They say an old dog can’t learn new tricks. Don’t tell that to Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg.

Hoiberg, a notoriously offensive-minded coach his entire career, has had to change gears during his 4th season at the helm in Lincoln. An emphasis on the defensive end of the floor has an injury-riddled Nebraska team making noise down the stretch.

The Huskers took down Maryland 70-66 in OT Sunday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It was NU’s 4th win in 5 games to even its record at 14-14 overall and improve to 7-10 in league play. Defense has been the calling card of late. In those 4 wins, only 1 team (Rutgers) reached the 70-point mark.

In Hoiberg’s previous 3 seasons, defensive stops were few and far between. His teams gave up 78.1, 74.2 and 78.5 points per game. This year? It’s down to 69.1. Better than 5 points per game better than the best of the previous years. It’s a newfound emphasis. Credit Hoiberg for adapting to a league that rewards toughness and grit.

Winning with effort despite being shorthanded

Nebraska’s late-season push is more astounding given the fact that 2 of its top players — Juwan Gary (shoulder) and Emmanuel Bandoumel (knee) are lost for the year with injuries. They are arguably the best defensive tandem on the Huskers’ roster. Most pundits figured the season was toast once Bandoumel went down in late January against Penn State.

But Hoiberg introduced a mantra to his team after the injuries. And his group bought in.

“A lot of people were saying , when we had the injuries, ‘what could have been.’ My message to the guys was: ‘What can still be.’ Those guys fight like hell. They practice as hard as anybody,” Hoiberg said following the Maryland win.

It’s the “fighting like hell” that fans see each night from Hoiberg’s crew. They defend hard each possession. They scrap for loose balls and rebounds. They get stops when they need them most. It’s constant energy, and everyone is part of it.

Keisei Tominaga leading the charge

Tominaga, a junior guard, is averaging 23.6 points over the past 5 games. He’s shooting 67.5% from the field, including 45.4% from beyond the arc, during that span. Insane numbers considering he’s drawing the best defender from the opposing team.

But perhaps his biggest attribute is his recommitment to defending. Once considered a liability on that side of the floor, Tominaga has developed into one of the better all-around players in the league. His on-ball defense is much-improved, and his ability to fight through screens and close out on shooters is light years better than last year. A testament to Hoiberg’s emphasis in practice on defense.

Tominaga is getting help from seniors Derrick Walker and Sam Griesel. Walker, from Kansas City, has defended opponents’ bigs well all year. He’s averaging 14.0 points and 7.2 rebounds. His 23 points against the Terps was a career high.

Griesel, a Lincoln East grad, is playing his final season in Lincoln after a standout career at North Dakota State. He’s anchored the point guard position and brings tenacity and communication to the defensive end.

Even Fred’s son, Sam, a walk-on guard, has contributed to the latest success. With NU clinging to a 65-64 lead, Sam Hoiberg intercepted the Terps’ inbound pass and raced in for a layup to put the Huskers up 3.

Fred Hoiberg is loving the unselfish, team play.

“This team is playing great basketball right now,” he said. “The steal after the timeout (by Sam) to put us up 3 … just a huge play. I thought Derrick did a great job on (Maryland center Donta) Scott as well. Guys just really stepped up.”

How high can they climb?

With a week to prepare for league bottom-feeder Minnesota, fans are peeking ahead at the what-ifs. A win over the Gophers moves Nebraska over .500 overall and to 8-10 in the conference. A home date with Michigan State and a trip to Iowa City follow. Anything’s possible. Especially in this muddled mess of a league.

One thing’s for certain, anything can — and probably will — happen in the league tourney in Chicago. Other than the Gophers and injury-riddled Ohio State, it’s plausible to envision any of the other teams making a run to the final. Yes, even these scrappy, junkyard dogs from Lincoln.

Regardless, there’s hope once again in Huskerville. Hoiberg won 7, 7 and 10 games in his first 3 seasons at NU. He’d never won more than 4 conference games over that time. The Huskers now have 7 and are looking to add more. They’re doing it with defense.

A month ago, no one would have given these guys a second thought. Injuries. Past history. The deck was stacked against them.

Now? After 3 wins in a row? NIT? NCAA bubble?

Don’t count them out. Remember, it’s not ‘what could have been,’ it’s ‘what can still be.’