LINCOLN, Neb. — Now that Nebraska has made it back to the NCAA tournament, the next challenge is to win there.
The Cornhuskers (19-12) go into Friday’s West Region game against Baylor (24-11) in San Antonio with the distinction of being one of two power-conference programs to have never won a game in the tournament. The other one is their Big Ten brethren, Northwestern, which has never even played in the NCAAs.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles has repeatedly said he doesn’t want his name associated with anything that has or hasn’t happened before his arrival last year. The Huskers’ 0-6 NCAA record might not be an albatross to him, but he does feel the fans’ pain and likened the situation to that of two Major League Baseball teams.
“They’ve invested emotionally, and they’ve been burned a few times,” Miles said. “They’ve felt like they were the Cubbies, and I kept telling them, ‘Let’s pretend we’re the Red Sox.’”
It’s understandable if longtime followers of the program feel jinxed.
The Huskers’ first NCAA appearance came in 1986. They lost 67-59 to Western Kentucky after cutting an 18-point deficit to four points late in the game. Minutes afterward, coach Moe Iba resigned to pursue other opportunities.
Nebraska earned a No. 3 seed in 1991 after a 26-win season under Danny Nee, only to get upset 89-84 by No. 14 Xavier. The next year, the Huskers fell behind Connecticut by 26 points and lost 86-65.
In 1993, the Huskers lost 93-79 to New Mexico State, with the Aggies’ 5-foot-8 Sam Crawford dazzling with 20 points and 16 assists. The Huskers got embarrassed again in 1994, losing 90-80 to 11th-seeded Penn.
It looked like there would be a breakthrough in 1998. But Arkansas wiped out a seven-point deficit in the last 8 minutes to beat the 11th-seeded Huskers 74-65. There were six NIT appearances under Barry Collier and Doc Sadler the next 14 years and very little else to cheer. Fan interest waned.
“We had to raise the level of the product on the court,” said executive associate athletic director Marc Boehm, who oversees the basketball program.
A new practice facility and new arena has put Nebraska on par with the best programs in the nation from a brick-and-mortar standpoint. Shavon Shields, along with transfers Terran Petteway (Texas Tech) and Walter Pitchford (Florida), have helped Miles point the team in the right direction. Sellout crowds of 15,000-plus are the norm at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Nebraska won 10 of 12 games after a 9-9 start and, in spite of a second-half meltdown against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, landed a No. 11 seed.
“It’s a small step in the big picture of where we want to be and what we want to do,” Shields said. “We kind of underachieved in the Big Ten tournament, and I think we’re ready to bounce back in the NCAA.”
For all the excitement around the program, Miles is keeping an eye on the big picture.
“Let’s say we win and make a run. Is that good enough? No, it’s not good enough,” he said. “Now you want to be a team that can do that every year. There is always going to be the next step to take for this program.
“In this business you can be a flash in the pan — hot one day, cooked the next. That’s not what we want to be. We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.”
Much of the NCAA talk around the state has been about what would happen if both the Huskers and Creighton both win their openers. That would set up a game between the in-state rivals with a spot in the Sweet 16 at stake.
Miles said he isn’t worried about his players looking beyond Baylor.
“We’ve never won a game in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “It’s going to be easy to concentrate on the first one.”