LINCOLN — A preseason Big Ten men's basketball poll of veteran beat writers predicted Nebraska to finish not just in last place but about as far into last as possible.
The Huskers got 23 of 24 votes for the cellar, and there was legitimate speculation about whether they would go 0-18.
Now, with two weeks of conference play remaining, the Huskers (13-14, 4-10) have slipped past Penn State and Northwestern into 10th place, and are two games out of a tie for seventh.
First-year coach Tim Miles is using only seven scholarship players in his regular rotation and his team is ranked worse than 250th in the country in nine major statistical categories.
“Tim is a ball coach,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose No. 17 Badgers host Nebraska on Tuesday night. “For me, it's not surprising because I've known him for a while.”
The connection between the two men goes back to North Dakota State.
When Miles was head coach at North Dakota State, he hired one of Ryan's former Badgers — Saul Phillips — as an assistant. When Miles left for Colorado State and Phillips was promoted to head coach at NDSU, Phillips then hired Ryan's oldest son, Will, as an assistant.
“There is a line there,” Bo Ryan said Monday. “I have always appreciated Tim's openness in conversations. He's easy to talk to. I'm sure he's easy to understand as a communicator as a coach for his players.
“He has brought his team along very well. They have definitely improved.”
Not as much as Wisconsin (19-8, 10-4), though.
When the Badgers came to Lincoln on Jan. 6, they already had four losses and nearly picked up a fifth until they rallied in the final six minutes to subdue Nebraska 47-41. Injuries were a problem at the time, as were filling roles and identifying leaders.
Now, UW likely will continue the streak of finishing in the top four in the Big Ten all 12 years Ryan has been head coach — the second-best such streak in Big Ten history.
“This group has bought into a lot of the things we were struggling with early,” Ryan said. “They at least realized they weren't good enough or experienced enough in certain areas.
“The best thing in life is to realize when you don't have something or when you have a weakness. This group was intelligent enough to know it had to get better.”
Miles said Monday he could tell in that first game against Wisconsin that the Badgers were still “in self-discovery mode.”
“They clearly know who they are and are playing with much better confidence and poise and purpose,” he said. “They are a really good team. That's typical of Bo Ryan.”
Speaking of confidence, poise and purpose, where would Nebraska rank in those categories following Saturday's 19-point comeback win over Iowa?
“We're a little bit of a roller coaster in all of those areas,” Miles said. “Even within a game. We'll do well for a while and then not do so well for a while. We're just not in our life cycle yet to put ourselves in comparison to Wisconsin or anyone like that.
“We just have to try to build off the second half of Iowa and learn from the first half.”
ĽNOTES: After using only five players in the second half against Iowa, Miles chose to take Sunday off. That left one day of preparation for Wisconsin. ... Miles said the delay of the Iowa game because of weather cost him two planned recruiting trips. ... Nebraska's other game this week also is on the road, at Illinois at 4:15 p.m. Saturday. Illinois has a midweek bye.
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