LINCOLN — “Making history is hard.”
Engrave those words on the cover of the 2018-19 Nebraska basketball scrapbook, before tossing it on the pile of the others in the bottom of a Pinnacle Bank Arena closet.
Making history is hard. Isaac Copeland said it, and he should know. Copeland came to NU from Georgetown, where he was surrounded by the massive history of the program. He came to make his own legacy, and he was on his way, until he went up for that dunk.
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That moment is still frozen in my mind. It happened on Jan. 26, Saturday afternoon, Ohio State at PBA. On the second possession of the second half, Copeland was whistled for traveling.
Copeland decided to finish the play, and went up for a dunk. Ohio State’s Musa Jallow went up to contest the dunk, just a couple of guys playing after the whistle. It looked harmless.
But then Copeland landed awkwardly. He lay on the floor behind the basket, holding his knee. He later returned from the locker room and watched the rest of the game on the bench.
Maybe he’d miss a week, a couple of games, if they were lucky. But no such luck.
About three hours later, I recall seeing the news on Twitter: Copeland out for the season with a torn ACL.
History is hard. And harder to watch when it doesn’t happen.
Nebraska lost to the Buckeyes that day, and since then has gone 2-8. Copeland has had to watch, knowing he could have done something to stop the bleeding, reverse the trend, anything.
“It hurts a lot, especially us losing,” Copeland said on Friday. “I feel like I could make a difference.”
On Sunday Copeland and the others will go through a Senior Day they never imagined, with the team 15-15 and 5-14 and in 13th place in the Big Ten. No postseason, no history.
There’s an old, overused saying that the saddest words in sports are “It might have been.” There is no truth that the author of that phrase was a Nebraska basketball coach.
For the last several weeks of the season, Copeland had to sit and watch his team lose and lose and lose. Flounder at Illinois. Pounded by Maryland and Purdue. Demolished at Penn State.
It was hell, but he wasn’t alone. Every Nebraska basketball fan who ever dreamed a dream was sitting next to him on that bench, watching the wreck unfold, in slow motion, night after night.
This one will be hard to forget, but the sooner the better.
If there’s a consolation, it’s that Copeland should not lose a moment’s sleep over his impact on the Huskers’ fate. His injury didn’t help matters. But it was not solely responsible for the way the season went.
There were still plenty of games left, still plenty of seniors, still plenty of able bodies. Enough to make a stand, with effort and heart and playmaking and some prodding and adjustments from the coaches. This was about more than one injury, even a big one, and Copeland knows that.
“We already lost three games in a row with me (including the Ohio State game),” he said. “A lot of things happen. It’s hard to win in the Big Ten.”
Sure, at the time he was injured, Copeland was having the kind of year he wanted: averaging 14 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals. Without a true center, NU used the 6-foot-9 senior around the floor, drawing mismatches inside and out.
“When Isaac’s in the game, you had all this versatility,” NU coach Tim Miles said Friday. “You had a team switching ball screens — Copeland was a danger to drive it, shoot it, pass it. Now you put a different guy out there, not his skill set.
“He had an excellent sense of when to be there, sense of when the post feed was coming and when to double. It just lessens you in every way.
“You have to overcome it.”
They didn’t do it. And there’s no need to point fingers or assign blame at this point. They all had a hand in it, from the coaching staff on down.
It was mind-blowing, really, to watch a team that had so much momentum and confidence — a rotation and formula to win back in December — turn into a team that limped to the finish with performances that had a broadcaster calling out their effort on national TV.
A basketball season is fragile, and if the Copeland injury showed anything, it was the fragility of the program. New roles had to be learned. But mostly, the seniors on the team — along with junior Isaiah Roby — had to carry the thing, night in and out.
“You really can’t put the way the season’s gone on one thing,” said senior forward Tanner Borchardt. “We had to step up and fill the role. Yeah, it did have a big impact on us, but we had to find ourselves and accept new roles we weren’t comfortable with.”
Suddenly, the what-if wasn’t about Copeland. What if Michael Jacobson had stayed? Or Ed Morrow? Or Jordy Tshimanga? These were role players who could have added the dimension of rebounding, defense and scoring inside.
What if? What if the Big Ten had been better last year and carried the Huskers and their 13 league wins into the NCAA tournament? What if Andrew White had stayed?
How about this: What if Nebraska had found a way to get two or three more wins? For all their struggles, the Huskers are still 51st in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The NCAA tourney bubble is crazy wide open.
Had they finished that game at Minnesota, or Maryland, or shown up at Penn State, or held on to the 13-point lead at Rutgers, or ...
“I talked to my wife the other day and she said, ‘How in the world is Indiana on the bubble?’” Miles said. “I said, ‘Well, if we had won this game or that game going into Iowa, we’d be right there.’ Just two more games.”
In a way, it’s been the theme of Miles’ time at Nebraska. He made things better. But it’s still been maddeningly short.
“You have to overcome it,” Miles said. “But sometimes you don’t. That’s a great compliment to Isaac. It’s not a great compliment to my wizardry coaching.
“When you look at that, it’s hurt us. No doubt in my mind, if he was still with us, we’re fighting for a 7 or 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.”
Making history was hard enough with him.
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March 24, 2012: Tim Miles is introduced as Nebraska's men's basketball coach after five seasons at Colorado State, where he led the Rams to the NCAA tournament in his final season.
Nov. 11, 2012: Tim Miles coaches his first game for the Huskers and picks up his first win, defeating Southern 66-55.
Nov. 27, 2012: Tim Miles becomes the first Nebraska coach in 93 years to win his road debut after the Huskers defeat Wake Forest.
March 6, 2013: Tim Miles coaches the Huskers to a victory in the final men's basketball game played in the Devaney Center, a two-point win over Minnesota.
March 14, 2013: Nebraska earns its first-ever Big Ten tournament victory with a 57-55 win over Purdue.
March 15, 2013: Tim Miles' first season as Nebraska's head coach comes to an end with a loss to No. 10 Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. The Huskers finished that season with a 15-18 overall record.
Jan. 20, 2014: Tim Miles wins his first game at Nebraska against a ranked opponent, beating No. 17 Ohio State, 68-62. Miles went winless in his first 12 games against ranked teams.
Feb. 16, 2014: It had been 17 years since Nebraska last beat a top-10 team on the road, but Tim Miles changed that with a 60-51 victory over No. 9 Michigan State.
March 9, 2014: Nebraska upsets No. 9 Wisconsin in front of a raucous crowd on what Tim Miles dubbed "no-sit Sunday." That win completed a 15-1 home record in Pinnacle Bank Arena's first season and capped a stretch of eight wins in NU's final games to propel the Huskers into the NCAA tournament.
March 10, 2014: After leading the Huskers to a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten standings, Tim Miles is named the conference's coach of the year.
March 21, 2014: Nebraska reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 16 years, but Tim Miles would get ejected in the second half as Baylor eliminated the Huskers with a 14-point victory.
April 4, 2014: Tim Miles wins the Jim Phelan Award as national coach of the year after leading Nebraska to a winning record overall and in conference, the first time that happened since the 1998-99 season.
Nov. 16, 2014: Nebraska opens the 2014-15 season ranked No. 21 in the country, the first time the Huskers cracked the Top 25 in 20 years. But NU would drop out of the rankings after losing the fourth game of the season.
Feb. 22, 2015: Tim Miles locks his team out of the locker room after a 74-46 home loss to Iowa.
March 11, 2015: Tim Miles completes a disappointing third season at Nebraska with a loss to Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. NU finished the year with a 13-18 overall record and on a nine-game losing streak.
Jan. 20, 2016: Tim Miles proves he has a knack for beating Michigan State, upsetting the No. 11-ranked Spartans, 72-71, on the road.
March 11, 2016: Year four under Tim Miles ends with another losing record, though the Huskers did win two games to reach the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament before falling to No. 18 Maryland.
Aug. 4, 2016: Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst tells The World-Herald that he decided not to offer Tim Miles a one-year extension on his contract that would've kept the length at an industry-standard five years.
Feb. 22, 2017: Amidst growing uncertainty about his future at Nebraska, Tim Miles says during a press conference: “I want to be forceful that I want to be the coach here. I believe Shawn (Eichorst) wants me to be the coach here. I believe Marc (Boehm) does.”
March 5, 2017: Nebraska and Tim Miles finish the 2016-17 regular season with a 93-57 loss to Michigan, the most lopsided home defeat in program history.
March 8, 2017: Nebraska's fifth season under Tim Miles ends with an overtime loss to Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. The Huskers finish 12-19 overall, their third consecutive year with a losing record, but Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst tweeted immediately after the game that Miles would return for another season.
Sept.-Oct. 2017: Tim Miles gets a new boss after Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst was fired on Sept. 21. “This doesn’t affect us on the court," Miles said at the time. "We have in place what we have, and we’re in a position to elevate our program.” Bill Moos was hired about a month later, someone Miles expected could "help us all get better."
Oct. 19, 2017: Expectations were low for Tim Miles and the Huskers in 2017 as they were picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten preseason media poll. "I think we’re going to outperform that," Miles said. "I would expect we do."
Dec. 16, 2017: Nebraska nearly had one of its biggest upset of the Tim Miles era when it led No. 13 Kansas with under a minute to play. Then a 3-pointer by the Jayhawks with 23 seconds left sealed the win, leaving the Huskers 7-5. “They make one more play than we do," Miles said. "That hurts.”
Feb. 25, 2018: Nebraska caught fire in the Big Ten portion of the 2017-18 season. The Huskers capped it off with a win over Penn State to finish the regular season 22-9 with a school-record 13 conference wins.
March 2, 2018: Despite the strong regular season, Nebraska was still on the NCAA tournament bubble entering the Big Ten tournament. A 19-point loss to Michigan in the opening game sunk the Huskers' postseason hopes, and two days later, they were left out of March Madness.
March 14, 2018: The disappointment from not making the NCAA tournament carried into the NIT, as Nebraska's record-breaking season ended with a first-round loss at Mississippi State.
April 17, 2018: Despite the disappointing end to the season, there was still enough optimism surrounding Tim Miles' program that A.D. Bill Moos granted him a one-year contract extension — though there were some questioning why it was only one year. "I'm excited about our progress, so the length isn't a big deal to me," Miles said. "I'm glad Bill — and the upper administration — saw fit to extend me."
May 30, 2018: Isaac Copeland and James Palmer (pictured, left) announce they'll return to Nebraska for their senior season after considering the NBA. That meant Tim Miles returned his four stars — Copeland, Palmer, Isaiah Roby (pictured, right) and Glynn Watson — sending expectations for the 2018-19 season through the roof.
October 2018: There was a lot of hype surrounding Tim Miles' Huskers near the start of the season. They were picked to finish fourth in a strong Big Ten and were ranked in the preseason coaches poll. "We have four guys I think anybody in the league would take," Miles said.
Dec. 3, 2018: After starting the season 7-1, the Huskers move up to No. 24 in the AP poll. It was the first time in four years Nebraska had appeared in those rankings.
Dec. 8, 2018: Tim Miles finally got the blue and white monkey off his back after beating Creighton by 19 points. It Miles' first win over his in-state rival and ended Nebraska's seven-game losing streak against the Jays. "I just wanted to get that win for my coach," said Glynn Watson, pictured. "I've been here with him through the thick and thin."
Jan. 26, 2019: Nebraska's once-promising season seemingly started to unravel after a 10-point loss at home to Ohio State. It was the Huskers' third straight defeat and the fifth in seven games. It dropped them to 3-6 in the Big Ten, more losses than they had in conference all of the previous season. And to make it worse, starter Isaac Copeland suffered a season-ending torn ACL during the game.
Feb. 9, 2019: The Huskers' struggles continued without Isaac Copeland and Tim Miles spoke about hitting "rock bottom" in a loss to Maryland a few days later. But the losing eventually hit seven after an 81-62 loss at Purdue on this day.
Feb. 13, 2019: After 30 days, seven losses and a litany of disappointment, Nebraska broke its seven-game losing streak with a 62-61 win over Minnesota. “This is good, finally,” Tim Miles said. “There’s a collective sigh of relief.”
March 5, 2019: The good vibes from back-to-back wins dissipated after the losses returned. The Huskers lost four straight games — including three to ranked opponents — culminating in a 91-76 defeat at Michigan State.
March 10, 2019: A disappointing year ended with a bang when Nebraska overcame a 16-point deficit to defeat Iowa in overtime. “That’s a special one,” Tim Miles said. Despite the win, though, Nebraska still finished the regular season 16-15 overall and 6-14 in the Big Ten.
March 15, 2019: Tim Miles took a shorthanded team to the Big Ten tournament — just six active scholarship players — and went on a run. The 13th-seeded Huskers beat Rutgers in the opening game, then upset No. 5 seed Maryland to reach the quarterfinals. But the Huskers were eliminated after a 66-62 loss to No. 4 seed Wisconsin.
March 24, 2019: The 2018-19 season comes to an end in Fort Worth, Texas. After the Huskers won their first-round game of the NIT against Butler, they traveled to face TCU. Short-handed due to injury and Isaiah Roby's ejection, Nebraska fell 88-72 to finish the year 19-17.
March 26, 2019: Tim Miles is fired after seven seasons as Nebraska's basketball coach. He compiled a 116-114 record — the third-most wins in program history — but he never advanced past the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament and only reached the NCAA tournament once.