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Interpretive Dance: ‘Football school’ Nebraska could finally rewrite its hoops history

The Dagger

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Miles has his program on the rise. (USAT)

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend.

Any college basketball coach will tell you the number of chapters his or her team pens over the course of one season would rival any voluminous work by Leo Tolstoy. Wild twists and turns are as predictable as they are unexpected. From the very first tip in November until the last buzzer in March, every person invested, from rabid alums to sideline mascots, has a seat on an emotional rollercoaster filled with thrills, chills and stomach-churning spills.

Just ask those who hitched their wagon to Nebraska.

Barely seven weeks ago, the Cornhuskers, like much of the polar-engulfed nation, were encased in ice. Picked to finish dead last in the conference at Big Ten Media Day back in October, they were living down to expectations, stumbling out of the gate in conference play with an 0-4 record. With no marquee wins to speak of and wallowing in the dungeon, chances of a turnaround seemed incredibly slim. Still, a psychological boost was only one victory away.

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When Ohio St. visited Pinnacle Bank Arena Jan. 20, it stepped on the court a heavy favorite. However, it left a lesser opponent. Despite their stumbling start in conference, the Buckeyes, then 15-3 and boasting a top-20 national ranking, led most to believe they would handle the inferior 'Huskers. But thanks to Nebraska’s swarming defense and a pair of 18s posted by Terran Pettaway and Shavon Shields, the home team overcame the odds, defeating OSU 68-62. Little did anyone know at the time that win was a watershed moment, a launching point. The rest of the regular season, the 'Huskers continued to defy skeptics, gaining confidence and momentum with every unforeseen win, most notably at Michigan St.

Capped by a nine-point undercutting of Wisconsin last Sunday in front of 15,000-plus ear-rattling fans, the former punchline, which has registered a respectable 8-8 mark against the RPI top 100, is in great position to attract its first NCAA tournament bid since 1998. A win against Ohio St. Friday in the Big Ten Tournament would practically guarantee it, despite what Ken Pomeroy's "nifty" computer says. Nebraska, however, has never won a game in the Big Dance.

But that may soon change …

If you bumped into Tim Miles on the street, you would probably guess he was a successful day-trader or Bitcoin collector. His wiry frame and studious outward appearance don’t resemble the typical head coach, but the 47-year-old, who paid his dues working the Great Plains circuit (Northern State, Marysville State, Southwest Minnesota State, North Dakota State) before making his mark at Colorado State and now in Lincoln, is changing Nebraska’s football-only perception.

Miles is a fun-loving guy, a person anybody would gladly belly-up to the bar with. He’s known to quote "Major League" and other classic sports movies in press conferences and interviews. He’s assisted students in marriage proposals. And, most wonderfully, he even jumped into the stands to partake in a celebratory post-game selfie – very Ellen of him. Different from many coaches, he also fully embraces social media. Miles tweets adjustment strategies at halftime of every contest, an intimate glimpse most can appreciate. In many ways, he’s college basketball’s newest Brad Stevens, a hoops guru who could build a powerhouse in a very unlikely location.

It’s that infectious attitude and approach that’s helped his team stay the course, fight through early season adversity, maximize performance and likely secure an at-large. Because of Nebraska’s staunch defense, rim-attacking offense – Pettaway and Shields are sensational off the dribble and are capable of knocking down outside jumpers – and Walter Pitchford’s rainmaking ability (41.7 3PT percent), it could finally make its mark in the tourney, possibly as a No. 11 seed. Apologies to whatever No. 6 seed matches up against it.

The final page of Nebraska’s season is currently blank, but if it continues to own the hot hand it could soon read, “NCAA tournament winner.”

Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …

MARKET MADNESS

Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:

DA BULLS (MOVING UP)

Delaware Blue Hens (25-9, RPI: 68, SOS: 179, Current Seed: 13)
Poor William & Mary. Up four with under a minute to go in the Colonial title, it looked as though the Tribe would punch its first-ever NCAA tournament ticket. Famous grad, Jon Stewart, was already greasing his chest with Baconaise. However, the fast-paced Blue Hens quickly overcame the deficit, drop-kicking history by a point. Delaware is a strong Cinderella candidate. The projected No. 13 seed features three stupendous guards. Jarvis Threatt, Davon Saddler and Devon Usher are tremendous scorers, each averaging at least 17 points per game. Because of their plus ball-handling skills, the Hens are also one of the most cautious teams in the nation with rock in hand. They've committed turnovers on a mere 13.5 percent of their possessions. Defensively, they're a bit rocky, yielding too much space for opponents to operate, particularly inside the paint. Equally hideous on the glass, they have and will continue to be susceptible to larger teams. Still, its fantastic offense and NASCAR pace could threaten a higher seed. In the NCAA tournament, matchups are everything. If Delaware is gifted a loose defensive team in the opening round (e.g. Creighton), it's certainly capable of springing the upset.

Dayton Flyers (22-9, RPI: 39, SOS: 58, Current Seed: 10)
Sean Miller's baby-faced brother, Archie, has the Flyers coasting toward an at-large berth. With standout out-of-conference wins against Gonzaga and Cal matched with a 10-6 mark in the underrated Atlantic 10 and victories in nine of its final 10 regular season games, Dayton owns several characteristics the Selection Committee would deem noteworthy. The Flyers are downright deadly on offense. On the season, they've tallied 1.13 points per possession. Sharpshooter Jordan Sibert, their best scoring weapon, has splashed nearly 44 percent from downtown. Jumping jacks Dyshawn Pierre and Devin Oliver have also done a sensational job on the glass, generating plentiful second-chance opportunities. Defensively, however, Dayton lags. It allows too many easy baskets inside and has done a poor job contesting shots along the perimeter. The Flyers need a win or two in the A-10 tourney to solidify their at-large resume, but, assuming they dance, they could scare the pants off a name brand. Watch closely where they land.

Cincinnati Bearcats (26-5, RPI: 15, SOS: 70, Current Seed: 3)
Beware, bracket gurus, the Bearcats are on the prowl. The AAC co-champs have played marvelous basketball for much of the season. They don't own a bad loss, dropping five games to tournament-caliber teams (New Mexico, Xavier, SMU, Louisville and UConn). Cincy's scoring leader and All-America candidate Sean Kilpatrick is arguably the toughest player in the country. He's willed his club to victory on numerous occasions, totaling 20 or more points in a game 17 times. Couple him with interior enforcer Justin Jackson, a superb rebounder and shot-blocker, and the Bearcats are frightening. As with all Mick Cronin-coached teams, Cincy's hallmark is defense. It ranks top 20 in several defensive categories nationally. However, outside Kilpatrick, it has struggled at times offensively. Collectively, the Bearcats rank No. 249 in effective field-goal percentage offense. Still, if the team that burned Memphis for 97 on senior night resurfaces in the NCAA tournament, it's very capable of blazing a trail to the Jerry Dome.

DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)

Kansas Jayhawks (23-8, RPI: 3, SOS: 1, Current Seed: 2)
Underwear is in short supply in the greater Lawrence area. Why? Joel Embiid's murky availability for the NCAA tournament has fans soiling themselves. Sans its best interior defender, a player that might be the best in the country without the ball in his hands, Kansas is a team ripe for the picking. Though still loaded with talent at several positions, particularly at forward (Andrew Wiggins and Perry Ellis), Embiid's potential absence, for opponents, opens up the lane for business. Clubs afraid to drive previously will now go on the attack, much like West Virginia did in an upset win last weekend. Add that to Nadir Tharpe and Wayne Selden's problems protecting the basketball – KU has coughed up the rock on 19.1 percent of its possessions – the Jayhawks' only adequate frontcourt depth and sketchiness defending the three, and its probability to return to the Final Four seems unlikely. An early round elimination is also possible. Bucknell? Bradley? Northern Iowa? VCU? Bueller? Bueller? The circumstances are terribly unfortunate, but Kansas, if matched against a strong interior team early, could be in serious trouble.

Iowa Hawkeyes (20-11, RPI: 49, SOS: 22, Current Seed: 8)
Dumpster fire. That's what Iowa has resembled over the past several games. Once a popular pick among pundits to reach the Final Four, the Hawkeyes have tumbled in the ranks. At one point a projected No. 3 seed, they are now likely to land anywhere in the No. 7-No. 9 range. Offensively, they are still loaded with talent. Thanks in large part to Aaron White and Melsahn Basabe's interior and Roy Devyn Marble's exterior execution, they rank No. 4 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, netting 1.20 points per possession. However, their lack of effort on the opposite end explains why they've bombed. Over their past six games, five of which they wound up on the losing end, they relinquished a deplorable 1.18 points per possession. The Hawkeyes are a very talented, experienced squad, but unless they attack teams with as much zeal on defense as they do on offense, a quick trip back to Iowa City is highly likely. For the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament the sands in the hourglass are running thin.

Pittsburgh Panthers (23-8, RPI: 45, SOS: 73, Current Seed: 12)
In radio and TV interviews conducted this week, I've been asked countless times, "What team headed into their conference tournament has the smallest margin for error?" My answer every time: Pittsburgh. Admittedly, the Panthers will be the Selection Committee's biggest challenge. Though they possess an attractive outward appearance (gaudy record, 11 ACC wins), underneath they are hollow and unsubstantial. With only one RPI top-50 victory to their name, a rather unremarkable neutral court win over bubble team Stanford, and a 6-8 mark versus the RPI top-100, they simply lack zest. Algorithms like KenPom, Sagarin and Massey widely perceive Pitt as a top-30 team, which could bode well in the Committee room. However, one misstep in the ACC tournament (e.g. a loss to Wake Forest), and no amount of digital airbrushing could make it look good. Lamar Patterson and company, you have work to do.

MID-MAJOR HALL OF FAME

What underrated player earned his bust?

Taylor Braun, North Dakota St., G – As his last name suggests, the senior proved to be the Bison's strength when they needed him most. His tough-as-nails and-one with 12 seconds remaining sealed victory for NDSU in a highly entertaining Summit final. Very quiet in the first frame, the conference POY was huge down the stretch, scoring eight of his 15 points with just minutes remaining. Braun is a blue-chip producer on offense. He drives into trees unfazed, kills opponents at the line and can knock down the occasional step-back jumper. In many ways, the 6-foot-7 guard is a poor man's Doug McDermott. Eleven times he's totaled 20 points in a game and is the primary reason why the Bison rank No. 1 nationally in offensive field-goal percentage. Now with a chance to showcase his wares on the big stage, he could help State spring an opening round upset in the NCAA tournament.

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