LINCOLN — As much as the Huskers would prefer to ignore all the pressure and emotion, they know there's no real way to downplay the importance of their Big Ten tournament opener Wednesday.
The game is huge.
No team has ever rebounded from a first-round loss to win this event since the conference adopted its current six-team format in 2002. Lose against No. 6 seed Michigan (29-25) at Minneapolis' Target Field on Wednesday, and No. 3 seed Nebraska would need six straight victories in four days to claim the crown.
The longest any team in that scenario has survived in 22 tries: three wins.
“It's not single-elimination, but it's pretty close,” NU coach Darin Erstad said.
And the Huskers know it.
NU (25-28) likely doesn't make an NCAA regional without earning the league's auto-bid. That's been this team's goal since the season's start.
But they'll be working to block out those big-picture thoughts Wednesday, a mental focus players admit has been difficult to consistently attain all year.
“You try not to think of it too much, but it's obviously there,” sophomore Pat Kelly said. “Kind of the monkey in the room. You've got to address it a little bit. But we're trying to think of it as just another game.”
Just another game, with a defeat essentially equating to a season-ending sentence. Especially when considering Nebraska's depleted pitching staff, which has struggled mightily of late.
It's possible that the Huskers' top starter, Christian DeLeon, could return Friday after sitting out the regular season's final series with elbow soreness. NU is definitely without two veteran relievers, juniors Brandon Pierce and Zach Hirsch.
The rest of the group hasn't handled the extra workload very well. In the last 36 innings, Nebraska pitchers have a team ERA of 9.25, allowing 13.3 hits and 5.3 walks per nine innings while giving up three home runs and hitting eight batters.
But NU pitchers have been effective when attacking hitters with fastballs and off-speed pitches down in the strike zone, Erstad said. That's their goal beginning Wednesday.
They'll need help from their defense and in the batter's box, where the Huskers must balance their aggressive nature with a bit of patience.
“We've shown at times we can play with anybody when we do that, but we're going to have to string that together for an entire tournament,” Erstad said. “Are we capable of it? Oh, absolutely. But we have to go out and prove it.”
The weight of potential elimination only makes it tougher, though.
Nebraska was in a similar position last year and didn't come through, falling behind Michigan State 10-2 in its tournament opener before a seven-run rally fell just short in the ninth inning. The Huskers stayed alive with one win a day later, but were eliminated by Ohio State.
They know what to expect now, though that doesn't necessarily mean it will be any easier to remain mentally focused, senior Chad Christensen said.
“It's do or die at this point, but you've got to treat every game the same,” Christensen said. “You're excited, the adrenaline is going and you want to perform. You just have to do a good job of keeping your emotions in check. And playing the game the way you've done it every single day.”
If Nebraska wins, it will face No. 2 seed Ohio State at 3:35 p.m. Thursday. A defeat would drop the Huskers into the losers bracket, where they'd face the loser of Wednesday's Illinois-Minnesota matchup at 12:05 p.m. Thursday.
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, email@example.com; twitter.com/JonNyatawa