Cornhuskers head coach Tim Miles has Nebraska fans dreaming of an NCAA Tournament bid.
Bruce Thorson / USA TODAY Sports
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Maybe Tim Miles really is a miracle worker.
Men's basketball is still relevant at Nebraska in March, the time of year when spring football typically dominates the sports conversation in the Cornhusker state. Instead, it's all hoops, all the time right now and all eyes are on Miles.
The energetic, quick-witted 47-year-old was hired in March 2012 and sold the dream of someday leading the Huskers to the NCAA tournament and winning when they got there.
Skeptical fans, accustomed to disappointment, said they would believe it when they see it. Well, the time might be coming sooner than anyone imagined.
Nebraska (19-11) heads to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament after winning 10 of their last 12 games to finish fourth in the conference. The court-storming student section was, in a word, nuts during Sunday's 77-68 upset of then-No. 9 Wisconsin. The rest of the sellout crowd showed up loud and proud, too, and responded favorably to Miles' plea to stand and make noise the whole game.
''You're seeing a euphoric state of mind with our fans, and rightly so,'' said Marc Boehm, the executive associate athletic director who oversees the program. ''It's happened quickly, it's happened unexpectedly, and that's the beauty of all this.''
Miles, who on Monday was named Big Ten coach of the year in a vote of his peers, has connected with students and the rest of the fans like no other new Nebraska coach has before. He's a voracious user of social media, and he shares in-game thoughts with some 62,000 followers with his halftime tweets. He high-fives students as he enters the arena, and he poses for pictures on the court after games.
He gladly obliged a couple months ago when a man asked him to shoot a video to be used in a wedding proposal. He's quick to tell stories about his small-town South Dakota upbringing and to poke fun at himself for ranking in the bottom half in a graduating class of 13.
Of course, good will lasts only so long. Fans want to see results, and Miles is succeeding on that front, too. The Huskers' 11 conference wins are two more than the total of the last two years and the most by a Nebraska team since 1965-66.
''I really thought if this team could get to .500 in the league, it would be a special accomplishment,'' Miles said. ''For us to go 11-7 in this league, which is (ranked) one or two in the country, is really an amazing performance by our guys.''
It looked like the same old Nebraska after a 15-point loss to Creighton and a 31-point stinker at Ohio State. The Huskers were picked to finish last in the Big Ten, and they lost four straight and five of six to begin conference play.
''We were all kind of on our own agendas and didn't really know how to play with each other,'' Terran Petteway said.
Petteway, who transferred from Texas Tech, is scoring 18 points a game in Miles' motion offense and was named first-team all-conference. The 6-foot-10 Walter Pitchford, a transfer from Florida, is a double-figure scorer who is a reliable 3-point shooter. Shields, who signed with former coach Doc Sadler in 2011, averages 13 points but could go off for 30 any night.
Defensively, the Huskers held eight straight opponents under 40-percent shooting before Wisconsin shot 43 percent Sunday.
''You recruit the right kind of guys, coach them the right way and good things happen,'' Miles said.
Nebraska would love to win at least a game or two in the Big Ten tournament but is confident it already has secured its first NCAA tournament bid since 1998.
''That's not even a question in my mind when you play like that in this league,'' Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
This breakthrough season has been in the works since the administration decided to get serious about basketball. Former athletic director Tom Osborne oversaw the construction of one of the nation's best practice facilities. The team moved this season from the outdated Devaney Sports Center to the new Pinnacle Bank Arena, and sellouts were routine.
Miles turned struggling programs into winners in 12 years at non-Division I levels. Then, at Colorado State, he took a seven-win team in 2007-08 to the NCAA tournament in 2011-12.
Boehm said he's not worried about Miles, who has five years left on his contract, being scooped up by another school. Miles has shown he loves a challenge and, with no conference titles since 1950 and an all-time NCAA tournament record of 0-6, Nebraska is one of the biggest.
''It's really a different day and age, and there's no better time to be the basketball coach at Nebraska,'' Miles said. ''I'm very fortunate to have things other coaches didn't have at their disposal.''