If Nebraska opening 4-0 in Big Ten play seems a bit bonkers to you, consider this: Since 2006, 19 of the 20 teams that began Big Ten play with a 3-0 league mark — 95 percent — wound up getting their tickets punched for the NCAA Tournament.
We’re past bonkers.
Bonkers was three exits ago, just left of the truck stop.
This is surreal.
This is awesome, baby.
The last time the Cornhuskers (9-6, 3-0 Big Ten) men’s basketball team opened 3-0 in conference play before this season, Dick Vitale actually had hair:
Media Guide from the 1976-77 U-D basketball season. Dick Vitale and guard Dennis Boyd pose in front of the RenCen. pic.twitter.com/t0l8m1UbrW
— Robert Rogowski (@robert_rogowski) December 6, 2016
Well, OK. More hair, at any rate.
The wagon was in a ditch not too long ago, wheels spinning against a starry sky. A week before Christmas, the Huskers had lost at home to Gardner-Webb, 70-62, dropping their record to 5-6. Locals were calling coach Tim Miles’ radio show to tell him, as politely as they possibly could, to get the hell out of Dodge.
More than a fortnight later, Big Red hoops has wins at Indiana (ranked No. 29 nationally by Ken Pomeroy) and at Maryland (KenPom No. 60) under its belt and sits 3-0 to begin league play for the first time since 1976.
Which probably says something about the league, at present, and not in a good way.
Fair enough. But it says something about the Huskers, too.
The knee-jerk reaction is to stare at the standings, rub your eyes, stare some more, and surmise, “Welp, the Big Ten’s gotta be down.” But that cheapens 3-0, cheapens the journey. Nebraska, which hosts fellow bubble-dreamer Northwestern (12-4, 1-2) Sunday in a sneaky-big game for both parties, didn’t start enter the circuit with roadies against Rutgers and Penn State and a lucky bounce to knock, off, say, Illinois at home.
They earned it.
They rallied in Bloomington, at a building where North Carolina was handed a 9-point loss back in November. They rallied in College Park, at a building where the Terrapins had just handed the Illini a 25-point thrashing.
They got tight against Iowa at home last Thursday — missing 16 of 35 free-throw attempts in their own building and only putting the scrappy Hawkeyes to sleep after star Peter Jok (34 points) fouled out — but never stopped swinging, pulling out a 93-90 victory in double overtime.
Nebraska is here the old-fashioned way, riding a wave of self-belief, defense (12.7 steals per game against Big Ten opponents, tops in the league), second-chance possessions (14.7 offensive boards per game, No. 3 in the circuit), and guard play.
Over the last 11 days, the Big Red’s backcourt duo of Glynn Watson and Tai Webster have been busy doing their best Steph Curry-Klay Thompson impersonations, combining for 46.3 points per game, 21 steals, and 17 3-point makes.
It’s hard to kill what you can’t defend.
And harder, still, to explain with a straight face. The computers don’t know what to make of the Big Red surge, which is beautiful — an illogical team giving logical machines digital vertigo, a mouse trapped in the gears, mucking up the works. TeamRankings.com’s model portends the campaign turning back into a pumpkin any day now, pegging the Huskers as having a 48-percent chance or better to win in only four more games the rest of the regular season — with the Northwestern visit as the truest of coin flips, at 48.4 percent.
That confounding home loss to Gardner-Webb back on Dec. 18 is looking less like a harbinger and more like some odd statistical outlier. A fluke.
As profiles go, Pomeroy’s calculator is less enthused, slotting the Big Red at No. 83 overall as of Saturday afternoon, just behind Boise State, Texas, Iowa and Princeton, and No. 37 nationally in “luck” ratings, or, in layman’s terms, its ability to win more games — close games — than its statistical profile says it should. KenPom is bullish on one thing, though, and that’s Nebraska’s strength of schedule, ranking it No. 4 overall and No. 17 for the nonconference part of the menu.
And if KenPom is bullish on the Huskers’ slate, the unofficial Ratings Percentage Index numbers are practically effusive. The Big Red ended Saturday afternoon ranked second nationally in SOS and fifth nationally in nonconference schedule strength. Nebraska went into Saturday night’s action ranked No. 41 in overall RPI and with two victories over top 50 RPI foes — No. 25 Dayton on a neutral floor; and No. 38 Maryland on the road.
That confounding home loss to No. 203 Gardner-Webb back on Dec. 18 is looking less like a harbinger and more like some odd statistical outlier. A fluke.
Suddenly, Pinnacle Bank Arena is the hottest place to be in college basketball, a snowball gathering momentum from out of nowhere. And the once-vilified Miles is opening his wallet to spice up the party, footing the bill for 100 student tickets to Sunday’s contest:
Hey #UNL students, still need tickets for Sunday?
Coach Miles has you covered.
— Nebraska Basketball (@HuskerHoops) January 6, 2017
Embrace the bonkers. Embrace the surreal. Some three weeks ago, they were calling for his head. If Miles beats the Wildcats, they’ll be fitting him for a crown.