LINCOLN — Merry Christmas, Husker Hoop Heads.
Your gift is in the big, shiny silver package in the Haymarket. Tear open the paper. Smile. Enjoy.
This is a different Christmas for Nebraska basketball fans, holiday cheer they haven’t experienced in a long, long time.
They’ve got a team that looks and acts the part of a special team having a special season.
They’ve got a Nebraska team that, on Christmas Day, will be 10-2 and ranked in the AP and Coaches Top 25.
Doc Sadler’s 2010-11 team started 10-2. Danny Nee’s 1994-95 team was 11-1 by New Year’s Day, and his best team, the illustrious 1990-91 bunch, started 13-1. None of them played a pre-Christmas schedule close to this one.
So yeah, Husker fans. Stand and admire the best start to a Nebraska basketball season in decades.
Because of that schedule, you’ve got a team that is No. 15 in the NCAA’s NET rankings — the new form of RPI used by the NCAA basketball committee. That’s rarefied air for Husker Hoops.
Sure, the Huskers still have 18 games left in the top conference in the land — which should only help their NCAA tournament résumé.
But how many Nebraska teams have ever been in this great of shape for the NCAA tourney by Christmas? As Bruce Chubick is my witness, not many.
This is a Husker team with experience, a team with explosiveness and length, an offense with five good options and a defense that can lock down opponents. What it can’t do very well is rebound or get physical or afford foul trouble.
But even the most cynical and paranoid Husker Hoops fans have to admit: This team looks and feels different.
It’s a team with a short memory and deep resolve. After a jarring 70-52 loss to Texas Tech in Kansas City, it came right back and won a tough game at Clemson. After it blew one at Minnesota, it bounced back with its best game of the season, a 94-75 torching of Creighton.
I look into the teeth of the basketball gods and say this might be a team Husker fans can trust.
Forget the sins of the past. Don’t look ahead to March. Don’t obsess over the coach’s job security.
Enjoy this present — and the present. This is what you’ve wanted.
“Born and raised in Lincoln ... being a lifelong Nebraska basketball fan, you hope for a season like this,” said Jake Muhleisen, the former Husker guard and current radio analyst.
Hope is a beautiful thing. Hope has set up camp in the Haymarket, where scalpers shouted on the street corners as nearly 14,000 piled into Pinnacle Bank Arena — three days before Christmas — to watch NU play Cal State Fullerton.
They watched a Nebraska team grind through what in many ways was the hardest game of the season. The 86-62 win over the Titans — an NCAA team last season — wasn’t always inspirational. But it certainly beat the alternative and we’ve seen that around here, too.
“If you had said you’re going to come out of this 10-2, I would have been on cloud nine,” NU coach Tim Miles said. “Now, when you’re in the throes of it, it’s like, ‘OK, we just got to get the next one.’
“So far, so good.”
Maybe the most impressive thing about this 10-2 start is that the Huskers actually delivered it. Yes, there’s all that experience back. But even for the strong, weighty expectations can get dropped.
At the time, the loss to Texas Tech was a stunner. But the road win at Clemson eased the pain. And then the Red Raiders became one of the top dozen teams in the country.
In a nine-game stretch, the Huskers played Seton Hall, Tech, Clemson, Illinois, Minnesota, Creighton and Oklahoma State. They went 5-2 in those games. This was a year they were supposed to beat the Jays, and they ended the seven-game losing streak in style.
So far, they’ve been more focused than other Nebraska teams. So far, they’ve found different ways to win games, by the 3-pointer and by defense. So far, they’ve found role players like Thomas Allen and Nana Akenten to contribute big minutes.
So far, so good.
There’s Southwest Minnesota State next Saturday, and then the Big Ten hits like a sledgehammer. NU goes to Maryland and Iowa the first week. Then after Penn State visits Lincoln, there’s a trip to Assembly Hall in Indiana and then Tom Izzo comes calling.
The Huskers need not cower. They finished fourth and won 13 league games last season. But this is a different Big Ten. Nebraska could play better this season and not win 13 games. Food for thought for Athletic Director Bill Moos, who said he’d like to see a repeat of last Big Ten season.
Merry Christmas, Husker Hoop Heads. Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa all come to the shiny box in Lincoln. And look at this: three Saturday games, two in the afternoon. Ho, ho, ho.
Some assembly is required. Muhleisen says NU needs to find a role for Isaiah Roby, the 6-8 talent who was such an effective mismatch playing center in the Big Ten last season.
Roby, who entered Saturday’s game averaging 9.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, didn’t have a point or rebound in the first 11 minutes on Saturday. Then he ended up with 20 and eight. Miles says he wants Roby to get more physical. But the Huskers also need him to stay out of foul trouble.
Roby’s role will be a key for NU in the Big Ten. So will that 1-3-1 zone that drives opponents crazy but doesn’t get taken out of the garage very often.
The hoop gods won’t like this, either, but at some point during the Big Ten season, Husker fans will begin seed watching. As in, they know they’re in the tournament, and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi becomes their best friend.
Hardened and paranoid Husker fans will say watch out for the trap door, there’s always a way to find it.
“I don’t think so, with the experience they have,” Muhleisen said. “Defensively, if they lock in, they can guard anybody with the length and athleticism. You have Roby who can guard a point guard, and James Palmer who can guard (four positions). If they can just keep playing defense, that travels. And we’re so good at home.”
This gift isn’t perfect. It doesn’t come with batteries, rebounding or depth.
But it comes with hope. And what else do you need on Christmas?
“I’m proud of this group,” Miles said. “We have a veteran group. These guys have come out, the teams you need to put away, they’ve put away. They’ve won some important games for us. Our guys are committed to achieving things we haven’t done here in Nebraska, so … let’s go do it.”
Just then, I saw a man in red, who had handed out 10 assists like they were candy canes.
“Merry Christmas,” said senior guard Glynn Watson as he left his press conference. “And Happy New Year.”