Does the University of Nebraska have an official sunglasses sponsor? If not, someone should get on the phone with Oakley or Ray Ban and get something set up because the future for Nebraska basketball is as bright as it has been in a long time. Is this hyperbole after a big win over a mediocre (if I'm being kind) Illinois team? Maybe. But keep this in mind that since Aleks Maric graduated, there have only been three performances where a player put 30 or more in the points column in a single game. All three are on this roster. Two of them have two more season to play.
The history of Nebrasketball (and I'm thrilled to see that the program has begun to re-embrace this moniker, just another solid PR move by the athletic department this winter) is littered with missed opportunities. Games where, if they would have won them, might have altered the course of Nebraska basketball. Again, hyperbole? perhaps. But consider what happens if instead of losing four of five, including two by two points or fewer and one in overtime, after knocking off #2 Texas in 2010? What happens if instead of losing on an Josh Carter's buzzer beater, that team in 2008, which won 18 games, wins that one? And that's just within the past six seasons. The Huskers always lose this game. That's why there was difficulty to fully jump on board by the long time Husker fans that this team could take that next step.
But tonight, on the back of Shavon Shields and his career high 33 points, the Huskers avoided that fate, for at least one more game. Shields had the game of his young career, scoring in every which way. Illinois could not find a way to slow him down. After falling behind 10-2 to start the game, Shields took matters into his own hands, scoring the next 12 points for Big Red who stormed back to tie the game at 14.
The back and forth game kept the reluctant-to-buy-in Husker fans on the edge of their seat the entire night. Possession after possession, the Huskers used a relentless and energetic defensive game to shut down the Illinois attack, forcing the Illini into 14 turnovers but also allowed 14 offensive rebounds, the Huskers held Illinois to 37% shooting, which kept them from taking advantage of that offensive rebounding disparity. Quite an accomplishment, really when you consider the Huskers had to jockey early foul trouble for Walter Pitchford and an ineffective Leslee Smith.
So, where does this leave the Huskers who sit in sixth place in the Big Ten and a game behind fourth place? Well, it leaves them at 5-6 in conference play but only 13-10 overall. That means the Huskers need to keep winning. That won't be easy, nothing ever is in this conference.
The immediate challenge is perhaps the biggest they will face all season. A road trip to East Lansing to take on the #9 Spartans of Michigan State.
After that, however, there are opportunities, just like the one they were able to take advantage of vs. Illinois. The Huskers, after the trip to MSU, will finish with four of their final six at home, where they are 11-1. If Nebraska is to take the next step, they must meet that challenge. Take care of business at home. A win over MSU would be nice, but this program is just learning to walk, and getting pretty good at it in their own living room. But, hey, if they're gonna let them take the court vs. the Spartans on Sunday, they might as well give it their best shot anyway, right?