There has been a lot of conversation over the past couple of days since Nebraska basketball knocked off Indiana about just how big this game vs. Wisconsin is. It’s an interesting question because there haven’t been very many games in the history of the program that could have the implications that this one could bring with a victory. In fact, I’m having trouble finding any game that’s had this much on the line. So, to see if I was missing anything, I asked around. Nobody else seems to know of a game with as much riding on it either.
So, I ask again, just how big of a game is this for Nebraska basketball? Let’s take a look at what would happen if they knock off the Badgers:
- First time they’ve defeated two top ten teams in the same season since 1991-92 when they knocked off Oklahoma State and Kansas. Since the Big Eight was formed in 1958, the Huskers have only pulled off this feat twice. The other time was in 90-91 when they knocked of Michigan St. and Kansas.
- They would secure the #4 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament. NU hasn’t had a bye in the conference tournament since 1998. Also, the last time they went to the NCAA tournament.
- Only three times in school history has NU won 11 conference games. This would be their fourth. First since 1965 and second since 1925.
- It might be good enough to secure their place in the NCAA tournament. More on that later.
- Best home record since moving out of the Coliseum.
That alone makes this game a big deal, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture. In 1985, the NCAA expanded the tournament from what was essentially a 48 team field (there were some play in games involved, but it was essentially a 48 team field) to it’s current 64 (sorry, 68 teams technically get in) format. Since then, the Huskers have made the field six times, the first coming in 1986. The Huskers won three of their last four including home wins over #10 Oklahoma and Colorado. But they likely needed the two wins at Kansas State and Oklahoma St. in the Big Eight tournament to close out the season in order to get in. Did those last two wins at home seal the deal? Maybe, but probably not.
In the glory days of 1991 through 1994 the Huskers were simply good at basketball. They easily made the tournament in 1991, ‘92 and ‘93. In 1992 they lost their last two games going into the dance and still were an eight seed. It’s difficult to pin a single game at "win and your in" magnitude.
1998 was the last time the Huskers qualified. They certainly played their way in, winning seven straight before getting hammered by Kansas in the semi’s of the Big 12 tournament. But how much weight do you put on the wins over Texas Tech or Missouri in overtime? They were certainly part of the equation, but Tech was pretty average finishing 7-9 in the Big 12 and in 7th place.
The Huskers haven’t been without opportunities to create significant momentum at home in pursuit of a tourney berth. In 2008, probably Doc Sadler’s best team in his tenure at Nebraska, his infamous ‘Mighty Mites’ team, the Huskers had just reeled off three wins out of four. In came Mizzou and the Huskers laid an egg with an uninspired effort, losing in overtime. That team finished with 20 wins for the first time in the 21st century. That game vs. Missouri wasn’t at the end of the season, but it likely prevented any of them from being difference makers down the stretch.
While the 2007-08 squad was probably Sadler’s best, his next team came the closest to the dance. The Huskers struggled early in the season with two awful losses to a bad Oregon St. and a laughably hideous Maryland-Baltimore County squad, but both teams found a way to beat the Huskers. By the end of the season, however, they had started to play better. They went toe-to-toe with Kansas in the Devaney Center, falling by six and fell in OT to Oklahoma St. As the season came to a close, Texas A&M paid the Huskers a visit. The Huskers built an 18 point second half lead, but the Aggies mounted a charge and the Ags had one last chance and they took advantage. Josh Carter hit a three as time expired and the Huskers slim tourney hopes faded with it.
Finally in 2011, the Huskers knocked off #3 Texas. The fans stormed the court, the anticipation for the next home game vs. Kansas State was as high as it had been in quite some time. The Huskers didn’t handle the pressure well early and their comeback efforts weren’t enough as KSU walked away with the win. NU couldn’t recover and fell all the way from the bubble to a six seed in the NIT where they got hammered by Wichita St.
None of those games held the keys to a season like this one does vs. Wisconsin. None of those games could tip the balance in the Huskers favor as drastically as this one could. None were vs. an opponent as strong as the Badgers who enter with aspirations of earning a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament if a few of the top teams falter along the way. Unlike 2008 or 2009 or 2011, the Huskers have this opportunity because they capitalized on opportunities BEFORE this game. This game doesn’t mean nearly as much if they don’t beat Michigan St. The win over Indiana isn’t as big of a deal and consequently, neither is this. The Huskers have done what they needed to do to give this game a chance and along the way, this game has turned into a potential program defining moment.
Many think a win over Wisconsin should be enough to send the Huskers dancing, regardless of what happens in Indianapolis next week. It might be. But the Huskers would be advised to not make that assumption. There are many variables at play as the season winds down. The Huskers certainly are building a strong case and every win the Huskers get from here on out gets magnified because of the ones before it.
The case is overwhelming that the implications of winning this game could make it the biggest home win in school history. Depending on what happens after it, it could be viewed as the biggest win in history.