“They keep piling up wins, but they’re not helpful wins,” Jerry Palm, the longtime CBS Sports bracketologist, told Land of 10 when asked about the surging Cornhuskers. “Really, Michigan [a 72-52 home win on Jan. 18] is the win, and Michigan is in the middle of the bracket right now.
“They beat them at home like a drum, but every good team that they’ve played [otherwise], they’ve lost to.”
Other than that, Happy Valentine’s Day!
We kid, but the man makes a true — if sobering — point. This is the business end of the NCAA Tournament resume conversation, and the good news is that Nebraska (20-8, 11-4 in Big Ten play, unofficial RPI rank: 53) is universally up for discussion, and will be until the bitter end.
But when it comes down to the nit-picking part of the final few Bracketville slots up for at-large grabs, the selection committee makes Randy Jackson look like a softie in comparison.
Like NFL scouts in springtime, the discussion inevitably turns to comparative flaws, and the biggest flaw on the Huskers’ resume is this: an 0-6 mark in what are now called Quadrant 1 tilts — home games vs. the RPI top 30, neutral-site games against the RPI top 50, and road games vs. the top 75.
If the committee told us anything last weekend when it revealed its top 16 seeds of the moment, it’s that the suits are still overly in love with the RPI as a seeding tool. And even more infatuated with the new quadrant concept — in simplest terms, Quad 4 losses (home vs. RPI 161 or lower, neutral vs. 201 or lower, road vs. 241 or lower) are bad, while Quad 1 and Quad 2 (home vs. RPI 31-75, neutral vs. 51-100, road vs. 76-135) are groovy — as a means of sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Michigan (RPI rank as of Wednesday morning: 39) last month? Quad 2 win.
Maryland (61) on Tuesday night? Quad 2 win.
Purdue (12), Michigan State (14) and Ohio State (16)? Quad 1s wherever you play them, baby.
“Unless you’re beating Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan, you can’t resume build,” Palm continued. “So the [Huskers] are not winning to help [the case], they’re winning to avoid damaging it, which is not the same thing.
“It’s not their fault the league sucks, but if the league didn’t suck, they wouldn’t be winning so many games, too.”
Still, there’s a hell of a lot more to like than not on the profile: It’s the Big Red’s first 20-win season — with some miles to go, no pun intended — since 1992-93 and the earliest point at hitting 20 victories since 1990-91. Nebraska has already tied for their most wins ever in Big Ten play (11) with three regular-season league games left to go.
And it’s not so much that the league is, ahem, down, so much as is the drop after the top 3 or 4 programs is steeper than usual — thanks largely to a paucity of sexy non-conference scalps up and down the standings.
March is when you get to cash in the chips you’d picked off in November and December, and neither of those months were especially kind to the Big Ten. The hangnail dogging the Huskers, especially now that their resume is under the heat lamp, is that they could hang with the elites from the other power leagues — they just didn’t finish them. A 1-point home loss to Kansas (RPI rank as of Wednesday: 7). A 10-point loss at Creighton (RPI: 23). A 9-point loss vs. Central Florida (RPI: 56).
Flip any one of those, and the discussion going into the league tourney isn’t about To-Dayton-Or-Not-To-Dayton. It’s about seeding, and about the Huskers being viewed the way Michigan (20-7, 9-5 Big Ten) is viewed at present. As a worst-case.
“Quality is more important than quantity,” Palm said of Nebraska. “They need to play one of the top 4 [teams in the league]. And the problem is, they have one of the softest schedules you could probably have in the Big Ten.”
A non-conference strength of schedule rank of 261 isn’t exactly making a lot of friends, either.
“What they need is quality wins,” Palm said. “Unfortunately for them, the next opportunity for one of those is in the conference tournament.”
If the season ended today, Nebraska would be a 4 seed with a double-bye in Manhattan, and with the Wolverines likely waiting the quarterfinals on March 2. The winner would probably get the 1 seed — and it’s a mad scramble among Ohio State (13-1 in the league), Michigan State (13-2) and Purdue (12-2) for that spot right now — in the semis.
“The opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament would look a lot better if they could have bene able to hold on against Kansas or Creighton,” noted Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris. “They don’t have any bad losses; they don’t have any great wins right now. They have a few more opportunities — they just can’t afford to have any bad losses and [need] to have a decent run in the conference tournament.”
And the pieces are there to make a decent run, Morris says, whether it be in Madison Square Garden or beyond. Nebraska’s athleticism, speed and reach from a bevy of gifted wing players have helped the Big Red post a top 60 shooting defense overall (No. 23 nationally in opponent effective field-goal percentage, at 46.7), along the 3-point arc (No. 23 nationally in opponent trey conversations, at 31.5 percent) and, more critically in a tourney setting, on 2-point attempts (46.5 percent opponent conversion rate, good for No. 51 nationally).
“The thing that’s really stood out to me is just their vast improvement on both sides of the 3-point line,” Morris said. “A lot of teams talk about what they want to work on in the off-season and it doesn’t necessarily bare out. They made that a point of emphasis and they have done that really, really well.”
And they still control their own destiny, for the most part. So long as that destiny involves not being upset at Illinois (12-14, RPI rank: No. 186), or at home against Indiana (14-12, RPI: 108) or on Feb. 25 against surging bubble peer Penn State (18-9, RPI: 87), which already has a road win at Ohio State to sell to the selection committee.
“I just had a [conversation where] Nebraska and Penn State fans were arguing about who’s going to have to win in that final [regular-season] game, and they both think they’re going to make the NCAA Tournament, because that’s the way passionate fans are,” Palm said.
“I think Nebraska is good. Despite what fans think, I don’t dislike Nebraska. Tim Miles is one of my favorite coaches and he’s a fantastic guy. I would root for Nebraska to make the tournament. I would. But that’s not my job.”
History is objective, too, and it’s worth noting that an NCAA committee that slights the Big Red next month would be flying squarely in the face of it. No Big Ten team this century — whether facing a 16-game or 18-game conference slate — has failed to reach a Big Dance with 12 league victories on their CV. And Team Miles is one win away with three regular-season tests to go, two of ‘em at home.
“I guess there’s a first time for everything,” Morris laughed. “And this year could definitely be [that] type of year.”
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