Goodbye, nonconference schedule.
Hello, Big Ten grind. Hello, (more) excitement.
The Nebraska men's basketball team has our rapt attention. Tim Miles' crew is 11-2 and looked wicked good in its last two games of note — Dec. 8 against Creighton and during the second half Dec. 16 against Oklahoma State. In short, the Huskers looked to be a team that can win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. All that would mean is Miles would get a statue of himself outside Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Of course, Miles' job at the moment is to ensure continued progress. Although the seventh-year Husker coach doesn't like to talk about individual players in that context, there's a certain reality attached to the discussion. In this case, reality is based partly on a statistic Miles uses to assess players' overall performance. It's called Individual Efficiency Rating.
"James Palmer's rating is through the roof, Glynn Watson's is through the roof and Isaac Copeland's is really strong," Miles said.
That's three of Nebraska's Big Four veterans. The senior trio's high IER helps explain why Nebraska has been tantalizingly good at times. But what about junior forward Isaiah Roby, the other member of the Big Four?
"Isaiah has his lowest grade in two years," Miles told me. "He's just not making as many shots."
This isn't to pick on Roby, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound jumping jack from Dixon, Illinois. He plays hard. He's a batten-down-the-hatches dunk waiting to happen. He's Mother Teresa when it comes to unselfishness. But Miles is right: Roby's efficiency as a scorer is down. He's shooting 46 percent from the field this season after shooting 56.5 percent last season. He's 4-for-20 from three-point range (20 percent) after going 17-for-42 from distance (40.1) last season.
He's averaging 10.1 points in 27.0 minutes per game after averaging 8.7 in 24.0 last year. The good news, of course, is Nebraska has played well as a team even as Roby has struggled a bit to find himself. If he raises his level of play significantly, the Huskers will get that much better. Think about that for a second.
"Sometimes there are adjustments players have to make," Miles said. "Glynn had to make an adjustment last year, and now Glynn's feeling great. Isaiah has a little bit different deal, too, this season. He's starting on a more regular basis, and there's a bit of an adjustment there."
Then came Saturday's 79-38 win against NCAA Division II Southwest Minnesota State, which Roby sat out with a groin injury. A source close to the team told our Chris Basnett that Roby would have played had it been a Big Ten game. Even so, Miles' post-game comments suggested he was a bit concerned.
It's easy to understand why. Just as Miles and his staff try to coax Roby to reaching a higher level, the player battles a groin issue that limited him in practice last week.
"Sometimes it takes awhile to come back and get your rhythm," Miles said.
In the meantime, confidence can be affected. It's fair to wonder about Roby's confidence. He seems hesitant at times even when presented with an open look at the rim.
"With a guy like Isaiah, he might have a whole conversation with himself when he catches the ball," Miles said only half-jokingly.
Bottom line, "We can get more out of him," the coach said. "It's just a matter of how we get him there."
There's no question Miles likes this team, especially the veteran part of it. The veterans should give the coach comfort as he prepares Nebraska for a heavy-duty start to Big Ten play: at Maryland, at Iowa, Penn State, at Indiana, Michigan State.
If the Huskers were to go, say, 2-3 in that stretch, some Big Red fans would get fidgety in a hurry. Those fans could lower their blood pressure by remembering the veteran nature of this squad. It won't be prone to panic, so I don't envision long skids. Chemistry seems strong. The overall talent is excellent, although depth obviously is a concern.
Miles likes the intelligence level of his players.
"There was a new rule a few years ago where we could watch film at halftime," he said. "So we'll go in now and watch a little bit of video, and they just respond well to that. Especially the big men."
He's talking about 6-9 Copeland, 6-8 Tanner Borchardt, 6-11 Brady Heiman and, yes, Roby. He's a smart dude with NBA-level athleticism. Let's see if he can figure out how to reach another level of play this season.
Let's see if Nebraska improves its rebounding and keeps playing strong defense and shooting three-pointers well. The Huskers are fourth in the Big Ten with 37.5-percent accuracy from distance, up from 34.6 percent last season.
Nebraska has played at a high level, but can reach even higher levels.
Now would be a good time to begin the ascent.