Bubble Banter: Nebraska’s fortunes have changed thanks to better Big Ten

Dylan Buell/Getty Images
0 Comments

Here is the most recent bracket NBC Sports bracket projection.

There is no better example in college basketball of the importance of non-conference play for a league and the value that performance brings to a team than Nebraska.

A year ago, the Cornhuskers entered Selection Sunday with a 22-10 record and a 13-5 mark in the Big Ten and barely got a sniff of life on the bubble. That was a direct result of just how weird the Big Ten was that season. The conference had four teams that were good enough to be top five seeds on Selection Sunday — Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan — and a bunch of nothing beyond that. To put it into perspective, prior to last season, there had never been a team with 12 Big Ten wins to get left out of the NCAA tournament and there have only been two teams in the history of the conference to win 11 games and be relegated to the NIT. Hell, the only time that any power conference team won 13 league games and missed the NCAA tournament was when it happened to Washington and Oregon in 2012. Washington won the league title but the conference was worse than it is this year, so they got left out.

Nebraska? They went 13-5 in conference play and they were a No. 5 seed in the NIT.

How?

Unbalanced scheduling meant that Nebraska only got one game against each of those top four teams — three of which came on the road — and they won the one game they got at home by 20 points over the same Michigan team that reached the national title game. They, like the much of rest of the conference, whiffed on all of their chances to land big wins outside of league play, and when they lost at Illinois late in the season, it was more or less the end of the road.

This year, Nebraska is sitting at 5-10 in league play with a 15-11 record overall, and … they’re one of our Next Four Teams Out?

How is that possible?

It’s simple: The Big Ten cleaned up in non-conference play, meaning that everyone in the league except for Rutgers is ranked in the top 80 of the NET. If Illinois (77) and Northwestern (78) find a way to get into the top 75, it would mean that 13 of the 14 teams in the conference would be Q1 wins if you beat them on the road. Yes, Nebraska lost seven games in a row, but five of those seven losses were Q1 losses and the other team were Q2.

They’re 15-11 on the season but they don’t have a single bad loss to their name. What they’re missing are those high-end wins, and that’s where things get really interesting. The final five games on Nebraska’s schedule — including Tuesday night’s trip to Penn State (70) — are Q1 games. They close the season against Purdue (12), at Michigan (8), at Michigan State (7) and Iowa (28). Let’s say they finish the season 3-2 and pick up a win at a depleted Michigan State team in the process. Suddenly, they would be sitting at 18-13 on the season. The committee would not factor in that 8-12 record in the Big Ten or that there was a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the year.

Instead, they would look at a team that is 5-10 in Q1 games and 10-13 against Q1 and Q2 opponents with a win in East Lansing in their back pocket.

I look at bubble profiles every single day this time of year.

And that resume? I think it probably gets them into the tournament.

What a time to be alive.

WINNERS

BAYLOR (NET: 36, SOS: 36): The night’s biggest bubble winner was undoubtedly Baylor as the Bears slowed down a recent slide with a monstrous Big 12 road win at No. 19 Iowa State. Sweeping the Cyclones for the regular season, Baylor earned another all-important Q1 win to put them at a respectable 4-6 against that group. Also 7-1 against Q2 teams, the Bears have a lot of quality wins despite all of the injuries they’ve sustained during the season. Already projected as a No. 9 seed before this victory, Baylor put themselves in position to lock-in an at-large bid with Tuesday’s win. With five Big 12 regular-season games left, the Bears have three winnable home games (West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma State) while still getting two more opportunities at Q1 road wins at Kansas State and Kansas.

VCU (NET: 42, SOS: 33): A blowout home win for VCU over Atlantic 10 rival Rhode Island gives them another Q3 win. Much like some of the others on this bubble list tonight, the Rams just needed to avoid a damaging loss more than this win actually helps. Riding a seven-game winning streak, VCU’s remaining schedule doesn’t give them a lot of opportunities for quality wins. Saint Louis and a road game at George Mason could be tough, but both of those wins wouldn’t mean much based on NET. But as long as the Rams continue to win the games they should, they’re trending in a positive direction.

BUFFALO (NET: 24, SOS: 77): Putting up 114 points in a blowout win over Ohio, the Bulls avoided a harmful Q4 loss to one of the MAC’s worst teams. While this game won’t do much of anything to enhance Buffalo’s at-large credibility, the Bulls have to be pleased by how they played on Tuesday — regardless of competition. Five MAC regular season games remain for Buffalo, with a rematch at home against Bowling Green (a team that beat Buffalo on Feb. 1) on March 8 as the game that matters most. As long as Buffalo wins out the regular season, they should safely get into the field even with a MAC Tournament loss.

LOSERS

NEBRASKA (NET: 38, SOS: 81): So, of course, after all of that, what does Nebraska do? They go on the road and get blown out by Big Ten bottomfeeder Penn State during an embarrassing 95-71 loss. It’s only a Q1 loss (for now, as Penn State is hovering close to No. 75 in NET), but at this point in the season, the Huskers can’t be hurting themselves by no-showing in a must-win game. As noted above, Nebraska still has ample opportunities to play great teams and earn quality wins. But this might very well be the loss that puts the Huskers in the NIT for the second straight year.

ALABAMA (NET: 50, SOS: 20): An underwhelming profile got that much worse for the Crimson Tide with an SEC road loss at Texas A&M. Barely in our current projected field as a No. 11 seed, Alabama getting swept by Texas A&M could ultimately be the thing that keeps them out of the field. Now riding a three-game losing streak, the Q2 loss on Tuesday drops the Tide to 5-3 in that quadrant as they remain 3-6 against Q1 teams. With two Q3 losses (4-2 overall) also on the books, Alabama probably needs one (or two) more quality wins to feel safe about getting into the field. They’ll get those chances with upcoming games against LSU, Auburn and on the road at Arkansas. But given the way the Crimson Tide are playing lately, another quality win is definitely not a given.

CLEMSON (NET: 41, SOS: 32): Sitting as the top team in “First Four Out” status entering Tuesday night, Clemson didn’t help its cause by losing at home to No. 16 Florida State. Now a miserable 1-8 against Q1 teams, the Tigers are in the midst of a three-game losing streak as they continue their bizarre season of highs and lows. At this point, Clemson will welcome the upcoming ACC games against Boston College and Pitt as they try to figure things out and get on the right track. March home games against North Carolina and Syracuse are looking crucial for Clemson now after this latest stretch.

DAVIDSON (NET: 67, SOS: 128): Suffering its second Q3 loss in 10 days, Davidson lost at home to Dayton in Atlantic 10 play. With no Q1 wins (0-2) and just a 3-1 mark against Q2 teams, the Wildcats already didn’t have enough to get into the field as an at-large. Now, dropping to a very mediocre 6-4 mark against Q3 teams, it would be surprising to see Davidson even listed among bubble teams after this loss. We’re now looking at an autobid or bust scenario for Bob McKillop’s team.