About six weeks ago during our preseason Big Ten conference podcast, I made a bold prediction that Nebraska would finish second to Wisconsin in the conference race. Predicting conference standings eight weeks before league play begins is tough as it is, but few predictions could appear to be more off than that one. The Huskers are now 8-4 heading into Big Ten play, with a semi-quality win over Cincinnati, a couple of bad losses to Hawaii and Incarnate Word, and not much else to show for it. Teams have dug themselves out of these kinds of starts to still make the NCAA Tournament, but the overall weakness of the Big Ten this year puts Nebraska in a precarious spot because there aren’t many more high-quality wins to be had. A 12-6 Big Ten record along with wins over the presumptive top teams such as Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State could give Tim Miles a legitimate case for his team’s inclusion (currently #87 nationally), but a schedule that includes only two home games against that group will hurt his chances.
The losses to Incarnate Ward and Hawaii — both currently rated by KenPom in the mid-to-low 100s — won’t be forgiven. The Rhode Island loss (#51) isn’t too bad on paper but the Rams may struggle to rise from that number in the competitive Atlantic 10. The only other reasonable loss is to #76 Creighton, and that is mitigated by the fact that it occurred at home. The Cornhuskers’ first four Big Ten games include #44 Indiana, #41 Iowa, #155 Rutgers and #42 Illinois – all beatable teams. But just one slip-up against those four and you might as well stick a fork in this group as a potential NCAA Tournament team. The four opponents after that are #4 Wisconsin, #27 Minnesota, #22 Michigan State and #80 Michigan. Two of that group (Michigan is on thin ice) are likely to get NCAA bids and Nebraska probably needs to secure three wins during that stretch to build its own case for inclusion. The second half of the Big Ten schedule includes Wisconsin again as well as #11 Ohio State in Columbus and #24 Maryland twice. But if Nebraska hasn’t come through its first half with a solid 5-3 or better record, it may not much matter how the Cornhuskers perform the rest of the season.