Published Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:36 pm
Shatel: There's no harm in Husker fans thinking big, Miles says

LINCOLN — Go ahead and look down. On the count of three, jump. Do not check the parachute.

Tim Miles insists.

“I think our fans should talk about the NCAA tournament,” said Miles, the Nebraska men's basketball coach. “I think they should revel in it. Why not?''

Why not? Oh, because it can be hell being a Nebraska basketball fan with a dream. Because Husker fans have learned to cross their fingers and read the fine print and do background checks whenever optimism threatens to move in.

Why not? Because the program's last NCAA appearance came in 1998, in a little gym in Boise, Idaho, where they sold shirts that said “Boise Madness.” NU lost to Nolan Richardson and Arkansas, and Tyronn Lue was about to go pro.

That was NU's fifth NCAA tourney of the 1990s, and nobody would have guessed then that a baby could learn to drive in the time before the next NCAA dance.

Why not? Because since Boise Madness, it's been Lincoln Madness, with a string of false alarms and promises, new coaches with bad plans and more reasons to doubt than be the sucker who buys the ticket to the dream.

There haven't been many bubble appearances. The last one was just three years ago, when Doc Sadler's team had won three straight, including a court-stormer over No. 3 Texas at home. The next opponent wasn't exactly Penn State. It was Kansas State, complete with Frank Martin and Jacob Pullen, K-State's best team in years.

There was no shame in losing to that K-State bunch. But NU lost three of the next four, including a blowout loss to Wichita State in the NIT. That bubble didn't pop. It exploded.

So when you ask a Husker fan if he wants to buy into a men's hoops team, you can't blame him if he hangs up on you. Nebraska fans burn these memories and bury them in the woods behind their houses.

Well, Miles has a message for you: go ahead and plop down your emotions. It's OK to buy in.

His team has, and how.

You don't make the NCAA tournament by beating 13-14 Penn State on Feb. 20. But there was a statement somewhere in a choppy, awkwardly called 80-67 victory by Nebraska on Thursday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

There would be no meltdown this time. Not after the upset at Michigan State last Sunday, which propelled NU up the RPI ratings and onto the NCAA bubble radar. This time, the trapdoor didn't open.

All week, Miles had reminded his team to “avoid the noise.” That is, avoid listening to all of the NCAA tournament conversation and hype.

What he might have meant, too, is the negative noise from the buyer-beware gang.

“That's not us,” Miles said. “I don't believe in that. We're not about that.

“Last year someone told me this was the 15th year without the NCAA tournament. I was just stunned. I said, 'That's not us.' I was just in the NCAA tournament, and my team (Colorado State) was going back again.

“We're trying to develop our own tradition here, reinvent basketball here. We're trying to bury the past and all the negative stuff.”

Nebraska just won its fourth straight conference game, for the first time since 1999. And six of its past seven. That's a start.

This is a team on a roll now. It's a team with a no-fear leader, Terran Petteway, surrounded by role players who do whatever. There were three Huskers with six rebounds last night, five scoring in double figures. They're playing harder, with more purpose, playing good defense. There's a chemistry now.

Good thing a basketball season can be an eternity. Long enough for Deverell Biggs to be sent home, for freshman Tai Webster to slump and find himself, for David Rivers and Benny Parker and Leslee Smith to grow into guys who give you worthwhile minutes.

Mostly, it's a team that has bought into the idea that someone has to finish in the top six in the Big Ten, so it might as well be them.

Who knew it could be this year? A psychic named Jayden Olson, Miles' director of basketball operations.

“After we were 0-4 (to start the Big Ten), Jayden said, 'We're going to win 12 of our next 14,' ” Miles said. “I said, 'In which sport?'

“He thought we were coming together as a team. He thought we were close.”

These words have spoken before around Nebraska basketball, just before the bandwagon careens off the cliff.

That moment might have been when Michigan thumped them, 79-50, on Feb. 5. But Miles held individual player meetings the next day instead of practicing. In his meeting with Petteway, Miles asked the sophomore what he thought about why NU couldn't win on the road. Petteway suggested that NU stop trying to run with teams and start controlling the tempo.

They haven't lost since.

So now here comes Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana and Wisconsin. Three at home, two on the road. Most of those games can't help you if you win, but they can hurt you if you don't. There seems to be a train of thought that if NU can finish top six, with 10 league wins, and another at the Big Ten tourney, that would do it.

But this time of year, you don't know. That's why this time of year is great.

Forget the parachute. Forget the scars. What's there to lose? There were no expectations for this team. If it's in the NIT, it's still a chance to play, to practice, to build for next year with this nucleus.

Maybe that's the old way talking. This coach doesn't want to settle. And he's got a point. In the Big Ten, NCAA tourneys don't come every year. At Nebraska, NCAA droughts are like a Russian winter. When the opportunity shows itself, you grab it.

Don't be afraid to fail. Heck, don't be afraid to succeed.

As the coach says, why not?

* * *

Video: How loud was Pinnacle Bank Arena during lineups?

Video: Highlights

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.



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