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In just a few seconds, Isaac Copeland eloquently summed up the never-ending search for happiness that comes with being in, or rooting for, the Nebraska basketball program.

“It’s hard,” he said, “to make history.”

This was supposed to be a historic year for the Huskers. There's no need to rehash that now. As NU prepares for Sunday's regular season finale against Iowa Sunday afternoon at Pinnacle Bank Arena, most have already made up their mind on this season, and what should happen going forward.

But what should happen going forward? What should expectations be for a program that has so rarely played with any sense of what it wants to be?

Jon Crispin has seen it up close. The BTN analyst, along with his brother Joe, were central figures on the 2000-01 Penn State team that made a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. 

It's hard to say what a program should do year-in and year-out, Crispin said Saturday. Because to have expectations of success, a consistent identity has to be established.

"The things that so often get overlooked, because we get caught up in the outcome, is that the teams that are consistently at the top of this conference — if you look at Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, they all have a very clear, established identity," Crispin said. "They recruit to their identity, they play to their identity.

"It’s almost, in a way, what keeps them accountable, in more ways than one — you’re talking about on- the-court, stuff, off-the-court stuff, how they play, the style you’re recruiting too, the type of player you’re going to get."

It makes sense. In order to achieve success, a program must first establish a plan for success and stick to it.

Crispin has experienced both sides of that coin.

The Nittany Lions are much like Nebraska. Playing in the shadow of the school's monolithic football program, Penn State has made one NCAA trip since that Sweet 16 run. Attention has waned. 

After his sophomore season Crispin moved onto UCLA, which for so long set the gold standard for consistent success. Crispin was in the unique position to see the inner workings of two programs on opposite ends of the spectrum.

"The established identity also allows you to fill in the pieces properly as opposed to just building a team of competitive players, you’re building a team of complementary players," Crispin explained. "So I think it’s gotta start there, where you’ve really got to establish who you want to be long-term, and how that not only makes you better today, it makes you a better program 20 years from now."

The real work comes in the "how." Critics of Nebraska coach Tim Miles will point to his program's lack of a specific identity — are the Huskers built to be a great defensive team, what is the offensive plan? — as reasons for the inability to move forward. 

But the program has also buckled under the weight of expectations based in results. An NCAA Tournament trip in 2013-14 was followed by a disastrous 2014-15. Last season's 22-win campaign — one that ended with the second-most single-season wins in program history — has bled into this year's collapse.

That's where, as the famous saying goes, both sides need to trust the process. Whatever that process needs to be.

"It can happen at Nebraska. It can happen at Penn State. But the focus has to be less about the outcome and more about the process," Crispin said. "So you really need leadership, and I mean athletic department leadership to come out and say ‘Here’s what we’re doing with this next hire (if there is one).’ Because quite frankly, if you hire somebody to win, you’re eventually going to have a tough year. That’s just the way it goes. This game is cyclical by nature."

Focusing solely on wins and losses, Crispin said, makes the highs that much higher and the lows that much lower. And it makes trying to explain what happens when a team starts 11-2 and now sits at 15-15, like Nebraska, that much more difficult.

"How do you explain a tough year when the focus is only on the outcome?" Crispin said. "So you really have to establish the expectations and the expectations have to be focused more on how you're going about your business and not what you're going to achieve."

Nebraska will honor its star-crossed senior class Sunday, one that includes just one four-year player in guard Glynn Watson. It also includes two of the most talent performers in the last two decades of Husker hoops in James Palmer and Isaac Copeland, and the native son who made good in Gothenburg's Tanner Borchardt.

"This group has been a special group because I really think what they've done is allowed Nebraska to be more relevant nationally," Miles said. "And although we didn't reach our goals this year — so far — they've really allowed for that."

There has been more relevance, certainly. And attention on Nebraska basketball has failed to lessen, even as losses and frustration have mounted. There's something to be said for that, even in the absence of consistent winning.

But at some point, a fan base will demand consistent winning. Nebraska for too long hasn't had that.

"I still think we have a long way to go as a program here and getting respect from everybody around us," Copeland said. "We have a good group of fans, but as soon as things go wrong it’s kind of like, 'Uh-oh, here we go again,’ you know what I’m saying?

"And I think if you’re a good program that doesn’t happen as often. So I think there’s a long way to go in that respect. But I think we’ve got to make some strides to get more respect around the country."

Copeland wasn't trying to call out the Nebraska fan base. He was simply pointing out a fact of life when it comes to rooting for a program where things go wrong more often than they go right.

So whatever direction this program goes once the final game of this season is played, there will need to be hard questions asked and answered.

"What allows you to ultimately overcome a bad season is the promise of what’s next," Crispin said. "You’ve got to show that promise for people to stay locked in, stay interested, because otherwise they feel like, well, if this was the year we had to be able to do it, and next year there’s going to be a huge drop-off, that’s when you start to lose the interest of the fan base.

"And also lose the confidence of your team."

Winning will always be hard. That fact will remain. But with the right approach, winning can get a little easier. 

Nothing has been easy for Nebraska basketball. Perhaps the promise of whatever happens in the future will allow that to change.

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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