MADISON, Wis. — The deck was stacked against first-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles before he ever coached a basketball game at his new program. Eight scholarship players. Only two of the team’s top nine scorers returning from the previous season. A team of discombobulated parts that finished dead last in Big Ten play.
It was as though Miles was playing poker with a jack high against opponents that possessed royal flushes and full houses in the toughest conference in college basketball. Expectations were so minimal that on preseason media ballots, 23 of 24 people picked the Cornhuskers to finish last in the Big Ten once again.
Given all those hurdles to overcome, it isn’t a stretch to suggest Miles already has worked wonders simply to keep the program above water.
No. 17 Wisconsin (19-8, 10-4) plays host to Nebraska (13-14, 4-10) at 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday, and this week, Badgers coach Bo Ryan expressed his admiration for Miles and his accomplishments.
“I’ve always appreciated Tim’s openness in conversations,” Ryan said. “He’s easy to talk to. I’m sure he’s easy to understand as a communicator, as a coach for his players. I think he’s brought his team along very well. I think they’ve definitely improved. But for me, it’s not surprising because I’ve known him for a while and know he’s a ball coach.”
While the Cornhuskers don’t possess a particularly impressive resume, they have won more games than they did a season ago under former coach Doc Sadler. That team finished 12-18 and 4-14 in the Big Ten. This season, Nebraska is 10th in the conference standings, two games out of a tie for seventh. Nebraska also has lost by single digits to Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State.
On Saturday, Nebraska pulled off a stunning comeback at home against Iowa, a team with NCAA Tournament hopes. Iowa led 39-19 in the first half and 41-25 at halftime, but Nebraska escaped with a 64-60 victory. Iowa made just 28 percent of its second-half shots.
Of course, Miles is hardly ready to celebrate, calling his team “a roller coaster” in the confidence and poise departments.
“We’re not at the point and time in our life cycle yet to put ourselves in comparison to Wisconsin or anybody like that,” Miles said. “We have to be ourselves, continue to try and get better, try and build off the second half of Iowa, learn from the first half and see if we can’t put it to practice against Wisconsin on Tuesday.”
If Nebraska is to achieve its most significant victory of the Miles era against Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers will have to play with the same confidence and poise demonstrated in the second half against Iowa — and the same defensive toughness that nearly led to an upset of the Badgers in Lincoln earlier this season.
Wisconsin barely escaped the Devaney Center with a 47-41 victory against Nebraska on Jan. 6. The teams were tied at 19 at halftime, and the Badgers shot 37.7 percent for the game. Nebraska actually led 38-37 with less than six minutes remaining in the contest.
“It was a grinder,” Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “We weren’t shooting the ball particularly well in the first couple of Big Ten games. That kind of showed what the league was going to be like. That wasn’t our only grinder of a game, and we figured out to win these types of games we’ve got to make sure we stick to our rules defensively and make plays when we need to.”
Nebraska, which lost its first five conference games, is 4-5 since. And the play of Dylan Talley and Brandon Ubel, the team’s top returning scorers, is a big reason for the turnaround. Talley leads the Cornhuskers with 14.0 points per game and Ubel is third with 11.4 points. Guard Ray Gallegos also has increased his scoring from 2.8 points per game last season to 12.5 this season.
Freshman guard Shavon Shields has emerged as a viable offensive threat as well. Shields was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week after tallying 17 points and seven rebounds in Nebraska’s victory against Iowa.
With a victory, Wisconsin can move into a tie for second place with Michigan State in the Big Ten. The Badgers would be two full games behind Indiana with four regular season games remaining. But the Hoosiers must play at Minnesota, at Michigan and home against Ohio State. If Wisconsin can manage a tie in the standings, the Badgers would take over first place by way of a 64-59 victory at Indiana in the teams’ only meeting this season.
Miles recognizes the challenge of taking down a top-tier Big Ten team on Tuesday won’t be easy.
“You have to play well and you have to beat them because they will not beat themselves,” Miles said. “That’s why they’re so tough to beat. And I also think they’re underrated in talent. Those guys play so well together and they understand winning so much that often times people don’t recognize the individual talent they have. Not only is Bo Ryan a great coach, but he knows how to put together a great team and get those guys to play together.”