LINCOLN — You don’t have to look far to find reminders of what could have been.
The few fragments remaining of Nebraska’s Tuesday practice before leaving for the Big Ten tournament showed it all.
Karrington Davis, the freshman who tore his Achilles before the season, walked up and down the floor dribbling between his legs. Amir Harris, the freshman who scored the game-winning layup on Sunday against Iowa, shot floaters off one leg. Both in street clothes, Thomas Allen joked with Isaac Copeland near the training room after both rehabbed injuries.
For months, it looked like this Nebraska team would get a bye, or even a double-bye, in the conference tournament. What happened instead was a worst-case scenario, and what’s left of Nebraska’s eligible roster will now play Rutgers in the opening game of the conference tournament on Wednesday at the United Center.
Nebraska will be without Allen, Copeland, Harris and sophomore guard Nana Akenten, who was suspended last week. Harris was ruled out after an MRI exam showed a torn meniscus on Monday. Allen will be out for Rutgers, and is “doubtful” for the rest of the tournament should Nebraska win, Tim Miles said.
That leaves eight total players Miles can use, including walk-ons.
“Biggest thing is, you want the guys who are able to play just to know, ‘Listen, I’m probably going to ask you to do things that you’re unprepared to do, and that’s OK,’” Miles said. “It’s gonna be a blast doing it. You just gotta roll with it, really.”
Rutgers (14-16, 7-13) and Nebraska (16-15, 6-14) limp into the conference tournament after finishing 12th and 13th in the conference, respectively. It is the fourth time in five years Nebraska will play on the opening day of the tournament after finishing in the bottom four. This season was the first time ever Nebraska failed to finish higher than Rutgers in conference play.
The surprise of the Harris injury has impeded some of the good spirits the 93-91 comeback win over Iowa pumped into the program. But there is a sense that, though this season could’ve and should’ve been better, a path of potential redemption lies ahead.
On Jan. 21, Nebraska lost 76-69 at Rutgers. That began the NU tailspin. They lost nine of their next 11 games.
So Tuesday could be some payback.
“It’s a game when I look at it, they beat us, it’s our turn to make adjustments and beat them,” Miles said.
Do that, and Nebraska would play 5 seed Maryland, the team that broke Nebraska at PBA on Feb. 6.
In what some could consider the rock bottom of the season, Maryland held Nebraska to an arena-low 21 percent shooting that night. Senior Glynn Watson was 0 for 10 from the floor and was so frustrated following the loss, he shot for half an hour in an empty arena afterwards.
He and James Palmer need to combine for at least 50 points a game for Nebraska to have a chance this week, Miles said.
But if they do that and knock off Maryland, 4 seed Wisconsin awaits.
On Jan. 29, Wisconsin jumped to a 23-9 lead over NU. Nebraska countered with a 23-9 run itself to tie the game at 32. Nebraska went cold, and Wisconsin ran away with a 62-51 win.
“Here’s what we told them. Just, ‘We know who our next three opponents are, so let’s prepare accordingly,’” Miles said.
There is a far greater chance Nebraska’s trip to Chicago hovers just over 30 total hours than three days.
But there’s still some belief inside the locker room. That showed in the Iowa game, when Nebraska turned a 16-point second-half deficit into an overtime win.
“We feel a lot more confident,” senior Johnny Trueblood said. “We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve gotten down and haven’t been able to kinda get over the hump. And with Iowa, finally getting over that hump coming back, we feel like we can play with anybody.”
Without five wins in five days, Nebraska likely won’t be in the NCAA tournament. No NCAA tournament bid, and there’s a chance Miles could be fired after seven seasons. Miles said he’s staying away from those storylines as a motivation factor.
“I talked about all that before Michigan State, and then we didn’t perform well,” Miles said.
So he and his remaining pieces will try and formulate some sort of picture of success in Chicago. It’ll be a movie, Miles said, good or bad.
“It’d make for a wild story if we pulled it off,” Trueblood said. “Hopefully we can.”
2018-19 record: 14-16, 7-13 Big Ten
Offensive efficiency (KenPom): 141st
Defensive efficiency (KenPom): 44th
Trending: I mean, it is Rutgers. So definitely not up. But it isn’t necessarily trending down either. The Scarlet Knights ended the season with two straight losses to Penn State and Indiana. The IU loss was ugly, 89-73, but Penn State has been playing well, so that’s not as much of a black mark. Rutgers did beat Minnesota and Iowa — crushed the Hawkeyes 86-72 — in the games before that. But they just had a player — Isaa Thiam — get kicked off the team for domestic violence charges. Rutgers is in an odd spot, but they’re still long and defend hard. Rutgers isn’t a great team, but neither is Nebraska.
Players to watch
» Montez Mathis scored 20 on Nebraska in January. That came out of nowhere as he averages 8.7 per game. But, hey, he did it once and he could probably do it again. The 6-foot-4 freshman did also score 18 against Minnesota on Feb. 24. Most of his production is from inside the 3-point line.
» Junior Eugene Omoruyi is one of the main reasons why Rutgers isn’t an entire embarrassment this season. The 6-foot-7 forward capped the season off with 23 and 18 against Penn State and Indiana. He’ll give NU’s wings fits, but he scored just eight in the first matchup.
» Geo Baker hasn’t played well in about three weeks. But don’t put it past him to warm back up in Chicago. He scores 12.3 per game with 4.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds. He’s squirmy, can get into the lane to make plays and has the ability to get hot from 3-point range. He’s a 34.3 percent shooter from behind the arc.
Nebraska vs. Rutgers
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: United Center, Chicago
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM
Nebraska (16-15, 6-14)
G Glynn Watson Sr. 6-0 13.0 ppg
G James Palmer Sr. 6-6 19.1 ppg
G Thorir Thorbjarnarson So 6-6 1.3 ppg
F Isaiah Roby Jr. 6-8 11.5 ppg
F Tanner Borchardt Sr. 6-8 2.9 ppg
Rutgers (14-16, 7-13)
G Geo Baker So. 6-4 12.2 ppg
G Montez Mathis Fr. 6-4 8.7 ppg
G/F Ron Harper Jr. 6-6 7.8 ppg
F Eugene Omoruyi Jr. 6-7 13.7 ppg
C Shaquille Doorson Sr. 7-0 3.7 ppg