CHICAGO — Going into the Big Ten basketball tournament, there was tons of talk about how strong the lower part of the conference was and how some of those teams were going to be difficult to beat.
You didn’t want to have to play Penn State, everyone said. And watch out for Indiana. Illinois could be a factor in this thing, too. And Rutgers might be a sleeper.
No one talked about Nebraska.
They’re talking about them now.
The 13th-seeded Cornhuskers, who rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Iowa in overtime on Sunday, opened the tournament with a victory over Rutgers on Wednesday and on Thursday afternoon they bumped off No. 5 seed Maryland 69-61 to move into a quarterfinal matchup with Wisconsin today at the United Center.
Bear in mind, this team is down to six healthy scholarship players and a couple of those — Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Brady Heiman — weren’t exactly 5-star recruits.
Senior point guard Glynn Watson, who scored 19 points Thursday, admitted it is a little different when the Cornhuskers trot onto the court with only eight bodies, including a pair of walk-ons.
"It feels a little weird," he said. "It doesn’t feel like there’s anybody out there with us. Once the game starts, we’re good."
Watson and fellow senior James Palmer have played all 40 minutes in each of these first two games. Junior Isaiah Roby has spent only four minutes on the bench.
But for the moment, the Cornhuskers are feeling no pain. Or fatigue.
"We usually practice for two hours so 40 minutes isn’t a big deal," Roby said.
Roby, who had 15 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots Thursday, said he and his buddies are just out there having fun right now.
"We come in as the 13 seed," he said. "We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. We were playing loose and playing free. I think earlier in the year we weren’t as focused as we are now. It’s a good time to be focused."
In the latter stages of the season, there were rumblings that Huskers head coach Tim Miles could be in jeopardy of losing his job because of the way his team had underachieved. Miles said athletic director Bill Moos has told him a decision will be made after the season.
The players won’t address that question, but Watson did admit that a new sense of urgency settled in sometime during that Sunday game against the Hawkeyes.
"I think that’s what set us up to think we can do this," he said.
Play-in game?: The Ohio State-Indiana game that kicked off the schedule Thursday was widely viewed as an NCAA tournament play-in game. The two teams had identical conference records and very similar overall records and NET rankings.
The consensus was that the Buckeyes (19-13) sewed up a tournament berth with their 79-75 victory.
Indiana coach Archie Miller, however, wasn’t quite ready to run up the white flag on his team despite a 17-15 record.
"We'll wait and see. It will be difficult," he admitted. "Our resumé, at the end of the day, if you put it up there with a blank sketch, I'm sure it compares favorably to some other teams. We've played a ridiculous schedule and obviously have beaten teams that obviously made the tournament."
Pee Wee?: During breaks in the action at the United Center, the crowd has been entertained by little video clips featuring the competing teams.
In some of them, tournament participants are asked to name who they would select to portray them in a movie.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Jason Bateman. Watson and Penn State star Lamar Stevens both said Denzel Washington. Penn State coach Pat Chambers said Justin Timberlake.
Miles, who has a lively sense of humor, didn’t come up with anything quite as flattering. His answer: Pee Wee Herman.
Lost art: The Penn State and Minnesota team members also were asked to name the best singers and dancers on their teams.
The consensus was that Myles Dread is the Nittany Lions’ best dancer and Eric Curry takes the prize for the Golden Gophers, but coming up with a singer was tougher.
"Not a lot of singing going on," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. "Lots of dancing. Not much singing. I think it’s becoming sort of a lost art."
Record-breaker: Indiana guard Devonte Green set a Big Ten tournament record for most 3-point field goals in one game with eight in the Hoosiers’ loss Thursday. The previous record of seven was shared by Penn State’s Mike Walker (vs. Illinois in 2007) and Wisconsin’s Rob Wilson (vs. Indiana in 2012).
Freebies: Palmer, who has scored 58 points in the first two games of the tournament, already has attempted 30 free throws, the sixth highest total in the tournament’s history.
The record is 38, by Jared Sullinger of Ohio State in 2011.