Shatel: Huskers delivered message vs. Hoosiers by getting 'nasty back.' Can NU make another statement?

Nebraska — and the Big Ten — were reminded of what the Huskers can be, and it was all very timely. This is a mentality Nebraska will need when it tries to make history in the NCAA tournament in March. 

LINCOLN — The best team won the other night in Indiana. That’s not coming from some Nebraska guy with a laptop. That’s straight talk from an Indiana Hoosier.

That may be hard to believe. Except that Hoosier is Nebraska assistant Michael Lewis.

The Huskers stormed Assembly Hall on Monday night, pushed the Hoosiers around, took their lunch money and went down and dunked on the other end.

It was no upset. Just like it won’t be an upset if Nebraska beats big, bad Michigan State Thursday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It could happen. If it does, it’s not a storm-the-court moment for Nebraska. It should be, hey, the Huskers are good. The better team won.

Nebraska needs to believe that — even if much of the Big Ten may not, especially the sector in and around central Indiana.

The reports from Hoosierville after Nebraska’s 66-51 win Monday ranked somewhere between panic and Armageddon.

Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel called it the “darkest moment” of Indiana’s season. And added “the loss was bad because it was Nebraska, the location was Assembly Hall, the score was lopsided and the fan base was booing.”

Another Indiana beat writer wrote, “Nobody is saying that losing to Nebraska is acceptable.”

And Bob Kravitz of the Athletic tweeted, “Archie’s (Miller) endless honeymoon continues. If (Tom) Crean had lost like this to Nebraska at home, all hell would be breaking loose.”

Boy, does this sound familiar. Like what might be coming out of this keyboard if Nebraska football lost to IU at home. Or, that game at Purdue a few years back.

It’s not good being on the other end. Asked Wednesday how well NU played at Indiana, coach Tim Miles said, “I think we just caught Indiana having a bad night.”

Excuse me while I get the sarcasm off my notebook.

Lewis understands. He grew up in a Hoosiers movie, in small town Jasper, Indiana. Lewis was an all-star in high school and ranks 13th on the state’s all-time scoring list. He played for the legendary Bob Knight at Indiana.

So Monday was special, and also a bit surreal for Lewis. He spent a lot of time catching up with old friends. Hoosier fans remembered him well. During the pregame shootaround, he soaked up the quiet Assembly Hall, with the five national title banners, and all those memories. Later, he walked back to the team hotel so he could look around the IU campus for the first time in 20 years.

Soon, he was in the Husker locker room, reminding the team to ignore all the Hoosier fans and ghosts and red candy stripes. And play with poise and passion.

Play like the Nebraska team that most folks — maybe not in Indiana — expected to see this season.

“I get what they’re (Indiana media and fans) saying, because historically and traditionally, maybe Indiana shouldn’t be in the position that they’re in,” Lewis said.

“But we’re the better team. That’s what we talked to the guys about heading into the game.”

The message wasn’t meant for IU or the rest of the Big Ten. It was a message to a Nebraska team that was coming off losses at Maryland and Iowa and didn’t look particularly good in beating Penn State.

Hey guys. You’re pretty good, too.

“I think too much, our guys live in a world of social media,” said Lewis, sitting in his office Wednesday. “They put a lot of self value and worth into likes and followers. That’s not real life. What some dude is popping off about on Twitter is not real life.

“In the (NET) rankings that they’ll use to select the NCAA tournament, you’re 13th in the country. You’re a really good basketball team. That hasn’t changed because you lose two Big Ten games on the road. You’re a good basketball team. You’re in the middle of the best two-year run in Nebraska basketball history in the last 30 years.

“You’re really good. Let’s get that nasty back, get back to who we are. Get that chip back on the shoulder that you had at the start of the season. You came here to do something special — all that is in front of you.” 

Of course, nothing gets the juices flowing like a trip to Assembly Hall then a visit from Tom Izzo. But the Husker coaches’ message was important.

When the Huskers are on, they’re one of the best teams in the Big Ten. They look like a team that can get to the second weekend in the NCAA tournament.

But this program still fights for credibility in the college hoops world. No matter what the résumé or film shows, this is a program that has made one NCAA tournament since 1998.

And, of course, it’s the only major conference team to never win an NCAA tourney game.

The college game is so mental, so much about confidence and swagger. How often you bring it can swing a season. This program sometimes focuses on what can go wrong rather than what can go right. The fans, media, everyone is guilty.

Nebraska — and the Big Ten — were reminded of what the Huskers can be, and it was all very timely. This is a mentality Nebraska will need when it tries to make history in the NCAA tournament in March. It’s never too early to work on becoming the team that can get that done.

Now here come the Spartans. They’ve got the Final Four look. Their big bruisers are a walking mismatch for Nebraska. Though Tanner Borchardt just had a root canal, he’s not afraid of anything.

This would be a good time for the pregame reminder from the coaches, including this one: These Nebraska players thumped Michigan by 20 last year — the same Michigan that finished national runner-up.

The Huskers will have to bring their “A” game and “A” defense and “A” shooting percentage game. They outrebounded Indiana 40-31. Don’t ask how it happened. Just bring that again.

This is a tall order, but gosh, the Huskers won’t need a ladder. They’re good enough. Ask any Hoosier.

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Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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