Published Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 8:12 pm / Updated at 10:14 pm
Heavy lifting still ahead for Huskers to get NCAA tournament bid
Nebraska at Illinois
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

NEBRASKA (16-10, 8-6)
F Walter Pitchford, 6-10, So., 9.1
F Shavon Shields, 6-7, So., 12.0
F David Rivers, 6-7, Jr., 2.7
G Terran Petteway, 6-6, So., 18.4
G Tai Webster, 6-4, Fr., 4.7

ILLINOIS (15-12, 4-10)
C Nnanna Egwu, 6-11, Jr., 7.0
G Rayvonte Rice, 6-4, Jr., 16.2
G Malcolm Hill, 6-6, Fr., 3.8
G Kendrick Nunn, 6-3, Fr., 5.4
G Tracy Abrams, 6-2, Jr., 11.3

Ľ Illinois hasn't played in a week, which Groce called a mixed blessing. “This time of year, guys would prefer to play games than practice. But I'll give our guys props for the way they handled this past week.”
Ľ Illini leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, at 16.2 points a game, had 23 the first time against Nebraska. But none of his teammates reached double digits.
Ľ Miles said forward Walter Pitchford (bruised knee) will start.

LINCOLN — The Nebraska men's basketball team spent a fair amount of time Tuesday talking about something it prefers not to discuss in detail — a potential NCAA tournament bid.

The Huskers (16-10, 8-6), who play Wednesday night at Illinois (15-12, 4-10), have entered the mix by winning five straight games, seven of the past eight and eight of the past 10.

That has moved NU into the top half of the Big Ten standings and the Top 50 nationally in ratings percentage index.

Coach Tim Miles acknowledges that the NCAA talk can't be ignored with his players.

“I told them awhile back,” he said, “that the only way we were going to get into this thing was with a championship-style run.”

After the Huskers' 0-4 start in the Big Ten, director of basketball operations Jayden Olson told Miles he thought they could go 12-2 the rest of the regular season.

“It was like, 'I'm going to fire you,' ” Miles said. “This is nuts.”

Nebraska is 8-2 since then, and will be no worse than an even-money pick to win its remaining four regular-season games (at Illinois, Northwestern, at Indiana, Wisconsin).

But the heavy lifting isn't finished. Deeper studies of the NCAA selection process indicate the Huskers likely need to get to 20 wins — including games in the Big Ten tournament — to earn an at-large bid.

Normally, only league champions go on stretches of winning 11 or 12 of the final 14 games.

“That would be a real special accomplishment for this team to put themselves in that position,” Miles said. “So far, we've done it. But we've got two really difficult weeks left.”

Sophomore co-captain Shavon Shields said it's impossible to block out NCAA speculation.

“We all know we're on the edge,” he said. “In order to do it, we've got to string together more victories.”

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Nebraska has three Big Ten losses by six points or less, but Shields said the team isn't moaning over what could have been.

“Coulda, woulda, shoulda, right?” he said. “If we would have done things that we were supposed to, we would have won. You've got to move on and not make those mistakes again.”

Two weeks ago, Shields had a career-high 33 points — including 15 of 15 free throws — in a 67-58 win over Illinois.

“I felt like I was getting shots within the offense,” he said. “I wasn't doing anything crazy. If that's what they do again, we'll just keep executing what we do on offense.”

Illinois was ranked No. 23 on Jan. 6, but has lost 10 of its past 12 games to fall into a last-place tie with Penn State. Yet Illini coach John Groce sounded almost giddy this week. His reason is the most recent game: a 62-49 victory at Minnesota.

“That was about as complete a game as we have played in some time ... the entire season,” Groce said. “It was really encouraging. We made a lot of strides in a lot of areas on both sides of the ball.

“Our guys are in tremendous spirits and feel like they are improving. That's important in February.”

Nebraska guard Terran Petteway, the Big Ten scoring leader at 18.4 points a game, had 16 points in the first game with Illinois. This is the sophomore's first season since transferring from Texas Tech.

“He took his sit-out year very seriously, and has become certainly one of the Big Ten's best players,” Groce said. “He gives them a lot of swagger, he can make difficult shots and he plays hard on defense.

“I've really enjoyed watching him on film. They've got all their guys hitting on all cylinders, which is what you want this time of year. You can tell they believe they can win when they lace 'em up.”

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.



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