WASHINGTON — It’s put-up-or-shut-up season now, which is hard, because we like hearing Tim Miles talk.
“I think it’s a good thing,” the Nebraska men’s basketball coach said when asked about expectations for 2017-18, now that the runway’s clear for his return. “Over 20 years as a head coach, there have been times when you have a sophomore group and you get kind of frustrated because they’re better, but you expect them to be way better. But they know what’s going on and they just aren’t way better.
“I remember at Southwest (Minnesota) State, we had three or four sophomores and we had a kid go down early with an injury, and we were 4-0, 4-1, something like that, ended up (18-10). Just lost a whole bunch of close games. And the next year we were 28-7.”
A 10-win jump from 12 victories to 22 might be a bridge-and-a-half too far, unless the non-conference schedule — the Huskers tackled the No. 1 non-conference RPI slate in the country, and the bruises piled up — gets dumbed down considerably.
But 12 to, say, 18 or 19 isn’t unreasonable. Or unjustified, if the buzz about the transfers is on the money.
“I want to come through for (athletic director) Shawn (Eichorst),” Miles told reporters in his office adjacent to the Huskers’ locker room after the Big Red fell to Penn State at the Big Ten tourney on Wednesday. “I want to come through for the Huskers fans. We want to validate his faith in us. And we’re going to work our butts off.”
It was Eichorst who ended a fortnight of speculation, much of it unpleasant, when he tweeted out his support for Miles’ return almost immediately after the Huskers’ season ended in an overtime loss at the Verizon Center:
— Shawn Eichorst (@BigRedAD) March 8, 2017
Miles said he knew things were kosher coming in to the Big Ten Tournament, despite the Huskers ending the season with five straight defeats and tying a school record for losses (19). Before Miles, three other coaches have dropped 19 tilts in a season as Husker coach; he’s only the second of the four to return for an encore campaign.
“Speculation is speculation; it is what it is,” Miles said. “I look forward to next season. I think Husker basketball is going to be tough to deal with. And if we’re looking for a model, you don’t have to go far from Minnesota (this season), who had, historically, their worst season in Big Ten history to one of the best.”
The Gophers were 2-16 in league play last winter, 8-23 overall, and jumped to 11-7 and 23-8, respectively, in 2016-17. Miles said the off-season syllabus figures to focus on overall conditioning, 3-point defense, 3-point efficiency — the Big Red converted less than 33 percent of its treys in 14 games, and lost 12 of those tilts — and tempo.
“Now can we make that flip? I don’t know,” Miles continued. “But if we’re making the NCAA Tournament next year, then you’ll know that we’ve done it right. Because that’s the goal every year. The standard does not change.”
Nor should it. The bar isn’t about becoming brilliant. It’s about becoming relevant.
“I think we’re doing the right thing, I really do,” said forward Michael Jacobson, one of the Big Red sophomores in question. “It didn’t work out this year like we had it planned, definitely not. I’m excited to be back and I know we’ve got guys that are going to work as hard as ever.
“And I think we’re going to have more, I don’t know, maybe just more of a bond, because we realize you’ve got to put the work in, and things like that, next year. I think (there will) be more of a brotherhood, if you will.”
Senior playmaker Tai Webster’s eligibility is up, but he’s the tip of an iceberg that should be en route to return mostly intact. The sophomore duo of Glynn Watson Jr. in the backcourt and Ed Morrow in the paint are the anchor legs now. James Palmer Jr., a 6-foot-6 transfer from Miami, is cleared to start next season. Former Georgetown big man Issac Copeland, a 6-9 wing with an intriguing skill set, is on track to be eligible by the second semester, at the latest. Guard Anton Gill, a 6-3 Louisville transfer, ruptured a patella in his right knee in late December and missed the rest of the year.
‘But if we’re making the NCAA Tournament next year, then you’ll know that we’ve done it right.’
— Nebraska men’s basketball coach Tim Miles
If all the pieces line up, it’s a collective that can play faster and push harder than any group Miles has trotted out yet. Whatever the coach was building toward, whatever he was planning — and even the most careful plans can wind up shredded by the hands of vengeful hoops gods — as his next core wasn’t going to really flower until next fall anyway.
Either that, or Eichorst couldn’t round up a sexy Plan B in time and just figured, ah, to hell with it.
Regardless, the depth for relevance, for now, should be there. The ingredients for relevance, also for now, should be there. Capable bodies outnumber palpable excuses. How well do they mix?
“I think it’ll be a huge deal, it’s probably going to be a topic of conversation,” forward Jacobson said. “But you can’t get yourself involved in that type of thing because if you start thinking about that, then you’re putting even more pressure, more stuff in your head.”
Meanwhile, the division continues, in coffee shops, sports bars, online and elsewhere. They all root for the Big Red. They all want Miles to succeed. The fault lines lie along the camps of those who think he still can and those, after six seasons, who’ve seen enough. And ne’er the twain:
— cinred (@cinred) March 9, 2017
— Nebrasketball (@nebrasket_ball) March 9, 2017
It’s interesting: The last Huskers honcho to hit 19 losses and survive was Barry Collier in 2002-03. The next season, the Big Red went 16-11 in the regular season; mugged Tennessee and Kansas at home; won at Minnesota; and wound up No. 40 nationally on KenPom.com and with an unofficial RPI rank of 76.
Also, they didn’t dance.
Better? No question.
But not relevant.
Which means if history repeats itself, Eichorst is going to be faced with another tough question. And the answer, for better or worse, is going to speak volumes.