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Michigan vs. Nebraska basketball, 1/18/18

Nebraska forward Isaac Copeland (14) and Michigan’s Isaiah Livers (4) eye the basket during a free-throw in the second half on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, at Pinnacle Bank Arena.


It's that time again.

Let's take a drive.

1. BTN analyst Jon Crispin likes this Husker men's basketball team. He likes it a lot. He's been saying it for weeks. He says it belongs in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe his words will provide comfort for restless Husker fans.

But I doubt it.

"I think they're going to make the dance -- I think they're too good not to," Crispin said Wednesday morning on "Early Break" on 93.7 FM.

He understands the analytics that work against the Huskers -- you know, the numbers that the NCAA Division I men's basketball selection committee will study.

"At some point, someone with half a brain is going to step up in that committee and say, 'Look, this is a really good basketball team,'" said Crispin, in this third year at BTN after a stint at ESPN. "They're going to take into consideration the fact it's a new team.

"Even though there are guys with experience, it's a new team, so they're much better now in February than they were going to be in November and December when they played the toughest part of their schedule."

Two of Nebraska's three best players -- James Palmer and Isaac Copeland -- are in their first season of action with the Huskers after transferring from Miami and Georgetown, respectively. Duby Okeke, who has provided energy (mostly on the defensive end) off the bench, played the previous four seasons at Winthrop.

Before the calendar turned to 2018, Nebraska had key losses to then-No. 3 Michigan State (86-57), Creighton (75-65) and then-No. 13 Kansas (73-72).

With a win in just one of those games, the Huskers' NCAA Tournament conversation would be dramatically different.

Nebraska's RPI stands at No. 53, which ranks fifth in the Big Ten behind Purdue (12th), Michigan State (14th), Ohio State (16th) and Michigan (39th).

The Big Ten's RPI is only No. 6.

However, “You can’t punish a team for being part of a conference that isn’t having the best year,” Crispin said. “Now, I think our conference is as competitive as ever, but in terms of an RPI and strength of schedule and all that stuff we seem to value when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, it’s just not there.

“I would hate to see Nebraska punished because of that because this is a really good basketball team that not only should be in the NCAA Tournament, if they get there will be pretty dangerous.”

2. This is a long drive. So let’s take a step backward before we go forward again.

Remember the uproar -- yeah, it was pretty much an uproar -- when Nebraska in the offseason lost Ed Morrow Jr., Michael Jacobson, Jeriah Horne and Nick Fuller as transfers?

I blushingly admit that I created some of the uproar.

Well, never mind.

“At that time, you thought the ship is sinking,” Crispin admitted. “Looking back at it now, the writing was on the wall for some of these guys who left. They saw guys like Isaac Copeland and James Palmer Jr. and even Anton Gill getting healthy and basically said, ‘I’m not going to play.’

“I think this team is still getting better, and I think that’s what excites me most about them.”

3. That said, Nebraska (20-8, 11-4 Big Ten) has plenty of work to do down the stretch. In that regard, I asked Crispin to assign a level of difficulty to each of the Huskers’ three remaining regular-season games using a scale of 1-to-10, with 10 being extremely difficult.

* Illinois (7) – The game Sunday in Champaign might be tougher than many Nebraska fans think because Illinois (12-14, 2-11) is capable of speeding up the contest and causing discomfort. If the Huskers handle the ball well, “then maybe the seven drops to a five,” Crispin said.

* Indiana (5) – Nebraska matches up well against the Hoosiers (14-12, 7-7), he said. “I don’t think there’s any question Indiana’s going to play small, but the talent Nebraska has is just better.”

* Penn State (9) – Bottom line, PSU’s talent level is on-par with Nebraska’s, as shown in the Nittany Lions’ 76-74 overtime win against the Huskers on Jan. 12 in Happy Valley. “Tony Carr’s a big guard, Lamar Stevens is a tough cover, and then you have Mike Watkins.

“Seeing what Bruno Fernado did last night against Nebraska – just dominating in the paint – I’m not sure how much Isaiah Roby can do to stop Mike Watkins.”

The 6-foot-10, 245-pound Fernando, a freshman from Luanda, Angola, entered Tuesday night’s contest averaging 9.4 points and 6.1 rebounds – and finished with 21 points and nine boards.

The 6-9, 254-pound Watkins is an enforcer for Penn State (18-9, 8-6), which plays league-leading Ohio State on Thursday night in Happy Valley.

4. You might accuse me of burying the lead after you read the following comment:

“Penn State and Nebraska are two of the top three talented teams in the conference, which no one says enough,” Crispin said. “I think Michigan State probably is the best, but right behind is Nebraska and Penn State. Their starting lineups are as talented as anybody in the conference.”

Next time we talk to Crispin, I’ll ask if he really thinks Nebraska and Penn State’s lineups rank ahead of Purdue (23-4, 12-2). The NCAA included the Boilermakers as a No. 1 seed in its reveal of the current top 16 seeds Sunday afternoon. Purdue was the top seed in the West.

Nebraska fans no doubt wish Crispin was on the NCAA men’s hoops committee.

5. The eye-popping college football story of the week belongs to Dennis Dodd of

We’ll follow up on this report coming days.

According to Dodd, attendance among 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in 2017 was down an average of 1,409 fans per game from 2016. That marked the largest per-game drop since 1983 – a span of 34 years.

The 2017 FBS average of 42,203 fans per game is lowest since 1997.

For the first time since the NCAA began tracking attendance in 1948, average attendance declined nationally for four straight seasons.

You want more? Since establishing an all-time high in average attendance in 2008 (46,971), FBS attendance has slipped a record 10.1 percent over the last nine years.

Of course, this story occurs in the context of Nebraska selling out this year’s Red-White Spring Game in just over 24 hours. The “Frost effect” is real. On the other hand, the Huskers aren’t immune to attendance trends in the sport. You saw those empty seats this past season – there were more than any season I can remember.

Granted, the product was lousy. But that doesn’t explain everything.

Athletic directors all over America are grappling with this issue. I’ll be interested to hear what Bill Moos has to say about it.

6. What's that? You say you don't remember Pete Maravich. Well, find his clips on YouTube, and thank me later ...

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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