Tim Miles will always have a soft spot in his heart for Southwest Minnesota State.
The NCAA Division II program in Marshall, Minnesota, gave Miles a shot as a young coach after he spent two seasons at NAIA Mayville State. He had some of his greatest career success with the Mustangs, coaching the 2000-01 team to the Division II Elite Eight. SMSU's current coach, Brad Bigler, was the point guard on those Miles teams.
That success led to a job at North Dakota State, which led to Colorado State, which led to Nebraska, which led to this — Miles coaching what is likely his best team in Lincoln, with one game remaining between the Huskers and a one-loss nonconference campaign.
"They gave me an opportunity a long time ago," Miles said. "So I'm glad we can have them here, and I'm hoping to beat the heck out of them if we can."
Tip is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday.
Nebraska's third game in the past 21 days should serve as little more than a warmup for bigger things ahead — the Big Ten schedule picks back up with a bang Jan. 2 with a road trip to Maryland, followed by a game at Iowa four days later. Nothing figures to be easy between the start of the new year and the end of March.
So the Huskers (10-2), who own an 18-game home winning streak that is the fifth-longest in the nation and the longest current run among Power Five conference schools, will seek to take care of business in a game that will not hurt their NET rating (games against Division II opponents aren't figured into the rating formula) and will serve as an exhibition game for the Mustangs.
That, on top of the connections between Miles and the school, was among the reasons for scheduling the game. It won't serve as an anchor to pull down the Huskers' strength of schedule as last season's contest against Delaware State did.
For a veteran roster that has played in its share of high-level contests, the biggest obstacle may be ramping up the competitive juices for a 7-4 Division II team.
"The thing about veteran guys is that sometimes you’re beating that tired old mule, too. So getting them practicing or whatever it might be, there’s a frustration there," Miles said. "But there’s also a comfort that you can be in a game and these guys will respond at the right time."
The Huskers have responded, for the most part, thus far. They sit 14th in the NCAA's NET ratings — the only set of rankings that actually matter when it comes to parsing out a team's chances of making the NCAA Tournament.
So while NU's players are likely aware they dropped out of The Associated Press poll despite winning their only game last week, Miles is confident that his team's mind is in the right place.
"When I ask them, did you see this game, or did you see last night this team did that, most of them usually know. So that’s good. I like that," Miles said. "Now, do you want them to worry about things that truly don’t matter? No. That’s our job to craft that message every day and craft that vision of what we can be as we go on throughout this. So I want them focused on that, but I also want them paying attention."
Harris returns to practice
Freshman guard Amir Harris has returned to practice as he begins his recovery from mononucleosis.
Harris hasn't played in Nebraska's last three games and won't play Saturday — meaning he will have gone nearly a full month without appearing in a game by the time the Huskers take on Maryland on Wednesday.
Harris hasn't played since registering three minutes in Nebraska's Dec. 5 loss at Minnesota.
Miles said Harris has done some cardio work, but his energy level is still "way down."
"But his measurements are good for the mono, so we’ll just bring him back inch by inch," Miles said.