After plenty of Big Ten struggles, Husker basketball is happy to be playing in the NIT

After plenty of Big Ten struggles, Husker basketball is happy to be playing in the NIT
Nebraska guard James Palmer Jr. dunks against Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten Conference tournament. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

LINCOLN — Selection Sunday 2019 was supposed to be so much different.

There was supposed to be a watch party in Lincoln. It would’ve been a casual one, the type teams who know they’re in have.

There’d be a CBS camera on the team sitting in couches in the players lounge and a delayed reaction on live TV when announced as a four seed or five seed. Tim Miles would speak to the media about the matchup and the road to a Sweet 16. Nebraska would begin preparing for its second NCAA tournament in six years.

Instead, there was nothing in Lincoln on Sunday. No event. No live broadcast. No press conference.

Just a short statement after the announcement that Nebraska accepted a four seed in the NIT. They’ll play fifth-seeded Butler at 8 p.m. in the first round Wednesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

The winner faces either No. 1 seed TCU or No. 8 Sam Houston State in the second round.

“We are excited to have our season continue, especially for our seniors who wanted to return to postseason play,” Miles said in a statement. “We had our share of struggles at times, but I think the way we have played over the final two weeks of the season is a testament to our players and the character they have.

“I believe that our performance at the Big Ten tournament is a good momentum boost heading into the postseason, and showed a team that wanted to keep playing.”

If both Creighton, a two seed in the same region, and Nebraska win twice, they would play each other at the CHI Health Center in the quarterfinals.

The announcement is a bittersweet moment in a season with peaks and valleys.

The invitation recognizes the work the Huskers did in the last 10 days to save its season from ending and from Athletic Director Bill Moos making a final decision on Miles’ future with the program. But the NIT bid also acknowledges that Nebraska — set on making the NCAA tournament this year — failed to reach the bar it set for itself.

Nebraska was ranked higher in most metrics the NCAA tournament committee combs through than a season ago, despite a worse record. NU finished 39th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings and 48th in the NCAA’s new NET Rankings. NU had a 10-16 record in Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 games.

But the 15 regular-season losses would have been the most for an at-large team in the NCAA tournament.

Nebraska’s tournament hopes took a sharp turn after starting 11-2. Seven straight losses from Jan. 17 to Feb. 9 derailed the season. In that stretch, Nebraska lost starter Isaac Copeland for the year with a knee injury.

This is the sixth time in seven seasons under Miles that Nebraska hasn’t made the NCAA tournament. NU was a five seed in the NIT last season after going 22-11. The Huskers lost at Mississippi State in the first round.

“Obviously, we wanted to be in the NCAA but the ultimate goal coming here this week was go get into any postseason play,” junior Isaiah Roby said in Chicago last week.

Nebraska has been to the NIT 17 times since 1966. It made it past the first round 11 times and won the tournament in 1996. The program has not made the second weekend of the NIT since 1997.

Less than two weeks ago, it seemed Nebraska’s season would be over after the Big Ten tournament. But a come-from-behind win against Iowa in the home finale gave NU’s postseason hopes new life.

With eight eligible players, Nebraska beat Rutgers and No. 21 Maryland in Chicago to solidify itself for an NIT bid. A 66-62 loss to Wisconsin bumped NU out of the tournament, leaving the Huskers with an 18-16 record.

After the loss, Moos released a statement saying he’d wait to see if Nebraska made a postseason tournament to evaluate Miles’ job status. With the invitation to the NIT, Miles is expected to coach Nebraska until its season is over.

“We have been tested against a schedule that is in the top five nationally in Kenpom, including 25 games against the top two quadrants in the NET,” Miles’ statement read. “We are looking forward to the postseason challenge.”

After being snubbed by the NCAA tournament a season ago, Nebraska failed to show any fight in a 66-59 loss at Mississippi State in the first round of the NIT.

Senior Glynn Watson said in Chicago, with Miles’ job in the balance, the Huskers still have plenty to fight for.

“I‘m always happy to play, and if it gotta be in the NIT, I’ll be ready to play,” Watson said. “I’m pretty sure everybody else should be ready to play no matter what else is going on. We’re gonna come out and fight no matter what.”

Notes from Selection Sunday:

» Nebraska assistant Michael Lewis left Butler for a job at Nebraska. Butler’s athletic director is former Nebraska coach Barry Collier.

» The Bulldogs are 16-16 on the season. They lost five of their final six games, their only win coming over Xavier on March 5. They lost back-to-back games to Providence to end the season and in the first round of the Big East tournament.

» The Big Ten got eight teams in the NCAA tournament, the most of any conference.

Michigan and Michigan State both received two seeds. Despite winning the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans are matched up in the same region as No. 1 overall seed Duke. Also in that region, Minnesota is a 10 seed and Maryland is a six seed. Minnesota and Michigan State could meet up in the second round in Des Moines.

In the South region, Purdue is a three seed, Wisconsin a five seed and Iowa a 10 seed. Wisconsin will play Oregon in the first round.

Ohio State is the lowest-seeded Big Ten team at 11. One of the first teams left out of the tournament was Indiana, which is 17-15.

» Nebraska finished 48th in the NCAA’s new NET rankings. Teams lower than that were at-large bids:

Ohio State (55), Temple (56), Seton Hall (57), Minnesota (61), Arizona State (63) and St. John’s (73).

» Nebraska was 4-13 against teams that made the NCAA tournament. NU’s wins came against Maryland, Seton Hall, Minnesota and Iowa.

» Former Nebraska assistant Craig Smith and Utah State were selected as an eight seed. The Aggies won the Mountain West in Smith’s first season.

» Nebraska guard James Palmer was named to the Big Ten all-tournament team Sunday. Palmer averaged 24.3 points in Nebraska’s three games. He scored 34 in the opening round game against Rutgers, which was one point shy of a Big Ten tournament record.

NIT: Butler at Nebraska

When: 7 p.m. Pregame

Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln

Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM