Minnesota vs. Nebraska, 12/5/17

Nebraska center Duby Okeke (top right) and forward Isaiah Roby (15) double-team Minnesota's Jordan Murphy (left) under the basket in the first half Tuesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

FRANCIS GARDLER, JOURNAL STAR

Nebraska didn't necessarily need to win Tuesday night's game against Minnesota.

But the result — a 78-68 Husker win over the No. 14 Gophers — isn't something Nebraska is going to give back. In the midst of its most challenging stretch of basketball this season, and with two more Big Ten road games looming to start 2018, the pressure was on to lock up a victory heading into Saturday's game against Creighton.

"You never say must-win, but three of our first games are on the road against Purdue, Northwestern, then Michigan State," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said after Tuesday's win. "We've got to do this. If we're going to fight for it for postseason, this has got to happen."

With the Big Ten Tournament being played one week earlier than normal in order hold the event in Madison Square Garden, the league forced its teams to play two conference games apiece over the past few days.

Not ideal. Especially not ideal when your two opponents are No. 3 Michigan State and No. 14 Minnesota, as Nebraska's were. 

But the results also gave a glimpse into just how volatile the Big Ten race could be, outside of the top spot.

Michigan State, with a prodigious talent advantage over the rest of the league and a defense that might be the best in the nation, is the clear favorite. Every other squad has shown vulnerability.

When league play resumes in January there will be three 2-0 teams, three 0-2 teams, and a whopping six 1-1 teams. Ohio State, picked by many as a bottom three or four team, is 2-0. Iowa, a trendy pick for a high finish, is 0-2.

There's plenty out there for a team able to seize control of its schedule and separate itself from a pack of teams that, at least right now, seem evenly matched.

Count Minnesota's coach among the believers in Nebraska's ability to be one of those teams.

"They're a good team. And I think they'll continue to get better as they get continuity with their transfers," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday. "And they've got a terrific one in Glynn Watson. I like their team. I think they're going to be difficult to play."

The Huskers have plenty to worry about between now and then, starting Saturday with a Creighton team that has won six in a row in the series. That's followed by a home game against No. 2 Kansas on Dec. 16 to cap off finals week.

Once the calendar turns, the Huskers will get back into Big Ten play with road games at Northwestern and Purdue, both preseason top-four picks in the Big Ten, followed by a home game against Wisconsin and another road trip to Penn State.

So, yeah, it might not have been a must-win against Minnesota. But those good vibes could go a long way.

"We needed this. Earlier we played some good teams, but this team right here, this is what's going to test us," senior forward Duby Okeke said. "We needed to build confidence, and just build our momentum, because for weeks we've been trying to figure out what our identity is; can we get things clicking. But this win really helped us because now we can get stuff on a roll."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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