“Commitment to doing the same boring thing over and over.” — Tim Miles
In college basketball, there’s no such thing as a must-win in December. But walking in to Pinnacle Bank Arena Tuesday night, Nebraska was pretty close.
The Huskers were coming off a 29-point drubbing at Michigan State. They’d lost two important games (St. John’s and Central Florida) prior to that.
And the path ahead was daunting. A Saturday road trip to Creighton, where NU usually gets depantsed in front of 18,000 laughing Bluejays. Then a home game with No. 2 Kansas.
Miles’ team, fighting for credibility and confidence, needed a win over No. 14 Minnesota, perhaps the second-best team in the Big Ten, a team that averaged 89.4 points per game. What happened?
The Huskers produced their best defensive performance I remember in a long time. They ran double teams at Minnesota’s big men. They protected the rim with fury. They seized loose balls. They chipped all the shine off the Golden Gophers.
Minnesota shot 32 percent from the field, but the Gophers were 6-for-16 on 3s — decent enough. They were 16-for-52 on 2s! Nebraska challenged almost all of them, blocking nine shots.
As Lee Barfknecht wrote, “NU held Minnesota to one point on the first seven possessions” of the second half. A rowdy Husker crowd, still festive from Scott Frost’s hire, could comfortably head to the exits with four minutes left.
What happened Tuesday night was no fluke. It offered legitimate hope that Miles can turn this thing around in 2017-18. Nebraska isn’t skilled enough to make the NCAA tournament with its offense. The path to 18-20 wins is shutting teams down. How does NU become great defensively?
That’s when Miles gave me the “boring thing over and over” quote. The Huskers got a first-hand look at defensive commitment Sunday in East Lansing.
“I think the Michigan State ‘experience,’ as we’re going to call it, was really good for us because that is an elite team that really plays hard and they just keep coming at you," Miles said.
"You feel that. You don’t see it on TV. It just looks like you’re getting whacked. But when you’re there and our players get hit on a screen or whatever, Michigan State teaches you a lesson. I thought we learned a hard one, but I thought we put it to good use.”
The past few years, Miles didn’t have the personnel to be great defensively. His team was too small, too slow and too shallow. This year, with a bevy of quick guards and rangy wings, forcing tough shots is doable. The concern is rebounding.
“It sounds weird,” Miles said, “but rebounding and defense are completely two different things. They’re two different skills, right?”
What if the swarming defense Kenya Hunter suggested Tuesday night gave the Huskers more energy? Miles went home thinking about it.
“OK, did the double teams and the other things make them more aggressive to get them to the glass? ... I just have to look at that and make a decision as a schematic type of thing.”
He knows this for sure: Through nine games, the Huskers were too soft — too finesse — in the paint and on the glass. “Tonight I don’t think we played finesse at all,” Miles said.
If the Huskers carry over their new mindset to Saturday at CenturyLink Center, they'll compete with Creighton. If they come out scared and soft again, they’ll be reaching for their shorts by the first TV timeout.
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>> I have an epilogue to my Monday column about the approximately 200 former Huskers who returned to greet Scott Frost. (Scan ahead if you already read it). Here's the part relevant to today's blog.
One of those was a 45-year-old reserve offensive lineman who lives in Chatham, Illinois.
Bryan Pruitt came home Saturday afternoon from his daughter’s basketball game and caught the highlights of Central Florida’s double-overtime win over Memphis. The Illinois state policeman saw Frost celebrating with his players — what a cool guy, he thought. Soon Pruitt saw the news reports and the email from Moos.
“Hey, check this out,” Pruitt told his wife.
“You should go,” she said.
Drive six hours to Lincoln? Pruitt shook it off, but he couldn’t quite let it go. In 1990, he came to Nebraska as a Prop 48 walk-on. He bought in to Osborne’s system. Worked his way up to playing time.
He was on the field when Byron Bennett missed the game-winning field goal against Florida State on New Year’s Night 1994. He was there one year later when the Huskers doused Osborne with Gatorade.
When Pruitt thought of Nebraska, he thought of a walk-on from Stanton named Brady Caskey. Before their senior seasons, Osborne awarded them scholarships for their hard work. A couple days later, he returned and apologized. Something came up; Osborne only had one to give.
That’s when Caskey stepped up: Bryan, he said, I want you to have it. You need it more than I do.
“I’ll never, ever forget that,” Pruitt said. “Who does that? It’s this kid’s lifelong dream to earn a scholarship and he gave it to me. That’s the way Nebraska people are.”
Saturday night at 9:30, Pruitt decided to go for it. He threw a couple shirts in his truck and took off for Lincoln. “I’m either stupid or crazy, I’m not sure.”
At 4:30 a.m., he got a room at Embassy Suites. Seven hours later, he walked up to a man he’d never met, the former quarterback who arrived at Nebraska just days after Pruitt’s last college game, and extended his hand.
Congratulations, he told Scott Frost. Good luck.
That column prompted a conversation between Pruitt and Caskey. “We finally put two and two together,” Pruitt said.
Osborne pulled one of the scholarship offers after the Orange Bowl, not before their senior seasons. That way they’d have scholarship money before they graduated. So what event would’ve prompted Osborne to pull the offer?
The January 1995 arrival of a quarterback transfer from Stanford.
“Honestly,” Pruitt said, “we never thought of it, but that is probably what happened.”
>> Driving to Lincoln Tuesday night, I was listening to Kent Pavelka and Matt Davison when it dawned on me that an underrated era is coming to an end. With Davison moving into the football office, he won’t have time to analyze Husker hoops.
When is his last game? Davison doesn’t know yet, but it might be as soon as the end of the month. It’s hard to imagine a different (permanent) partnership. Pavelka and Davison are the perfect personalities to describe the sometimes-abysmal, often-maddening world of Husker hoops.
Even Tuesday night there was a classic little moment. Pavelka compared Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey to Husker sophomore Isaiah Roby, if I remember right. Similar players, Pavelka said. Both left-handed. There was a two- or three-second pause.
“Roby’s not left-handed,” Davison said.
Pretty soon they were laughing. I was, too.
>> I wonder if Bill Moos showed Scott Frost the 2018 schedule during their meeting in Philadelphia. I doubt it! Frost is going to have a hard time finding easy wins, especially with the East Division crossover games.
While Nebraska faces Michigan (road), Ohio State (road) and Michigan State, his chief rivals get breathers. Wisconsin goes at Michigan, at Penn State and Rutgers. Iowa’s is softer: at Indiana, at Penn State, Maryland.
The good news? Frost’s load lightens in 2019 (Ohio State, Indiana, at Maryland) while Iowa steps up (Rutgers, at Michigan, Penn State) and Wisconsin faces the gantlet (Michigan, Michigan State, at Ohio State).
>> Well, Americans won’t have to worry about Russian medal count at the 2018 Winter Olympics. It’s a stunning punishment from the IOC. It’s also 100 percent warranted following the rampant doping before Sochi.
>> Who’s the Alpha dog on the Golden State Warriors, Steph or KD? With Curry on the shelf these next few weeks, we might finally get the answer, Zach Lowe writes.
On a side note, since the summer of 2016, I've always believed that the biggest threat to Golden State’s dynasty wasn’t another team, it was injury. Curry and Durant are fragile. The idea of both staying healthy for three or four consecutive seasons seems like a long shot.
Wouldn't it be bizarre if, in the midst of this Warriors-Cavs rivalry, neither one made it to June?
>> The plays that shaped the college football playoff. A very cool idea from ESPN.
>> Finally, 9-year-olds demonstrating sportsmanship on the ice. This will brighten your day.