With four first-year starters and a rotation which includes only three players who saw the court last season for Nebraska, first-year coach Tim Miles expected a few bumps along the way.
He doesn’t accept them, but he expected them.
“This is the fifth time I’ve started over, and I’ve found that you’ll go as far as your seniors will take you,” said Miles, whose team is scheduled to host Iowa on Thursday. “I’ve only got three, but they have been fun to coach and they haven’t backed away from a challenge.”
At 12-14, the Cornhuskers will surpass the program’s victory total from the 2011-12 season with their next victory, and despite a 3-10 Big Ten record, Nebraska is not making life easy on conference opponents.
The Cornhuskers have been within two possessions of the lead in the final 7 minutes seven times in their past 12 games, including five times against rated opponents.
Miles — who arrived at Nebraska from Colorado State, where his team went from 7-25 to 20-12 over five seasons — has played to the strengths of his available talent. The roster includes just eight recruited scholarship players, leading to opportunities for three walk-ons who are part of the Cornhuskers’ rotation.
“We sat on two scholarships, redshirted three guys, including two (transfers) that we had to, and we’ve worked with 11 pretty much all year, and one of those is a project,” Miles said. “These guys haven’t blinked, though. They like a good challenge, and we’ve had plenty.”
Miles prefers a more up-tempo brand of basketball, but this year’s team is built around defense and doing what it takes to make an opponent one dimensional. That has led to a half-court approach on the offensive end of the floor.
“We’re not a pretty team to watch, but right now that is the way we have to play,” he said. “We don’t have a great deal of offensive firepower, so we do what we can do to put ourselves in the best position to give ourselves a chance.”
When Big Ten co-leaders Indiana and Michigan State play tonight at the Breslin Center, Hoosiers coach Tom Crean believes his team will be up to the physical challenge presented by the Spartans.
“The proof is in our record,’’ Crean said. “When you have to compete in this league, you have to play physical and have a tough mindset to compete. I think we’ve developed that as we’ve worked through our schedule.’’
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo believes Indiana has developed more of a physical presence, in part because of the way Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey approach the game.
“They’ve got an edge about them that I think is rubbing off on other guys,’’ Izzo said. “It’s part of the development of a program, and they’re making strides in that area, no doubt.’’
Ben Brust, who landed at Wisconsin after being released from a letter of intent he signed with Iowa prior to a coaching change in 2010, continues to demonstrate the offensive potential that the former Hawkeyes coaching staff saw in him.
Brust averaged 14.5 points last week in Badgers’ games with Minnesota and Ohio State, but it is the growth in his game that pleases coach Bo Ryan the most.
“He’s become a heck of a rebounder for his size, he takes good care of the ball, two things that have helped us a lot this season,’’ Ryan said. “He has become one of the most consistent players that I’ve had a chance to coach.’’
Developing an edge
With three freshman starters and losses in three of its past five games, coach John Beilein is hearing more frequent questions about just how tough his seventh-ranked team is.
“You don’t just yell at a guy and say, ‘Get tougher.’ It takes time for the level of toughness it takes to develop, and for some, it’s easier than others,’’ Beilein said. “Every great player eventually gets it, but just when that happens has been different for every player I’ve coached.’’
Michigan’s Trey Burke was named the Big Ten player of the week after averaging 24.5 points on 60 percent shooting. … Gary Harris of Michigan State is the league’s freshman of the week. He averaged 15.5 points in a pair of wins. … Nebraska wore 1976-77 throwback jerseys for Saturday’s game with Michigan State, recognizing the program’s first season at the Devaney Center as it nears the end of its final year there.
Name in the news
Rodney Williams, Minnesota: After watching Rodney Williams struggle to raise his left arm during the first half of Sunday’s game at Iowa because of a slight shoulder separation and bruises, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said his team’s second-leading rebounder may miss upcoming games as well.
“It may be time to shut him down and let him heal,’’ Smith said. “We need him healthy and clearly he wasn’t in the first half at Iowa. I don’t know if he’ll go against Ohio State — he’s day to day.’’
Official NCAA RPI numbers for Big Ten men’s basketball teams released Monday, with their position in the last report:
This week’s top match-ups:
Today: Indiana at Michigan State, 6 p.m., ESPN
Wednesday: Minnesota at Ohio State, 6 p.m., BTN
Sunday: Illinois at Michigan, 1 p.m., ESPN; Michigan State at Ohio State, 3 p.m., WHBF