There’s a lot of angst in Huskerville about why the Nebraska men’s basketball team failed to reach the NCAA Tournament despite a 22-10 overall record, a 13-5 conference record in the Big Ten and a 16-1 record at home.
From this uneducated vantage point about 250 miles south of Lincoln, Nebraska’s slide from the Big Dance to the National Invitation Tournament — as a No. 5 seed, mind you — comes down to five of the nine regular-season losses. I’m excluding the Big Ten Tournament beat-down by Michigan because, based on the fact NU was not a First Four Out, the Big Red would likely have had to win the tournament and gain the automatic qualifying bid. And, as you can see, the five losses on this list fall in two categories — tough losses to NCAA teams and losses to teams NU should have beaten:
- Nov. 23: UCF 68, NU 59. Shooting 25 percent in the first half and trailing by 18 at half was too much to overcome for the Big Red. It didn’t help the Huskers’ Big Dance chances that the Golden Knights finish the regular season 19-13, with their best win Dec. 3 against then-No. 24 Alabama (an NCAA Tournament team). UCF, by the way, did not make either the NCAA or NIT brackets.
- Dec. 9: Creighton 75, NU 65. Huskers held a five-point lead at half, built the advantage to eight early in the second half and trailed by three with just over 1 minute left but couldn’t seal the deal…a mantra in several close losses for Nebraska, both on this list and off. Had NU won here and, I think, any of the next three games on this list, Creighton AD and NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Chair Bruce Rasmussen would have had a lot more pause before leaving the Cornhuskers out of the NCAA Tournament (and putting Oklahoma in the tourney…but I digress…).
- Dec. 16: Kansas 73, NU 72. Nebraska’s best of several chances at the coveted Q1 win anywhere on its schedule, and it goes to the very last second before coming up short. At the time, it was Nebraska’s third loss in four games, including an 86-57 thumping by Michigan State to start the early-season skid. Had either Anton Gill’s 3-pointer or James Palmer’s follow-up in the final 20 seconds gone in, this win could have been enough to push NU into the Last Four In category. If it hadn’t been for the next two defeats…
- Jan. 22: Ohio State 64, NU 59. The third loss on this list to an eventual NCAA qualifier, and much like the Creighton game, the Huskers battled toe-to-toe with the then-No. 13 Buckeyes before Ohio State pulled away in the final four minutes. The loss offset a career game for Palmer, who went off for 34 points.
- Feb. 18: Illinois 72, NU 66. Nebraska came into the game on a six-game winning streak following the Ohio State loss and verbally marked the Illinois battle as a game it had to have with questions about its post-tournament direction already swirling…and then it just could not shake Illinois. In fact, the Illini were the team with the finishing kick, outscoring NU 14-5 over the final six minutes to pull the upset. NU then won its final two regular-season games, but in my mind this is the game that sealed the Huskers’ fate as a non-NCAA Tournament team.
While the NCAA’s decision to leave Nebraska out of the 2018 tournament may have surprised a lot of people, those that saw an NIT Tournament bid as at least a decent possibility were shocked the Huskers fell all the way to a 5-seed, meaning no first-round home game and a likely second-round battle with a top seed — in this case Baylor — if they get past Mississippi State on Wednesday night. The general statistics — no Q1 wins, a 2-3 overall record against Q2 teams, six wins against teams with plus-.500 records — don’t help, but I think NU becomes an NIT top seed just if it can beat UCF and Illinois. And I think NU gets into the Big Dance by winning one of the other three games.
Instead, Nebraska goes to the NIT for the 18th time and the first time since 2011. Hopefully, the Huskers feel spurned and roar through the tournament, getting their first title since 1996. My guess is the season ends well before that, capping a year of disappointment on several levels for the Big Red. At least it looks like Nebrasketball is trending up — finally — after a couple years where the so-called eyeball test had NU starting to circle the drain like it has done so many times in the past.