It’s no secret that winning at a high level in men’s basketball has been a chore at Nebraska.
As the Huskers play out their 100th consecutive season without an outright conference championship — let’s pause while you wipe up the beverage you just spilled from reading that fact — the question of how to end such a drought lingers like smog over Shanghai.
The answers aren’t currently available as coach Tim Miles’ fourth team has slipped to .500 overall (14-14) and less than that in the Big Ten (6-9).
Adding to the gloom is the Huskers likely will be underdogs in their final three regular-season games. That’s Thursday at suddenly improved Penn State; Purdue at home on March 1; and at Northwestern on March 6.
Miles has earned fond remembrance forever for the Huskers’ miracle surge to the 2014 NCAA tournament in his second season, breaking a 16-year tourney drought. He also gains high marks for refusing to use the past — it has been 66 years since Nebraska earned even a share of a league title — as an excuse.
But now it’s time for Miles, who is 61-63 at NU, to follow his own advice and “put his big-boy pants on” and “like the taste of his own blood” in recruiting and roster management.
There is urgency to dig in on those fronts, for three reasons:
» The current freshman class, led by point guard Glynn Watson and forwards Michael Jacobson, Jack McVeigh and Ed Morrow, plus transfers Andrew White (Kansas) and Anton Gill (Louisville), create a legitimate-looking foundation from which to build a higher-caliber program.
» The gleaming facilities Nebraska finally put in place — the Hendricks Training Complex and Pinnacle Bank Arena — are in their fifth and third seasons, respectively. The shine on those things can wear off quickly when the trophy cases sit empty.
» A potential virus lurks. It’s one that can flourish from the narrative I hear that an upset here, a close loss there and a young roster this season automatically mean big things are ahead.
A victory over Michigan State, a five-point loss to Maryland and a close first half at Indiana are no guarantee that Nebraska becomes a first-division Big Ten team next season. In many cases, the cold fact is the upper-tier teams weren’t mentally engaged to face a bottom-third opponent.
The danger — and I’ve seen it over four decades with this program — is believing that incremental improvement during an average season is going to lead to future success.
Yes, Nebraska has improved this season. But making a move out of the bottom third doesn’t happen until Miles lands a legitimate interior defender who is a shot-blocking threat. You cannot win consistently in the Big Ten without one.
More than one big man would be better.
Ohio State has already signed two 6-foot-9 players to go with its 6-11 sophomore and two 6-10 freshmen. Northwestern has signed 6-10 and 6-9 centers to go with 6-8 freshman Dererk Pardon. Michigan has 7-foot and 6-10 signees. Iowa has a 6-10 and a 6-9. And so it goes throughout the league.
Nebraska’s progress also is up for debate until Miles re-racks his roster so the nine-man rotation is free of those who struggle to contribute at this level. There’s no need to name names. We all watch the games and see the statistics.
The Huskers have one scholarship open for next season. They need to free up two more to find some explosive athleticism and scoring.
Nebraska has a two-year recruiting relationship with unsigned 6-10, 250-pound Jordy Tshimanga, a Canadian who plays at the MacDuffie School in Granby, Massachusetts. His 7-1 brother, Link Kabadyundi, visited NU in 2014 before signing with TCU. Kabadyundi now is at Blinn (Texas) College.
How good the Husker connection is with Tshimanga will be tested come signing day in April because he has recently received offers from Arizona, SMU, LSU, Baylor, Boston College and Oklahoma State to go with earlier offers from NU, Pittsburgh and Providence.
Is there a backup plan if Tshimanga goes elsewhere?
Well, a 6-10, 230-pound junior college player who leads the nation in rebounding (13.9) and blocked shots (6.0) and also scores 17.4 points a game has a Nebraska connection.
Kavell Bigby-Williams plays for fifth-ranked and 27-1 Gillette (Wyoming) College. The assistant there is Tony Schamber, who worked on Doc Sadler’s staff in Lincoln for three years as coordinator of basketball operations.
Nebraska recently reached out to Bigby-Williams. But Texas already has been in three times along with Iowa State, Oklahoma State and many other high majors.
In Gillette’s only loss — by five points at rival Casper — Bigby-Williams had 35 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks. In Saturday’s rematch, Bigby-Williams led Gillette to an 85-73 win with 22 points, 16 rebounds and 12 blocks.
When asked if Bigby-Williams is interested in NU, Schamber texted: “Not sure. We have a long list he has to narrow down.”
Miles also has discussed adding a high-scoring wing to his 2016 class. By chance, the nation’s third-leading junior college scorer is a 6-5, 190-pound wing with a Nebraska connection.
Niem Stevenson, a Seattle native who played high school ball in Dallas, averages 24.4 points a game at Seward County (Kansas) College, where the assistant is Patrick Nee. He is the son of former Husker coach Danny Nee and retains good feelings for NU.
Patrick Nee said Stevenson, shooting 51.4 percent overall and 35.8 percent on 3s, has offers from Oregon, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Texas A&M, and that Kansas, Purdue, Texas and Minnesota have called recently. Nee said he hasn’t heard from Nebraska.
In a recent 86-82 loss to Jayhawk League leader Hutchinson (26-3), Stevenson scored 35 points and snagged 12 rebounds going against 6-7 St. John’s commit Bashir Ahmed, considered Stevenson’s top competition for league player of the year.
So the question before the Nebrasketball community remains: Has there been progress under Miles?
The answer is yes.
But is it enough at the current level of recruiting and player development to move the Huskers from the bottom half of the league to the top?
That’s questionable. And it becomes more so when you learn nine other Big Ten schools have signed a combined 14 players out of the ESPN Top 100 recruit list for 2016. Nebraska has none.
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