Huskers get ‘slapped in the face,’ miss out on NCAA Tournament bid and high NIT seed

March 12, 2018

Dressed in black, Tim Miles walked quietly into an interview room near the Hendricks practice facility.

He sat down behind a table, just minutes after learning that not only had his Nebraska team been left out of the NCAA Tournament, but also that they were No. 5 seed in the NIT.

And he tried to explain something that wasn’t really explainable.

The Huskers team with the third-most single-season wins in program history, the team that set a school record for conference victories, the team that was seeded fourth in the Big Ten Tournament, hadn’t done enough.

Not only too little to get into the NCAA Tournament. Not even enough to get a home game in the National Invitation Tournament.

The Huskers will go on the road for the opening round of the NIT, playing at No. 4 seed Mississippi State at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Starkville. If the seeds hold and Nebraska continues to win, the Huskers won’t play any of their NIT games in Lincoln.

“I really do feel like we got slapped in the face,” Miles said Sunday night. “You know, it is what it is. We can still do something about it. I think that’s the good news. I hope we rally and respond and the guys feel the same way I do.”

There was hope among the Huskers that the team had done enough to, at the very least, earn a top-three seed in the NIT, if not sneak into the NCAA Tournament.

Instead Nebraska (22-10) will return to Starkville 143 days after beating the Bulldogs 76-72 in a hurricane exhibition game on Oct. 22. The Bulldogs finished the season 22-11, 9-9 in the SEC and behind Nebraska in both RPI and KenPom.

Nebraska’s metrics, even while holding the team down most of the season, didn’t appear to jibe with the NIT seeding. Throwing out the four No. 1 seeds, which were the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament, the Huskers finished ahead of seven of the 12 NIT teams seeded ahead of them in both RPI and KenPom.

A subdued Miles was diplomatic in his assessment of Nebraska’s position.

“If it’s just that we’re the whatever seed, well... that’s their perspective. If we just go with things as they are, that they think we’re the 17th-to-21st-best team or whatever it is, and there’s 16 teams ahead of us, I’d have a real problem with the committee on that,” Miles said. “I mean, the chair (Bruce Rasmussen) saw us take one of the one seeds to the final seconds. But that’s the way it goes.”

For Nebraska, ultimately, it appeared to be less about the quantity of wins and more about the quality. While describing Middle Tennessee State’s absence from the NCAA bracket, NCAA Selection Committee chair Rasmussen may just as well have been talking about the Huskers.

“They played some good nonconference games,” Rasmussen said on the NCAA Selection show on TBS. “They just didn’t win those games.”

After spending most of the past couple months on the bubble, Nebraska was done in by a schedule that featured just six wins against teams with winning records and one win over a team in the NCAA Tournament field.

Nebraska finished 1-6 against Quadrant 1 opponents and 2-3 against Quadrant 2 foes. On their final NCAA team sheet, the Huskers’ RPI was 56, with an average RPI win of 180.

Even changing one of Nebraska’s close losses to Kansas, Creighton or Ohio State to a win wouldn’t appear to do much more than improve the Huskers’ NIT seeding.

“Just very disappointed,” Miles said of his players’ reaction to not making the NCAA field. “You just, what do you say? They were disappointed.”

Miles let the team go home after it had gathered to watch the NCAA selection show at Hendricks. The coach then watched the NIT show in his office. After firing off some words unsuitable for print, he met with the media.

While NU’s late-season schedule allowed the Huskers to pile up wins, it afforded no opportunities for signature victories. That left only the Big Ten Tournament for Nebraska to make a statement. That, of course, ended after one game with a 77-58 loss to Michigan.

Now the Huskers are part of an exclusive, and disappointing, club.

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 304 of 306 teams to win at least 13 league games in a power conference through the 2016-17 season made the tournament. The only two that didn’t were Washington and Oregon in the Pac-12 in 2011-12.

Nebraska is the first Big Ten team with at least 20 overall wins and fewer than seven conference losses to ever miss out on the tournament. The Huskers are just the second Big Ten team since 1985 to win 22 games and not make the NCAA Tournament.

The Big Ten did get four teams in: No. 2 seed Purdue, No. 3 seeds Michigan and Michigan State, and No. 5 seed Ohio State. This season marks the first time since 2008 the conference has gotten fewer than five teams into the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m still emotional about the whole thing,” Miles said. “I don’t have anything really good to say to you guys today. Sorry.”