely.
The Big Ten formula is made up of girth, fundamentals and kids who stay around long enough to become men. And bouncers. Doesn't it seem like every Big Ten team has a couple of guys who look like bouncers?
This style — physical defense, smart game plans, savvy hoopers — should be more in Nebraska's wheelhouse. And bouncers. There have to be some big farm kids — or city kids — in this region who want to take up residence in a cool new arena.
Finding some bouncers who can rebound, set screens and create general mayhem inside has to be a top priority. Do they grow them on trees in Wisconsin?
“Every year, the Big Ten has tremendous length and defense,” Miles said. “Never an easy basket. Great game plans because you have Hall of Fame coaches. You're playing chess, not checkers.
“This is definitely one of the more physically demanding leagues, like the old Big East. Big, huge guys, strong forwards and centers who really make it hard to do well.
“We have to get bigger. We're one or two guys short.”
Scorers are another story. Nebraska heads into the teeth of the Big Ten shooting a paltry 42 percent from the field. Sophomore Shavon Shields, NU's budding star, has scored 16 points in the past three games. Tai Webster, the 18-year-old freshman point guard from New Zealand, seems to be feeling the effects of his first go at college basketball.
The Huskers have a heavy assortment of transfers, including Walter Pitchford (Florida) and Terran Petteway (Texas Tech), who last played two years ago. It's a typical second-year roster for a coach in a building project. The kids needed a place to play and the coach needed athleticism. They help each other.
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
It's tough sledding in this league, but there's an interesting wrinkle. This team can score when it gets hot, when it's focused. We saw it in the Florida Gulf Coast opener and again when Miami came to Pinnacle Bank Arena in early December.
If the Huskers and their rejuvenated crowds can show up like that in the Big Ten, well, here's the home lineup: Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin. On paper, only OSU and Wisconsin loom as heavy favorites.
And that's the thing about this year's Big Ten. It's good, but not as dominant — yet — as last year's version. If the Huskers can conjure up more play like their second half at Iowa and hold their own on the boards (NU outrebounded Iowa and fell one short of Ohio State), then they can dream about besting last year's five-win total.
Dream is what you do at the bottom of Mount Delany.
“I believe we can be a really good team at Pinnacle Bank Arena,” Miles said. “But I try not to go through the season and predict the schedule. You get mad when you don't win when you think you should and you win one that you don't expect.”
Good luck, Tim. Don't look down.