CHICAGO — How do you know when Nebraska basketball has had a good season? This is not a trick question.
It's March 15 and the Huskers are still smiling.
It's the second round of the Big Ten tournament and the Big Red is still playing.
It's the “Madhouse” day of the tourney that league coaches are calling “Final Four” caliber, and NU is right in the middle of it. Indiana-Illinois, Michigan-Wisconsin, Michigan State-Iowa and Ohio State-Your Husker Hoops.
How does a 15-17 record and 10th place equate into something memorable? When the expectations were as low as a subway stop.
“Everybody picked us dead last except my mom,” NU coach Tim Miles said.
Nebraska won five conference games. Make it six, including this 57-55 grinder over Purdue on Thursday at the United Center.
The Boilermakers haven't been that good, but lately they caused a ruckus, winning at Wisconsin and then losing a close one at Michigan and thumping Minnesota.
Well, everyone's beating the Gophers these days. But the smart guys thought Purdue could make a run of upsets here. Guess who got upset?
“It's a good program win,” Miles said. “To be able to beat the hottest team in the league, probably, was a good accomplishment for this group.”
Good year? Absolutely. It's relative, sure. The Huskers are below .500. They're fighting for NIT relevance. But it's a good year because of what they're ultimately delivering here in mid-March.
The contrast from the first-round loss to Purdue a year ago is striking. Last year in Indianapolis, Doc Sadler was about to get fired, they knew it, and they couldn't get it over fast enough.
This year, they played loose, they played harder than the Boilers, they had more energy. And that included one of the seniors who won't be here next year.
“I do wish I could come back,” Brandon Ubel said. “This is going to get good.”
This was a worthwhile exercise because a guy like Ubel played hard to the end, made plays, had himself a 16-point, eight-rebound game in the Big Ten tourney. This season was never going to be about the NCAA tournament. But before you can make the NCAA Dance, you gotta have pride.
The wins over Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue weren't pretty. But they were about pride, from a team going nowhere but hoping to get somewhere.
“How would I like to be remembered?” Ubel said, repeating a question. “As somebody who gave his all, in every practice and every game. I don't know if I'll be remembered. But that's what I'll remember.”
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It's been a good year because it looks like they found a coach. A year ago this coach from Colorado State looked like Tom Osborne's idea of a safe hire. Former players questioned it publicly. Where's the big name love?
Miles has made even the cynics feel good about the hire. His battery pack is always full. He's a social media hound. He appears to get what kind of players he needs (we'll see if he can get them). And he's coached hard every game, unafraid to do the unorthodox, like no substitutions in an entire second half (Iowa).
But the most lasting thing Miles did this year? He didn't tank the season. He didn't try to put in his system and throw guys like Ubel and Dylan Talley to the curb. He played to his talent. Maybe that got them a few more wins. But it earned Miles so much more in credits with his players.
“He's unbelievable,” Ubel said. “He didn't recruit any of us, didn't know any of us. But he came in and said, 'I'm going to fight like heck to win for you guys.' It made it easy to play for him.”
And sure, it's been a very good year because of what fell into the laps of Miles and Husker fans: the next great Husker player.
Shavon Shields is the name. He can't make pancakes on a sweep around the end like his old man. But he can shake and twirl and hit any kind of jumper you want.
The freshman from Kansas City set the tone of this one early, hitting six of seven attempts and disrupting Purdue's defense. Shields was so good nobody noticed that Talley and Ray Gallegos had four points among them. He had 15 at the half and people were talking about him breaking Tyronn Lue's freshman mark of 30 points in a game.
He had four points in the second half. Shields didn't catch Lue and he's not Lue. But, man, does he look special. He looks like that great player that NU fans have been waiting for. That emergence was unexpected. Nobody knew what Sadler had brought from K.C., not even Doc.
“What I liked about Shavon the first time I saw him was his approach to the game,” Miles said. “His pick-up teams always won. He's very smart, he knows the game, and he knows how to make good basketball plays. He'll score, but he doesn't force it, it's always within the team. He's gotten a lot better. It's been fun to watch.”
You don't measure a season off one game. Especially not one where Purdue missed seven free throws and several point-blank shots and missed a 3-pointer at the end to tie. But you can give this red bunch credit for making sharpshooter D.J. Byrd unavailable for that last shot.
Good year? Sure, you bet. Why? Because the coach won't go there. He can't.
“The season's not over,” Miles said. “You've got to ask me that tomorrow night.”
What would Miles want Nebraska fans to say?
“What I want Nebraska fans to do is get in their cars and drive here for tomorrow's game,” Miles said. “That's what I'd like.”
It's March 15 and there's still gas in the tank. That's a good year.
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