LINCOLN — In many ways, Tim Miles hopes his Nebraska men’s basketball program grows up to be like the one the Huskers face Tuesday night at Iowa.
The 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes (11-2) — in their fourth year under coach Fran McCaffery — are coming off a 25-win season, a runner-up finish in the NIT and are on track to break an eight-year NCAA tourney drought.
“People are expecting a little bit more out of us than they have in the past,” Iowa junior forward Aaron White said. “I want to prove that we’re the team we can be, rather than keep talking about it.”
Miles, in his second year, is convinced.
“You have to give Fran great credit,” Miles said Monday. “In four years, he has built that thing and he’s got his guys. He’s got a long, athletic team that plays with very good skill. I think it’s a good model for the Huskers.”
Iowa’s depth of talent and Wisconsin’s success with players who fit a system, Miles said, are two elements worth emulating.
“Build it with toughness, with skill and enough athleticism to be good,” he said. “We’re not going to be a run-and-press-crazy team. I grew up in the heart of Big Ten country where it was physical play with skilled players who can make good decisions.”
Iowa, some argue, almost has too much of a good thing.
The Hawkeyes are using 11 players regularly who average between 14.4 minutes and 25.9 minutes a game.
“We’re very deep, and we’ve got guys who can play multiple positions,” said White, the team’s No. 2 scorer (13.2) and rebounder (6.2), and the Big Ten’s leader in shooting (67.8 percent).
“Coach McCaffery is good at mixing lineups and finding the combinations that work.”
That makes it important for Nebraska (8-4) to figure out which Hawkeyes are doing what — and fast.
“Communication,” NU senior guard Ray Gallegos said. “They rotate a lot of guys. We’ve got to know what their strengths are and how to stop those strengths and know where the shooters are.”
At Iowa, the shooters are everywhere.
The Hawkeyes are fifth nationally in scoring (88.7 points) and have nine players who average at least 6.2 points a game. The defense isn’t bad, either, as they are third nationally in scoring margin at plus-23.2 points.
Iowa’s two losses were by five points in overtime to No. 11 Villanova and three points at No. 13 Iowa State. Those two teams are a combined 22-1.
A key reason so many pieces fit together at Iowa is the work of a Nebraskan.
Sophomore point guard Mike Gesell from South Sioux City, Neb., is fourth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio and, White said, keeps a firm handle on the throttle.
“Mike has great confidence and a great skill set,” White said. “He brings a level of maturity and leadership to our team that will help us not only this year but in the future.
“He’s really taking ownership in practice and getting guys together as a team. You need that, especially from the guard spot.”
Gesell, slowed parts of last season by injury, said the wear and tear he went through as a freshman motivated him in the offseason.
“I’ve put on about 10 pounds of muscle from last year,” said the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder. “The Big Ten is such a physical league. I felt I needed to get stronger, and I worked on my explosiveness and lateral quickness.”
Gesell said he has several family members from Nebraska set to attend Tuesday’s game, but “every game in the Big Ten is special to me.”
Only five scholarship Huskers have gone through league play, so Gallegos has talked with NU’s seven newcomers about what to expect — especially at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where Iowa has won 26 straight against unranked opponents.
“It’s all about being together,” Gallegos said. “Everybody is against you. The crowd will be loud, especially at Iowa. It’s a tough place to play.
“We know they are going to make runs and have things go their way. So staying together is a big key.”