LINCOLN — Brad Bigler’s phone rang at 5:30 a.m., not long after he had awakened at his home in Marshall, Minnesota.
Nebraska assistant Jim Molinari was calling. The Southwest Minnesota State coach was confused at first, then he was scared.
Bigler is used to bad news.
His 5-month-old son was killed in a car crash in 2012. A year before that, Bigler’s mother had drowned in a kayaking accident. So when his iPhone buzzed in front of him before the sun rose on a weekday in August, Bigler worried.
“I’m thinking, ‘What happened to Coach (Tim) Miles?’ ” Bigler said after SMSU’s 79-38 loss to Nebraska on Saturday.
Molinari’s raspy voice cut through the morning on the other end of the line. He asked if Bigler and his team were interested in playing a game in December in Lincoln. Bigler let out a sigh.
“Of course,” he said.
The Division II school would have to drive south 312 miles for the matchup. Then would have to drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the night of the game to play the next day.
Didn’t matter. Bigler couldn’t say no to his mentor, Miles.
“He made me a better player and a better person,” said Bigler, who played for Miles at SMSU for four years in the 1990s.
On Saturday, Nebraska took care of business against Bigler’s team. The Huskers improved to 11-2, the best start in Miles’ tenure in Lincoln.
James Palmer and Glynn Watson scored 16 points apiece as Nebraska shot 43.9 percent (29 of 66) from the floor with 15 assists. Senior Tanner Borchardt started in place of junior Isaiah Roby, who sat out with a groin injury. Borchardt scored four points and hauled in nine rebounds.
Nebraska jumped to a 12-2 lead, then SMSU’s defense locked down and forced NU into some bad shots. But the Huskers used an 18-3 run later in the first half to blow the game open.
It was the kind of performance Bigler expected. This might be the best team he’s seen Miles coach.
It would be hard to find a coach who knows Miles better.
Bigler was his point guard for four years. And when Bigler was in that car accident in 2012, Miles dropped everything and drove straight from Lincoln to the hospital to check on him.
“He means a lot to me,” Miles said.
Bigler is 0-4 against Miles, but nearly upset him at Colorado State. In 2013, SMSU led at halftime in Lincoln before the Huskers took control in the second half.
This year was a different story. When Bigler looked at the tape to scout the Huskers, he saw a Miles team at its peak.
“Over the last couple of years, I felt like their margin for error was very, very small,” Bigler said. “I think this year, their top six or seven guys are athletic, are dynamic, and it’s been a lot of fun watching them kind of grow this year.”
Miles said Saturday that he knew scheduling a Division II team wouldn’t hurt the Huskers in the NCAA’s new NET ratings. So scheduling SMSU was a way to get a game in during December without the risk of ruining chances at an NCAA tournament run.
Miles was thankful to Bigler for bringing his team and said he liked Nebraska’s focus and defensive mentality.
“We gradually got better as the game wore on and shook the rust off, so to speak,” Miles said.
Nebraska’s 10-1 nonconference mark is its best since 2003-04. It’s the fourth time since World War II that the Huskers have had just one nonconference loss.
They return to Big Ten play with a road game Wednesday at Maryland.
“Yeah, I’m ready to get rolling,” Watson said.
The game in Lincoln was officially an exhibition for Bigler’s team (7-4). The Mustangs had two days to prepare thanks to a mandated seven-day break for Division II schools for Christmas.
His starters played more minutes than he probably wanted. And he was preparing to scout and prepare for the University of Sioux Falls on a bus, rather than at home for one more night.
But the $30,000 SMSU is getting from this game means a lot.
The money is being put to use for renovations in the locker room. The one Miles and Bigler shared 20 years ago.
“That’s something that will make a long-lasting impact on our program,” Bigler said.
Before Bigler hopped on the bus to leave the arena, he and Miles ran into each other in the hallway. Both men closed their eyes as they embraced.