Life on the bubble. Husker fans don’t know how to handle it. They’re Mary Katherine Gallagher waiting to be kissed. They’ll do anything for the attention, desperate for the affections of a boy. Any boy. Problem is, she’s not that attractive, has no discernible talent and is willing to do anything for a crumb of it. She’s a little quirky (being kind) and all sorts of jealous. Then she gets her shot at the big time and an opportunity to win the affections of the one she thinks will fulfill all her hopes and dreams. Turns out it doesn’t.
With Nebraska’s win over #9 Michigan State Sunday evening, quirky, "talentless" for nearly a generation, desperate for attention for Nebraska, seized their opportunity. Since then, locally, they’ve been the talk of the town. Nationally, they’ve got the attention of the scribes and "bracketologists". Some are still casting a crooked eye at the Huskers, some are genuinely impressed. But the Huskers now will have their chance to have their moment.
Let’s get one thing clear. The Huskers are not yet a tourney team. What Sunday did was grab the attention of the decision makers. They’ve got a win that very few teams they’re going to be competing with for those coveted at-large spots will be able to boast. Pardon the pun, but the ball is firmly in their court. There is not a better script that Tim Miles could have written for how this thing sets up for them. Well, yes, he could have, they could have beaten Michigan or Penn State or UAB, but for this time and place, there’s not a better script for this team to make a hard charge for the tourney for the first time since 1998. The Huskers have six "winnable" games left. Four of them are at home, three are below them in the standings in Purdue, Penn St., and Northwestern. The other is Wisconsin who currently sits at #6 in the RPI, a complex rating system that takes into consideration a number of factors. They also face two very manageable road games at last place Illinois and struggling Indiana, who’s arena is literally falling apart. If the Huskers want to find themselves on the right side of the bubble, frankly, they need to channel their inner Al Davis and "Just win, baby".
The bubble is a fickle beast. No two years are the same, no two selection committees are the same. Some years there is a deep pool of teams to choose from, some years it’s shallow, others all the teams look remarkably similar. This is one of those years. There are a lot of teams that look very similar. Currently, no "bubble" team has more than two wins vs. RPI top 25 teams. The Huskers are in that number with one coming on last Sunday. There are a couple of things that work against the Huskers, however. Those are their losses to UAB in the Charleston Classic and their losses to Purdue and Penn St, both are games the Huskers will look to avenge this week. Also, the fact that they’re 14-10 is a hurdle the Huskers have to overcome, cue Al Davis.
This is where the paranoid, snake-bitten Nebrasketball fans chimes in. They’ve (kinda) been here before. Whenever the Huskers have an opportunity to take advantage of an opportunity to take the next step, they fail to take it. It’s happened nearly every time over the past 17 years. The Huskers have had a couple of mini-moments already this season and passed those tests. Not to mention that little thing about a top-10 road win which hadn’t happened since 1997. The rest of the season will be filled with moments like that, starting Thursday night. If they pass that one, they get another on Sunday. If they pass both of them, which they *should* on paper, then buckle up for the ride Husker fans have been waiting for since 1998. It’s about to get wild. The conversation will not be about whether or not they should be considered, they will be considered. People will be comfortable with the idea that the Huskers might even deserve to be in the field. However, if they drop one this week, well, then it’s back to normal and the cynics will be back in full force.
Going into the season, making the NIT would have been considered an achievement and now Husker fans have worked themselves into such a frenzy that the mere hope of working their way into the conversation about making the dance that we’ve almost reached a place where not making it would be a disappointment. There is still a lot of work to be done by Terran Pettaway and his teammates. They probably need to find a way to get to 19 wins and that wouldn’t guarantee entry into the field. Winning at least at game in the Big Ten tournament will also likely be necessary, possibly two.
If you want to really dig into this thing over the next three weeks, keep an eye on teams like St. Joe’s, Oklahoma State (loser of seven straight), Oregon, who has really struggled in conference play, St. Johns, Tennessee, Dayton, Georgetown, Florida St., Ole Miss and Marquette. Another Big Ten team to watch is Minnesota, who the Huskers beat on Jan. 26 at Pinnacle Bank Arena 82-78. They play Illinois Wednesday evening and then have a tough three game stretch that could make or break their tourney hopes as they will head to Ohio St, host Iowa and travel to Michigan. They won’t likely be favored in any of those games, but if they can find a way to perhaps beat Iowa at home or find a way to scratch one of the two road games out, they’ll likely be in. In conference, this is Nebraska’s biggest competitor right now. One will likely be the fifth seed, the other will be the sixth. If the Huskers manage the next five games and go 4-1 or better, that sets up a massive home game to close out the regular season vs. Wisconsin that could have as much on the line as there has been since who knows when. But if they don’t take care of business this week, it won’t matter, it will all just be for NIT seeding.
Just win, Baby.