James Palmer

James Palmer scored 29 points Sunday to help lift the Huskers past Oklahoma State in South Dakota.

I'm old enough to remember when Nebraska basketball wasn’t a national powerhouse.

When the Huskers weren’t a trendy pick to make a deep NCAA tournament run. When the Huskers didn't humiliate major-conference opponents by 20 points, one week with an offensive avalanche, the next week with a defensive hurricane. 

I’m old enough to remember when the analytical gurus didn’t consider Nebraska and Kansas peers. 

KenPom ranks Nebraska 14th, two spots ahead of Kentucky.

(I'm picturing John Calipari at a booster luncheon this week. Jim Bob from Paducah grabs the mic and says, “Why can’t we recruit more like Nebraska?”)

The Massey ratings have Nebraska 13th. The Sagarin ratings have Nebraska ninth, three spots ahead of Tennessee. Haslametrics ranks Nebraska eighth, one spot ahead of North Carolina. 

Every day seems to produce a new advanced statistic touting Nebraska’s excellence. It’s so bizarre not only because — in case you missed it — the Huskers have never won an NCAA tournament game, but also because this is essentially the same roster that was shunned by the metrics (and pundits) a year ago.

Before we ask the obvious question — "Is Nebraska basketball really better than we think?” — let's try to solve the analytical mystery. I'll be honest, I can't figure it out. 

Sure, the Huskers pass the eye test with one of the nation's most experienced and versatile starting lineups. It’s no surprise the experts believe in them.

But they haven’t beaten a top-40 team in the advanced ratings, let alone a top-25 foe. The only time they played a top-25 team, Texas Tech wiped the floor with Herbie's overalls. 

And what about Minnesota? Were the algorithms taking a night off when Nebraska collapsed in the final five minutes?

What are these computers smoking? 

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North Carolina and Tennessee both beat Gonzaga. Nebraska doesn't have a win anywhere close to those. So how can NU be ranked so high?

Because the advanced statistics account for every possession of every game, not just final scores of showdowns. And the Huskers are destroying teams. They beat Seton Hall by 23, Creighton by 19, Oklahoma State by 23, not to mention Mississippi Valley State by 69 and Southeastern Louisiana by 52.

Perhaps none are NCAA tournament teams (I think CU will be), but they're all safely in the top 100. 

Nebraska is fifth nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense, according to KenPom. In other words, teams don't make shots (27 percent of 2s and 42 percent of 3s, both elite numbers). The Huskers force turnovers. They don't put teams on the foul line.

As for offense, the Huskers do make shots, especially an extraordinarily high percentage of 2s (57 percent). They make 74 percent of free throws. They don’t commit turnovers.

The only considerable weakness, at both ends, is rebounding, which seems unavoidable based on NU's lineup composition. But even those numbers aren't that bad.

Basically what the advanced statistics say is that Nebraska hasn’t recorded any big wins yet, but just wait, they're coming. 

Husker fans better hope they're right. Because the first five games of post-Christmas Big Ten play are as tough as anything the program has faced in a long time: at Maryland, at Iowa, Penn State, at Indiana, Michigan State. All are top-50 teams, according to KenPom.

If Nebraska plays the way it did against Oklahoma State in the first half, that will be a miserable stretch. If Nebraska plays the way it did in the second half Sunday, you might be looking at 4-1 and a team that rises into the top 10 in the old-fashioned AP and coaches polls.  

After halftime, the Huskers absolutely suffocated Oklahoma State, displaying a level of defensive intensity that ordinary teams can’t generate. Nineteen turnovers and 0.81 points per possession for the game is pretty stunning against a top-100 team. 

Tim Miles' offense will come and go — we’ve seen the spurts and occasional droughts — but his defense creates a margin for error that Nebraska sorely needs in order to be great.

So is Nebraska basketball really better than we think? Is it really as dominant as the advanced metrics suggest? Or is it just feasting on mediocre competition? My sense is it's in the middle, probably closer to its AP ranking of 25.

But I'll admit, my views are influenced by two decades of futility. It doesn't seem possible that Nebraska could be on the same level with the blue bloods.

Let your imagination roam this Christmas season, Husker fans. Come the first half of January, we'll know for sure.

* * *

>> You can’t possibly come within three points of a national championship without feeling devastated. Nebraska volleyball players, coaches and fans will think back on those critical moments of the fifth set Saturday with a feeling of “What if?” 

But if ever there was a time to leave the floor with your glass half full, this was it. The Huskers lost the best setter in school history 12 months ago. You aren’t supposed to come back and make the NCAA final again. 

It's a tribute to Nicklin Hames’ progress and, of course, to Nebraska's attacking arsenal. Lexi Sun emerged as a critical second option. Lauren Stivrins was a force in the middle. And Mikaela Foecke was Mikaela Foecke. 

The small-town Iowan should take a bow. Winning 21 NCAA tournament matches, including two national championships, is unprecedented at Nebraska. But just as impressive was the way she stepped up, time after time, when NU needed her. 

I don't question John Cook's ability to recruit and develop more phenoms. But Foeckes don’t come around every year. Nebraska’s biggest challenge may be replicating her intangibles. Leadership, chemistry and clutch performances enabled the past four Husker teams to play their best in December. You can’t take it for granted. 

Foecke helped make Nebraska better than it’s ever been. A third national championship would’ve been phenomenal, but losing her final match doesn’t change her legacy in Lincoln.

>> I'm no snowflake, but when I saw the image on Stanford’s locker room whiteboard, I was disgusted. The expletives and flames were one thing, but I don’t have much tolerance for pointing a fake gun (err, hairdryer?) at Nebraska’s mascot. 

Where this incident ranks on your personal outrage meter, I don't know. But I thought it was pretty inexplicable from some of the most decorated student-athletes in the country. And if we saw a similar image in Nebraska’s locker room, I think we'd say the same thing.

Now, does it ruin Stanford’s prestigious image? No. Does it stain Stanford’s national title? No. But we should at least acknowledge that the image was distasteful. 

>> North Dakota State returns to the FCS national title game. What’s new? 

Friday’s blowout of South Dakota State in Fargo is another feather in the cap for Easton Stick, the Omaha Creighton Prep quarterback who ran all over the Jackrabbits. I don't know if Stick has the arm talent to play in the NFL, but his overall athleticism makes him mighty intriguing. 

I also wonder why Chris Klieman would want to leave for Kansas State. I know, it's the Big 12. It's the next challenge. It’s more money. 

But if the salaries were the same in both places, would you rather be the head coach at KSU or NDSU? I asked that question on Twitter Friday night. With 1,826 respondents, 58 percent voted North Dakota State.

>> Well, Tre'Shawn Thurman's team held Mike Daum to a career-low five points in Nevada’s comeback win over South Dakota State on Saturday. I didn’t think it was possible to limit Daum to single figures. 

>> Last week, The Athletic posted a story about potential expansion to the College Football playoff.

Today George Schroeder updates the situation with comments from Power Five commissioners (most notably the Big 12's Bob Bowlsby and Pac-12's Larry Scott) who don't sound as bold as Barry Alvarez. 

>> UCF football faces the same predicament that mid-major basketball teams have faced for decades. What to do when the big boys won't treat you as an equal?

Florida offered to play UCF 2-for-1. UCF said no. I think that's a mistake. Anything the Knights can do to get big-game opportunities is progress. Of course, I said the same thing 6-8 years ago when Creighton basketball refused to play marquee road games (without a home-and-home).

UCF's situation is even more challenging, I think, because brand-name football programs only schedule one big nonconference game per year. 

Here's the email UCF A.D. Danny White received from Florida A.D. Scott Stricklin.

“UF isn’t in the market for home-and-home or a neutral site games against non-Autonomy 5 opponents,” Stricklin wrote. “However, we would be open to a series similar to what we’ve agreed to with USF … two games in Gainesville and one in Orlando. We are in need of a home opener for the 2022 season, so the 9/3/2022 date you mention would be a perfect date to begin the series, and we can fill in the remaining games from there.”

I understand UCF's frustration here. (Thankfully, it has nailed down a few home-and-homes over the past decade, including North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Stanford). But I look at UCF as the new Florida State/Miami. A program in a recruiting hotbed with tremendous growth potential. What did the 'Canes and 'Noles do in the 1980s to build their brand? 

They played anybody anywhere. I'd like to UCF embrace the same mentality.

>> Finally, remember that debate a week ago about Greg McDermott's use of the word "desperate" to describe Nebraska? Was it a putdown? Most people said yes. I said no

Well, like any mediocre journalist with access to The OWH archives, I went digging. I found two McDermott references to “desperation.” 

See what you think:

Feb. 28, 2015

Creighton can relate to the troubled times that Seton Hall's basketball team is experiencing on the court.

The Pirates head into Saturday's 3 p.m. game against the Bluejays at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, having lost six straight games. Ranked 19th in the country when the teams met in early January, Seton Hall has lost nine of 11 games since.

“They're a desperate team,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “They're in the middle of a losing streak that they want to see come to an end as quickly as they can.”

Feb. 7, 2013

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Indiana State ran over Creighton on Wednesday night to quash any hopes the Bluejays had of turning the Missouri Valley title race into a runaway.

The Sycamores added No. 16 Creighton to their list of impressive victories this season by unleashing a dominating performance that ended in a 76-57 win before a season-high 8,345 at the Hulman Center. ... 

"The energy we had and the energy they had, I'm not sure we're winning that game tonight," said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, whose team dropped to 20-4 and 9-3. “We were flat, and they were outstanding.

"We had a chance to create some space between ourselves and the teams chasing us in the league. Our guys have to understand that Indiana State comes into this situation a desperate team. They were playing to either be three games out of first place or a game out of first."