LINCOLN — Much like last February, the Nebraska women’s basketball team has found its Big Ten footing. A four-game winning streak. Nos. 21 and 19 rankings in the Associated Press and coaches polls. An outside shot at the Big Ten title — though, again, NU will have to hunt down front-runner Penn State to win it.
But as the Huskers head to Michigan for Thursday’s game, coach Connie Yori is watching another number with equal interest: Nebraska’s RPI. As of Wednesday, it was No. 43 according to realtimerpi.com. That’s a big jump from two weeks ago — Nebraska languished in the 70s — but still not enough for Yori’s liking.
While ESPN’s Bracketology current slots Nebraska as a No. 7 seed and College Sports Madness has the Huskers as a No. 6, an invite to the Big Dance is no lock.
“We absolutely have to worry about getting to postseason play — we have to keep winning,” Yori said of the Huskers, who are 17-5 and 7-3 in the Big Ten. “We’re three or four wins away from being in the NCAA tournament. We’re not a lock for that. Road games are important to bolster our RPI.”
NU is sixth in the Big Ten in RPI, behind three teams — Iowa (No. 26), Minnesota (No. 41) and Michigan State (No. 42) — that it has beaten. The RPI is calculated in part on a team’s schedule strength, and the Huskers got few favors from their nonconference slate. Out of NU’s four notable nonconference wins — vs. UCLA, Alabama and Creighton, and at Utah — the Bluejays are highest (No. 60) in RPI. The Bruins, Crimson Tide and Utes all have losing records. A Husker home loss to Washington State (No. 80 in RPI) didn’t help, nor did easy home wins over Oral Roberts (No. 264), UMass-Lowell (No. 309), and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (No. 348).
“I knew our schedule probably wasn’t great going into the nonconference season, but there were a couple teams we thought would be better,” Yori said. Purdue has a worse overall and league record than NU, but is No. 9 in RPI. One reason: The Boilermakers played at Duke and played Stanford in Puerto Rico. Both are top-five teams. Purdue lost both games handily, but weren’t hurt by the losses.
Nebraska had wanted to schedule one more road game, Yori said, but “couldn’t find a window, frankly, to fit it in.” So the team is playing one fewer game than its maximum. Two early byes in Big Ten play have left the Huskers with a back-loaded league schedule. Of teams ranked in either the AP or coaches Top 25, only Dayton has played fewer games than Nebraska.
The upside: The Huskers play six games during the next 17 days and appear to be in good health. They’re also playing their best basketball of the year. The four-game winning streak started with NU’s 84-51 rout of Michigan at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“We were aggressive and we got a lot of baskets in transition,” Yori said. “We just had a great attack mentality against them the first time. That’s why we did what we did, and I’m sure they’re going to make adjustments.”
Senior forward Jordan Hooper — who had 25 points and 10 rebounds in the first Michigan game — said she’s wary of the Wolverines’ post play. Michigan’s starting forward and center, Cyesha Goree and Val Driscoll, only combined to take nine shots in the first game.
“They’re going to try to go inside a little bit more,” Hooper said. “They could have probably taken advantage of that a bit more in the last game. We’re going to have to play tough defense again.”