It's real basketball
Nebraska shot lights out to beat No. 1 Purdue, but there are signs this kind of win wasn't just a one-off for these Huskers.
My first in-person experience with Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter was in 2012. I was covering the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Omaha for CBS Sports. The Boilermakers, led by All-Big Ten forward Robbie Hummel, were a 10-seed, and would upset 7-seed St. Mary’s by three before losing to 6-seed Kansas by the same margin in front of a heavily KU crowd.
I don’t remember anything Painter said after those games, but I’ve never forgotten my impression of him from a decade ago—that’s just a real basketball dude. He was at a basketball school, but I got the sense he’d have the same approach if he were coaching an eighth-grade team. He was that kind of a coach. While Painter’s hair always looks great, he never comes across as slick like a Bill Self, Rick Pitino or John Calipari can, three heavyweight college coaches who would advance to the Final Four that season with Calipari’s Kentucky beating Self’s Kansas for the national title.
It's why I immediately knew I wanted to hear what Painter had to say after No. 1 Purdue lost 88-72 to Nebraska, the Huskers’ first win over the top-ranked team in the country since 1982. Any time you have a big game like that, I’ve found the loser’s perspective is often more telling than the winner’s.
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Also, I’m skeptical and have a quick processing time by nature. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I more often think it makes me a bad sportswriter than a good one, but I can’t (or won’t) change it, so it just is what it is at this point. Point is, Nebraska beats the No. 1 team in the country and that’s fun and memorable and everyone who cared about the game probably processed it in real time. Rather than just enjoy the dopamine rush, however, my mind immediately goes to “Well, how did that happen? Can it happen again, or was this a one-off?”
When I see the Huskers shot better than 60% from 3, I know that’s not likely to happen again this season much less happen consistently enough for Nebraska to be as good as it looked on Tuesday. If I could bypass this wiring and just revel in encouraging outcomes maybe I would, but I don’t have the tools. So, I turned to Painter first because I trusted his clear-eyed view as a guy who seems to have basketball and nothing else pumping through his veins.
“I like their team. I like how hard they play. They’re together. They can hurt you in different ways. I like their system. I like the shit they run. They cut, they move. It’s real basketball, and, y’know, it was tough for us to guard.”
The profanity will keep that from being a pull quote for social media, but it should be. It was the word that told me Painter wasn’t just being a gracious loser, a word that seemed like one coaches would use when talking to each other rather than at a podium in front of reporters. He didn’t mention Nebraska’s extraordinary shooting percentage from 3 once. Most coaches I’ve been in press conferences with would’ve mentioned it in their opening comments.
I would’ve mentioned it, which is one of many reasons why I write about coaches instead of successfully coaching college-age athletes.
Fred Hoiberg is also a real basketball dude, and his postgame comments at least dulled any sustainability concerns I can’t help but have. Sure, Nebraska isn’t going to shoot 60% from 3 every night, but what stood out to Hoiberg was the Huskers’ resiliency.
Purdue turned the ball over often early, staking Nebraska to an 8-2 lead but the Huskers were stuck on that point total for nearly 6 minutes as the Boilermakers went on a 23-11 run for what would be their largest lead (six) of the game. Given a lifetime of watching Nebraska basketball, and Purdue’s quality, that could’ve been it—you had your chance, didn’t maximize and now you’ll see what the No. 1 team in the country can do.
But that wasn’t it. Rienk Mast hit a 3, then Keisei Tominaga. Nebraska allowed Purdue just five points over the last 5 minutes of the first half, while scoring 22, and had an 11-point lead at halftime.
“We knew they’d go on a run,” Hoiberg said. “That’s who they are. That’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country.”
I figured another run was coming, and it did early in the second half as the Boilermakers cut the lead to one with 13:51 left. Nebraska answered with a 14-2 run of its own over the next two minutes. When you’re the underdog the onus is always on you, and the most impressive thing about Tuesday’s win was the Huskers never seemed to be carrying any weight, even when things looked like they’d already turned.
Fans of Nebrasketball, and the media who cover them, are conditioned to this team never getting over the hump, even for a game. It had been 42 years since the Huskers strung together a win over the best team in the country. It dealt with the Boilermakers’ quality while not folding when most teams would.
That’s the opposite of what we saw in the December loss to Minnesota, and this Purdue win more than replaces that disappointing loss for NET purposes. The Huskers have a lot of games left, starting with a trip to Iowa tomorrow, and none of it feels certain, but they’re a better bet now to be an NCAA Tournament team than they were a week ago thanks to roster, scheme and the intersection thereof.
Maybe Nebraska makes it, maybe they don’t, but beyond the résumé-making win the Huskers have two big things going for them.
One, they’re on the right side of shot quality equation to the greatest degree of the Hoiberg era. Nebraska ranks 40th nationally in shot quality allowed, a small step forward from last year’s decent defense, which ranked 68th. But the Huskers have taken a giant leap on offense, going from 129th to 60th in shot quality. The difference between the shots Nebraska takes versus those it allows ranks 42nd. It’s a stat that should be predictive. As we saw Tuesday, some nights seemingly all of the shots will go in. Some nights they won’t. If they’re good shots on both nights, or at least better shots than the opponent’s, a team has something real.
Two, this is Hoiberg’s best roster and that’s not about talent. Nobody would mistake the Huskers for one of the most talented teams in the country, but the pieces fit together. They’ve got a dynamic post (Mast), one of the best shooters in the country (Tominaga), a big guard who does a bit of everything (Brice Williams), a small-ish forward (Juwan Gary) who is happiest doing all the stuff others are happy to not have to do and that all allows some nice players off the bench to exist in the roles they’re built to fill.
Basketball success, Painter said, “always starts with personnel. It’s your players, but it’s the connectivity of your players. They [Nebraska] have good pieces together. Sometimes you can have good pieces, but they don’t blend well together. They blend well.”
It’s real basketball, and that can be true even after an unreal shooting night.
Helps, though, when it produces an unforgettable win.