Nebraska basketball poised for bright finish after navigating rough stretch

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Don’t expect an exhibit on the beauty of basketball as Nebraska visits Northwestern on Wednesday night.

Both Big Ten bubble-dwellers played a pair of overtime games last week. Nebraska beat then-No. 6-ranked Wisconsin at home Thursday and lost Sunday at No. 14 Illinois while Northwestern dropped decisions Wednesday at No. 2 Purdue and Saturday at Minnesota.

These are the dirtiest of dog days in the college season. The Huskers, after facing Northwestern, will have played seven games in three weeks, including four on the road.

Nebraska held a long film session on Monday and a morning practice on Tuesday before jetting to Chicago. Coach Fred Hoiberg continues to seek consistent physicality from the Huskers, who’ve yet to find a win in six conference road games but came painstakingly close against the Illini by erasing a 10-point deficit in the final 3 ½ minutes of regulation. They lost 87-84.

“The guys are doing OK,” Hoiberg said Tuesday. “It’s a resilient group. We’ve bounced back.”

This may seem like a tenuous moment for Nebraska, 16-7 overall and 6-6 in the Big Ten. It may feel, for fans who’ve enjoyed only one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past 25 years, like the dark cloud that hovers near the Huskers is again taking aim.

I see sunshine ahead for Hoiberg’s team. It’s well positioned for March, with a resume set to impress the selection committee and a roster filled with enough shooters and savviness to comfortably get the job done over the next month.

Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena marks the end of Nebraska’s most taxing stretch. Starting Saturday at home against Michigan, which sits last in the league standings, the Huskers will play seven games in 30 days.

That final stretch before the postseason features just one opponent with a NET ranking better than 100 and four games at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Nebraska is 14-1 at home.

The Huskers are more likely, in my view, to win their first-ever NCAA Tournament game than they are to miss the field.

Reasonably, Nebraska, without a jump in its level of play, could own 22 wins on March 17. Selection Sunday may not produce the drama that many are expecting for the Huskers.

The game on Wednesday night, in fact, rates perhaps as the most difficult left on their schedule before the Big Ten tournament. Like Nebraska, Northwestern is unbeaten in conference home games. It has taken down Purdue and Illinois.

The Wildcats sit 50th in the KenPom ratings and 59th in the NET. Nebraska ranks 46th and 52nd, respectively.

Even if the Huskers limp home this week with a third loss in four games, their situation remains manageable. They would be well served, of course, to win at least one of the remaining road games — at Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan.

Hoiberg’s formula is simple: protect the basketball and rebound well. At home, the Huskers can win by accomplishing one of those objectives. On the road, it seemingly takes both.

Sunday in Champaign, Nebraska committed just nine turnovers. But it was outrebounded by 17. The Illini held a 17-5 edge on the offensive glass.

“There were several things we could have done to win that game,” Hoiberg said Tuesday. “That’s what stings.”

My optimism is buoyed by two factors.

First, Hoiberg’s steadiness bodes well for the final stretch. The fifth-year coach stays remarkably calm amid the storms of emotion that enter play in almost every Big Ten game. Sunday as outside decibel levels rose around some questionable late-game officiating and the missed opportunity for Nebraska, Hoiberg handled postgame questions like he’d just finished a monotonous film session.

One answer, in particular, caught my attention. He was asked by a reporter minutes after leaving the court about the contributions this season of Nebraska’s Rienk Mast and Illinois’ Marcus Domask as transfers to the Big Ten from Missouri Valley Conference schools Bradley and Southern Illinois. In a stressful moment, Hoiberg handled it gracefully, adding that Purdue’s Lance Jones, another SIU transfer, and Iowa’s Ben Krikke, a Valparaiso transfer, have also fared well in the MVC-to-Big Ten jump.

I get that it’s Hoiberg’s job to study the sport. But that’s a tiny window into his mind. Clearly, he is not cutting corners. His players notice. They feed off his preparedness and gain confidence from Hoiberg’s unflappable nature. It helped allow the Huskers to avoid panic in staging late rallies that forced OT twice last week.

The Hoiberg influence will pay off more over the weeks ahead.

Second, Nebraska is getting closer to turning a corner on the road. It bottomed out, apparently, on Jan. 27 at Maryland and finally showed on Sunday that it can execute a plan in the clutch away from home.

With 3:27 to play in regulation, the Huskers talked during the final media timeout about the need to hold Illinois scoreless for the rest of the way. There was no brilliant strategy at play, but Nebraska dialed up the defensive intensity. The Illini missed its next six shots and scored only after C.J. Wilcher was called for a foul against Domask with three seconds on the clock.

Domask hit the first of two free throws to even the score.

“I thought our guys were locked in and engaged all the way through that game,” Hoiberg said. “And that’s what gives you a chance to win on the road.”

He told the Huskers in the locker room after the loss, “Now we know we can do it.”

Knowing represents half the battle. All that’s left for Nebraska this season is to keep marching forward, no matter the venue or the clouds gathering above.

(Photo of Fred Hoiberg: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)

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