From the depths, Nebraska hits a new high. What's next for Cornhuskers basketball?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Nebraska basketball hit rock bottom.
There are too many options: Perhaps it was the home loss to Western Illinois in the 2021-22 season-opener, when it seemed hopes for a turnaround in Fred Hoiberg’s 3rd year in Lincoln were dashed. Maybe it was the consecutive 7-win seasons the 2 previous years, when Nebraska was a combined 5-34 in Big Ten play. Maybe the last regular-season game of 2020, when the Huskers lost by 32 at sub-.500 Minnesota and in doing so allowed more than 100 points to an opponent for the first time since 1999. Maybe it was almost exactly a year later, when Nebraska lost by 38 at Iowa, again giving up triple-digits. Or the 35 at home to Michigan the year after that.
Regardless, we know exactly when Nebraska reached the pinnacle, at least so far.
It came late Tuesday night, when the Cornhuskers not only beat No. 1 Purdue but ran the Boilermakers straight out of Pinnacle Bank Arena, shooting a blistering 61% from 3-point range in hitting a season-best 14 triples. It was Nebraska’s first win over a top-ranked opponent since 1982, following 11 consecutive losses, and it has the Cornhuskers eyeing a top-4 finish in the Big Ten, a berth into the NCAA Tournament and — gasp! — a win in the Big Dance, which would mark the program’s first victory after 7 previous tourney 1-and-dones.
STORM THAT COURT!!
— Hail Varsity (@HailVarsity) January 10, 2024
Nebraska is 13-3 overall, 3-2 in the conference, with a Net Ranking of 46, up a dozen spots following the victory against the Boilermakers.
If it feels like a long-time coming for the Cornhuskers, that’s because it has been. Hoiberg was hired before the 2019-20 season to help rejuvenate a program that felt stuck in neutral toward the end of Tim Miles’ mildly-successful tenure. But even Miles only led the Huskers to the NCAA Tournament 1 time — and promptly lost.
What followed was a series of starts-and-stops that made Nebraska feel not like it was in neutral but was about to run off the side of a cliff. At any point during the past couple of years, it seemed Hoiberg was more likely to get fired than to get it figured out. Perhaps the tumult in the football program, which has had 3 head coaches since 2017, was a distraction that helped to buy Hoiberg more time. But whatever the reason, here he stands now, having found the right formula of holdovers, like Japanese sensation Keisei Tominaga and former Alabama transfer Juwan Gary, who missed much his first season in Lincoln with an injury last year, and portal transfers like Rienk Mast (Bradley) and Brice Williams (Charlotte).
Nebraska isn’t flawless — it lost at Wisconsin in its previous game by the exact same 88-72 score that it beat Purdue on Tuesday — but it has the goods to be able to compete against the best of the best.
Purdue is not a pushover (as it’ll almost assuredly be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and, at least before the loss, was an odd-on favorite to win the national title), but Nebraska pushed it over on Tuesday, triggering a rare court storming. Tominaga is the real deal, a dude who can catch fire from about anywhere and light opponents up. He had a game-high 19 points vs. Purdue — 15 coming on 5 4-pointers.
Gary has shown an ability to do a bit of everything, from defending to rebounding to scoring in the low post. He had 12 points — just 3 fewer than Purdue All-American Zach Edey. Williams, who battled through an ankle injury to start vs. Purdue, can break down defenses to get his own shot. And Mast has given the Huskers a consistent low-post presence offensive and defensively this season, and might have given Edey more trouble than anyone else has ever.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Nebraska ended last season on a positive note, when Tominaga emerged as a Big Ten darling, at least on days he wasn’t torching your favorite team, and the competitiveness of Sam Hoiberg, the coach’s son, started rubbing off teammates. The Cornhuskers won 6 of their final 8 games last year and entered the Big Ten Tournament as a team nobody wanted to deal with, although they lost in the opener to Minnesota.
But that led to this: Dating to last Feb. 1, Nebraska is 19-6 (.760), besting Purdue (22-7, .759) for the Big Ten’s best winning percentage in that stretch. Had you polled Big Ten fans, asking them which team held the best mark since then, how many other guesses would come before landing on Nebraska?
Purdue? Illinois? Michigan State? Indiana? Wisconsin? Maryland?
What’s next? Well immediately, the Cornhuskers will have to try to avoid a letdown at Iowa on Friday night. But longer term, Nebraska has a chance to compete for a top-4 finish in the league regular-season and a coveted double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. (Keep in mind, they’ve only had 2 winning seasons in conference play since joining the B1G in 2011-12.) But maybe the Huskers should eye for even more. The remaining conference schedule is favorable, considering they don’t make a return trip to Purdue this season and get Illinois, another conference favorite, only once, although it is in Champaign early next month.
It has taken time, but the Cornhuskers are gaining believers.