LINCOLN — There's a pulse.
Tim Miles is poking and prodding to find it. He's jumping up and down and waving his arms. He's calling time out before halftime to yell at his team about rebounding.
Everybody in the Devaney Center heard it. And fans roared with approval.
Gotta love that.
Pride. Life. Still.
It's got to be a hard thing to come by in this land that hoops forgot. Good gosh. Nebraska played Northwestern on Saturday afternoon. The Huskers were playing to avoid last place in the Big Ten.
With nine minutes left in the first half, the score was tied at 11. Welcome to the Root Canal Invitational.
It's a Nebraska team of some other guy's players being coached by the new guy.
And yet a crowd of 8,874 showed up. A legit 8,874.
When the Huskers started to light it up in the second half, fans got on their feet.
When Dylan Talley dove on the floor for a loose ball out of his reach, they cheered.
When Ray Gallegos dunked to make it 52-38, the place went bananas.
And when the Big Red had secured their 11th win, against a grinding Princeton system, you'd have thought they beat Kansas.
Maybe it shouldn't be amazing. Maybe it should be embarrassing, the idea of cheering effort, celebrating any win. But those who have been around this program for the past depressing decade know the real score: Any pulse is better than no pulse.
Miles has a pulse. And how. And maybe that's where the energy came from Saturday.
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The first-year coach gives off sparks. He's fun to watch, and if there's a reason to come back to the Devaney Center this season, it may be to watch Miles try to beat some life into this place.
He's constantly up. Motioning. Coaching. Pleading. Cheering.
It doesn't always work. His team has come out flat for home losses to Purdue and Illinois. That hasn't stopped the glib Miles from poking a stick at his team. And maybe the fans like that, too.
At the end of the Purdue game, he called time out to point out to his players the mass exodus of Nebraska fans. At halftime of the Illinois game, with the Illini pushing his team around the gym, Miles had his sports information director tweet, “We had zero pride in that half.”
How do you instill pride in a losing program? You gotta start somewhere. For Miles, it starts this year.
“It's pride in how we do things,” Miles said. “It has to mean something if you are the first on the floor for a loose ball. It has to mean something if you turn it over and it goes the other way for a layup.
“I need to see that it's important to them.”
Miles saw it on Saturday morning. Here in the deep, dark winter of their season, junior sharpshooter Ray Gallegos showed up at 7 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. shootaround. This, after Miles had to throw Gallegos out of the gym last week so Illinois could practice.
“He really wants to do well,” Miles said.
A pulse. But it's not always there. Which is why Miles is constantly harping on detail and effort. The basics. Things that programs used to losing forget to do.
“For whatever reason, we don't always bring it,” Miles said. “I don't know if that's a confidence issue, or a maturity issue. Whatever it is, it doesn't work.”
They brought it on Saturday, against a team they will need to beat at home — or away — to get anywhere in the stacked deck that is Big Ten hoops.
Offensively? A nightmare early. But Nebraska was on top of Northwestern defensively and on the boards. Defense and rebounding are effort stats. Eight steals. Four blocks. There's a pulse still here.
The problem with Nebraska basketball is you never know what's coming next, except Minnesota and Ohio State and a trip to Assembly Hall in a couple of weeks. Pride gets you only so far against those teams.
“We had six scholarship players out there today,” said Miles, who sat Andre Almeida because he missed practice with an injury. “There are some Division II teams who play more scholarship players than that. These guys are fighting hard. Their coach put them in a bad spot by redshirting three players this year. But these guys haven't flinched.”
Stop me if you've read this before. Huskers try hard. Huskers lose. There's a refreshing difference this year. It's the coach.
Forgive the low expectations. They come with the territory. We're applauding effort and pride, celebrating a coach for calling time out to get on his players, for having a sense of humor, for being willing to reach a little higher.
Blame it on the last decade, of the slow malaise that engulfed this building. It's been awhile, a long while, since there's been a spirit, an energy, like the ball of fire on the Husker bench.
It will mean a lot more if and when Miles can host a parade of Big Ten ballplayers into the gym. But for now, there are 8,000 diehard Husker Hoops fans, who came out to cheer a win over Northwestern, and feel like they got a guy who wants it as badly as they do.
“You got to start somewhere,” Miles said.
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