CHICAGO — What went wrong for Nebraska?
It was just four months ago that the basketball gods were presumably smiling on the Cornhuskers. All five starters back from their first NCAA Tournament team in 16 years. A No. 21 spot in the preseason rankings. The lavish promise from winning 10 of 12 down the stretch the year before.
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Nebraska basketball had arrived.
That was then. This is now.
The Cornhuskers’ ordeal finally ended Wednesday with a 68-65 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament. One last scoop of frustration for a program that thought it was blossoming, not headed for a cliff. That made nine consecutive defeats to finish, and a 13-18 final record. No pre-season ranked team had a bigger belly flop.
“As excited as I was last year is as disappointed as I am this year,” coach Tim Miles said. “I talked a lot of trash on the golf course last year. I was pretty pumped up.
“We talked about it as a team even last summer and I talked about it this fall; I’m curious to see if we’re a good team or just a team that got hot. Well, it would appear we were a team that got hot.”
What went wrong?
Start with the obvious. Teams that can’t score and can’t shoot endure harsh winters. The Cornhuskers came into Wednesday 306th in the nation in scoring, and 340th in 3-point shooting. Against Penn State, they had 19 field goals and 16 shots blocked.
The final 30.2 shooting percentage will do as exhibit A.
“It seems like that’s been happening night in and night out,” said Terran Petteway, who did not go down Wednesday without a 29-point fight. “We get shots that roll in and out.”
Sounds like karma.
Bad things tend to beget more bad things. Nebraska chopped a 16-point Penn State lead to one in the final minutes, and seemed to have a last chance when the Nittany Lions’ D.J. Newbill missed a jumper with five seconds left. But two Cornhuskers knocked the rebound out of each other’s hands.
“A microcosm of our season,” Miles said. “It was really difficult to watch that.”
Perhaps the expectations were too heavy. Suddenly, Nebraska was not a football school. Suddenly, opponents were not taking the Cornhuskers for granted.
“Pat Riley wrote the whole book, this is what you’re going to go through,” Miles said. “Last year was the innocent climb, and this year is your test of will.”
Miles was disturbed by some of the body language and on-court behavior he saw earlier in the season. It was much better down the stretch.
“We stopped feeling sorry for ourselves the week we were preparing for Illinois,” Petteway said. “We were just going in there with reckless abandon.”
That was three games ago, but it couldn’t stop Nebraska’s bleeding.
The Cornhuskers’ last win this season will forever be Feb. 3 against Northwestern. “But that really means a lot to me,” Miles said of the effort, “because there were some times when it felt hopeless.
— Terran Petteway
“If you would have told me we were going to stop at 13 [wins] a month, five, six weeks ago, whatever it was, I would have bet you any amount of money that that wouldn’t happen. But unfortunately, it has.”
So instead of leading his Nebraska program to new heights, Miles must rebuild from unaccustomed retreat. He has been coaching 20 years, and this is only the second time his team did not match or better the previous season’s victory total.
Petteway mentioned “losing six or seven in a row.” By Wednesday, the Cornhuskers had lost count.
“You know as a coach, your essence — when they introduce you at the Rotary Club and they say Tim Miles has this record or that record — they define you on winning. It’s a bottom line business for our guys,” Miles said.
“You can sell a house and take a smaller price and maybe take a hit, but you either win or lose the game, and when you’ve lost — I don’t even know how many, I know that his [Pettway] number was wrong — it wears on you. You go to the shopping center with your head down. You go to the grocery store with your head down and hope you don’t run into anybody and have to regurgitate what you’re going through.”
The sport can be fickle, and here’s Nebraska to prove it. But Miles likes his recruiting class, and the future.
“I think we will be back,” were his last words at the Big Ten Wednesday. “I’d say get us while you can.”