Published Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:47 am
BASKETBALL
Barfknecht: Tim Miles' Huskers are producing results — and hope

Tim Miles is only in his second season as Nebraska's basketball coach. That's hardly enough time to know if Sunday's upset of No. 9 Michigan State will be a watershed moment in his tenure or a drop in the bucket.

Me? I've been around this program since 1975, making me more historian than expert.

Still, the 60-51 victory in East Lansing, Mich., left me wondering if the basketball gods — punishers of this program regularly for decades and incessantly for the past 15 years — are starting to relent.

This result looked and felt different, like some other course-altering victories I've covered:

Ľ In 1986, with Nebraska in the hunt for its first NCAA tournament berth entering February, all-time scoring leader Dave Hoppen crumpled to the court with a torn ACL at Colorado. A week later, after the world had tossed the Huskers into the NIT scrapheap, they drilled Missouri on the road and went on to claim that NCAA bid.

Ľ Early in 1990-91, a Nebraska team picked to finish last in the Big Eight hosted No. 5 Michigan State. Beau Reid's winning 3-pointer in the waning seconds became the spark for a 26-8 season and another NCAA tourney trip.

Ľ In 1998, after four straight Big 12 losses appeared to torpedo any NCAA hopes, all-conference point guard Tyronn Lue grabbed his teammates by the neck and dragged them to an ugly win at Texas A&M. They got the message. The Huskers didn't lose for the next month, and claimed another NCAA trip.

Which brings us back to Sunday.

Here was Nebraska, which was picked to finish last in the Big Ten, grabbing a monster road win, with the victim a top 10-ranked Michigan State team and an all-conference player (Terran Petteway) doing the heavy lifting.

Coincidence? I think not.

Miles, in a phone interview from East Lansing 90 minutes after the game, was more interested in current events than history. #Nebrasketball was trending No. 3 on Twitter, and his phone was exploding with well-wishes.

“I'm at 191 text messages and counting,” he said. “I haven't had time to read any of them, but I like getting them.”

As I dug for some context from Miles about the victory, he declined because of his short stay at NU so far. But he shared a story from before Sunday's game.

While on the floor after introductions, TV coordinators told the teams there would be a three-minute wait until tipoff. So he told his players to sit.

“I remember squatting in front of them,” Miles said. “It was kind of a 'Hoosiers' moment where Gene Hackman tells his team he loves them.”

Read the next paragraph closely.

“I told the guys that I've been around a lot of teams, and I've been a head coach for a long time,” Miles said. “I told them, 'I see a team coming together, I truly believe in you and I truly believe we can do this. I think we're going to win this game and keep winning.' ”

The Huskers, utterly confident on the road after being so wobbly just a few weeks ago, made a believer of Michigan State's Tom Izzo, eight times voted national coach of the year.

“Nebraska, they were junkyard dogs,” Izzo said. “They remind me of some of our old teams. They talked it, they walked it, they played it.

“Tim is one of the great new coaches in the league, and he did a hell of a job.”

A good rule for coaches who are new to a league is to take any compliment from a veteran counterpart with a dump-truck of salt. Often, the old hands speak well of the new guys they think they can beat to try to keep them around.

Miles has earned his share of kudos in his year and a half at Nebraska.

But I've heard enough of these from master baloney-spreaders to sense the remarks about Miles are far more respectful than coachspeak, especially after five wins in the past six games.

That brings us to an elephant in the room we'll address once and no more.

Nebraska's 5-1 run has come since a “roster adjustment” occurred on Jan. 26. Miles cut me off before I could finish the question about it, with no comment. Notice since that day, however, that the purpose became one, the buy-in became complete, the roles became defined and favorable results began to follow.

The Huskers (14-10, 6-6) are alone in sixth place with two-thirds of Big Ten play over. Izzo protested when a questioner referred to Nebraska as a “bottom-of-the-conference” team.

“They're not at the bottom of the league anymore,” he said. “They're in the middle, and working their way up.”

Four of the final six regular-season games are at Pinnacle Bank Arena, where NU is 11-1. Five of the six are against teams in the bottom of half of the league.

Amazingly, the NCAA tournament bubble beckons after this signature win. Miles said when he arrived that NCAA bids weren't just his goal, but the standard.

“That's never going to change,” he said Sunday. “But the only way to get there is to live through the process. We're not good enough to get by in this league unless it's all-out every night.

“We're still an incomplete team. But we're together. Our confidence is better. We still struggle to score too often, but our defense is improved and our rebounding has hung in there.”

The coach of any athletic program of high fan interest will tell you he needs to have one of two things to sell — hope or results.

Guess what, Nebrasketball fans? For the first time in a very long time, you can enjoy both.

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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