In roughly five and a half hours, we will see the Nebraska basketball team take the court for the first of a six game stretch that could define one of the more remarkable runs to the NCAA tournament in recent memory. It wouldn't be unprecedented, it would just be uncommon, especially around these parts. Or it will be just another game in a string of many where the Husker Hoopsters have an opportunity to seize the bull by the horns and define their own destiny only to be gouged through the abdomen and flung across the arena.
Back in 2011, the most recent time the history of Nebrasketball, where the Huskers had an opportunity like this, they had just knocked off #2 Texas in the Devaney Center. It was rather stunning at the time. Texas was undefeated in conference play. The Huskers trailed at halftime, but owned much of the second half, building an 11 point lead only to hold off a furious comeback attempt by the Longhorns. The students rushed the court. They sat at 6-6 in Big 12 play with four "winnable" games remaining. Two at home, two on the road. They would also face an Oklahoma St. team in the Big 12 tournament before settling for a 6 seed in the NIT and traveling to Wichita St. where they got worked over.
On Sunday, the Huskers waltzed into the Breslin Center, punched the Spartans in the mouth, controlled much of the game and held off a furious MSU rally to hold on to a 60-51 win to push their conference record to 6-6. One of the biggest stunners in a season full of them in the Big Ten this year. They now face a six game stretch full of "winnable" games. Four at home, two on the road, conference foe yet to be determined.
That brings us to tonight vs. Penn St. The similarities between this game and the game vs. Kansas State are striking.
- As mentioned, NU sits at 6-6 in conference play, same as in 2011.
- KSU featured a talented back court, highlighted by Jacob Pullen who torched the Huskers to the tune of 27 points, 20 in the second half. Penn St does as well. Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill are as good a guard combination as there is in the Big Ten and they've won some big games on the road already this year. This will be a very difficult challenge for the Husker defense.
- ESPNU is televising the game.
- There will be a loud, vocal, active crowd. The crowd in 2011 in the first half was one of the best there was post Danny Nee. The same will be the case tonight.
- There were three full days off between games for the Huskers to hear all the praise heaped upon them and the opportunity before them.
- The Huskers were led by a guard who had a knack of hitting big shots and stepping up to the occasion when they needed him the most.
- The Huskers had been very good at home, 16-1 coming into the KState game.
- The Wildcats had already defeated the Huskers in their building early in conference play.
Are some of these coincidence? Sure, but the fatalistic Husker fan that has been ready to throw a cold blanket on the opportunity that is there for the Huskers brings up these things without batting an eye. The Huskers HAVE been in this spot before. Almost this exact situation.
There are some differences between the two scenarios, however.
- Penn State, while they have a terrific back court duo, they are not nearly as talented as the Wildcats were. That was an NCAA tourney team. PSU is not.
- This team has more talent, though less experience, than the 2011 squad.
- Tim Miles is not afraid of this moment. Not that Doc Sadler was, but Miles has not backed down from the opportunity and while the Huskers have never been to the dance, HE has. So has everyone on his staff. They'll know how to handle these expectations.
Stock brokers will tell you that history is not always indicative of what will happen in the future. The same applies for the Huskers tonight. Will they rise to the occasion and handle the nerves and expectations? Or will it just be another case of history repeating?