LINCOLN — Tim Miles lifted his new, dark chocolate, square-framed glasses.
“You don’t get raccoon eyes because you want them,” he said, showing off the bags his glasses were hiding.
During Creighton week, you don’t rest. You try to convince yourself it is just another game, Miles said.
“But when you’re in it, it means everything,” he said. “You don’t sleep.”
Not when you’ve lost 14 straight games to Greg McDermott, and you’re sick of being handed golf balls with your 0-7 record against Creighton on it. Not when you have your best team in years and the pressure of beating Creighton is mounting. Not when the new athletic director extends your contract just a year after a 22-8 season, and not when you’re coming off a loss that made the fan base anxious.
Rested or not, Nebraska (7-2) will host Creighton (6-2) at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday in a game that really, really matters.
“We all accept it as a big game,” Miles said. “I do, certainly.”
Forward Isaiah Roby said on Friday he’s been told by friends they don’t care how the team does as long as it beats Creighton. And entering this season, it appeared that with Miles’ returners and Creighton rebuilding, this would be the year Nebraska could handle Creighton with relative ease.
But the circumstances have shifted over the past few months.
In one corner, there’s Creighton. A team that, in recent weeks, has found its stroke. After struggling early on to find replacements for Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, Creighton has become one of the best offensive teams in college basketball. Ten players shoot better than 48 percent from the floor, and they’re making 45 percent of their 3-point attempts and 57 percent of their shots from inside the arc. The Jays took No. 1 Gonzaga to the brink in a 103-92 loss last Saturday and have had a week off to prepare for Nebraska.
In the other corner, there’s Nebraska, a team coming off a disappointing loss at Minnesota, in which the Huskers blew a 13-point lead in the second half. Before the season, this team was crowned as Nebraska’s next hope, with All-Big Ten player James Palmer and the rest of the core four. Preseason predictions had the Huskers in the NCAA tournament — and winning when they got there. And though those goals are still in view with the 7-2 start, the loss Wednesday night has soured expectations for some fans.
The start is the best for a Miles team at Nebraska in seven seasons. But that isn’t stopping the criticism that has flooded in over the past two days about Miles and the direction of the program.
Miles sees the anger online. He gets it. He understands it. The criticism, he said, means the fans care.
“They need to be saying, ‘This bum, what’s he doing? Why are we still stuck with them?’ ” Miles said. “I’m not happy, either. Guess who else is grumbling? (My wife) back at the house. ‘Why aren’t you calling timeouts?’ I’m getting business from the dog. And so you should get that.”
When a coach is at a school long enough, Miles said, he becomes defined by what he hasn’t done.
For Miles, that’s beating Creighton. Not only have the Bluejays beaten Nebraska the last seven years, including once under Miles’ predecessor, Doc Sadler, they’ve won by double digits in each game.
Saturday’s game will be Nebraska’s third in six days. And yet, despite the history and the Nebraska’s loss on Wednesday, the Huskers are favored on Saturday by six. The last time Nebraska was favored was 2014, when NU was coming off its NCAA tournament bid the season prior. The Huskers were 5 1/2-point favorites. They lost to Creighton by 10 at home.
A repeat of that 2014-15 season is what Nebraska is trying desperately to avoid. That was the last time the Huskers were ranked, the last time there was obvious optimism surrounding the program. A win over Creighton could quiet naysayers, who haven’t bought into the team yet. But a loss could lead to a hefty number of fans jumping off ship.
Down Interstate 80, Creighton knows what’s coming. The Jays have won the last few years, but that means little.
“We’re always going to get their best,” Creighton guard Davion Mintz said. “Regardless of how their team may be, we know they’re going to play their hardest just because it’s us.”
For everyone, there’s extra motivation heading into Saturday.
For fans on both sides, Saturday represents a day to claim the throne. Creighton fans will want to prove despite Nebraska’s preseason hype, their Jays are still kings. Nebraska fans will have an opportunity to yell at Creighton players and coaches for the first time since the program was named in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. Creighton’s first true road game will be a sellout, and the arena will be packed with nervous, anxious, excited hatred.
For Creighton, the extra motivation is to defend its streak. For Miles, it’s to punch back at McDermott.
“I haven’t beat him. So I need to beat him, right? And I won’t be happy until we beat them 14 straight,” Miles said.
And for the Nebraska team, the motivation is all of it. The streak, Miles, pride. Everything.
After practice Thursday, Palmer told the players in the locker room they had to win this game for Miles. Isaac Copeland added they need to win for Glynn Watson, the four-year starter who has yet to beat the Jays.
“We gotta win this for us,” Thomas Allen said.
The team, the program, knows what rides on Saturday.
“We all wanna beat Creighton,” Roby said.