Barfknecht: Fellow Big Ten coaches' praise for Miles, NU is more than lip service

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, shown talking with Travis Trice during the Nebraska game, praised the Huskers for their defense and hustle, such as David Rivers' play against Branden Dawson, above.

Beware of coaches at the top of a league who shower praise on those near the bottom.

Such comments can be patronizing or bogus, with shrewd operators trying to prop up opposing coaches they want to keep on the job because they beat them regularly.

On Monday's Big Ten men's basketball teleconference, we heard several nice things said about first-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who has yet to win a league game.

But this didn't sound like professional courtesy or apple-polishing. And I think I can tell the difference after 30 years of deciphering what opposing coaches had to say about Moe Iba, Danny Nee, Barry Collier and Doc Sadler.

Nebraska (9-8, 0-4) legitimately has forced the Big Ten to sit up and take notice after putting a scare into No. 2 Michigan and No. 22 Michigan State — both on the road.

“Here is a team,” MSU coach Tom Izzo told The World-Herald, “that hasn't won a conference game and is at the bottom of the conference, and yet I don't think anybody wants to play them home or away.

“They gave Wisconsin a heck of a game. They are going to be a tough team to play on certain nights, I can promise you that.”

Nebraska, the runaway pick in preseason to finish last in the Big Ten, stood nose to nose all night with Michigan State in front of 15,000 boisterous fans despite missing team leader Brandon Ubel because of injury, using a walk-on for 12 minutes and having only four players score.

“I think Tim has done an incredible job already,” Izzo said. “They've always been good defensively the whole season.

“They've struggled to put the ball in the hole at times. But if they ever get (guard Ray) Gallegos to shoot a higher percentage, this is going to be a serious team.”

At Michigan, the Huskers held the Wolverines 20 points under their 82-point scoring average and neutralized a key weapon — the fast break. Michigan got 17 percent of its points on fast breaks against Iowa and 15 percent against Ohio State. Against Nebraska, it was 3 percent.

Michigan coach John Beilein noted Monday that NU has a few veteran players “who have been around the block” but a depleted bench.

“So what you do is shorten the game,” he said. “And they play good, sound defense — a containing defense, which we don't always see.”

Also new to the Wolverines' youthful lineup was Nebraska going underneath ball screens on the perimeter, which allowed longer open shots but limited drives to the basket. It created confusion.

“They played the ball screen completely different than Ohio (State) played it yesterday,” Beilein said. “As a result, that's a strategy that can really work. They almost got us and they almost got Michigan State.

“There are a lot of ways to win. Tim is experienced in that, and will continue to find ways.”

Besides some legitimate compliments about Nebraska basketball, another refreshing change this season is the head coach's honesty.

Miles hasn't asked for sympathy despite usually having only seven scholarship players available. He hasn't tried to claim moral victories after close losses to ranked opponents. The Husker defense, which has been excellent, gets no more than a “pretty good” from Miles.

Note, too, that he openly calls out his veterans after rough games. It's not in a mean-spirited way, though it can sometimes sound harsh. He's simply demanding proper play from scholarship athletes at this level.

It all comes down to Miles and his staff setting an internal standard of excellence and demanding that all involved do their best to meet it. In a way, it is reminiscent of what Bill Snyder did with a decrepit Kansas State football program when he took over, except Miles does it with a smile while Snyder scowled.

Now, for a reality check.

It's only been 10 months since Miles jumped onto the sinking ship that has been Nebraska basketball during the current dark period. He hasn't saved anything yet. But at least he appears to have figured out the location of the light switch and the rudder.

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