The Cornhuskers started the season ranked in the Top 25 after a surprise trip to the NCAA Tournament a year ago. They returned almost everybody from that team, including star Terran Petteway, but they never came close to living up to all of this year's preseason hype.
Nebraska finished 13-18 and limped to the finish line with nine consecutive losses. For a program unfamiliar with the kind of success it had last year, a brutal season like this one could signal one of two things. One: The Cornhuskers were a one-hit wonder who will slip back into obscurity. Two: This is just another step in building a program. First you have success, then you learn how to do it consistently.
"Last year was the innocent climb, and this year is your test of will," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "I talked about it this at Big Ten Media Day. Like, 'I'm curious to see if we're a good team or just a team that got hot.' Well, it would appear as though we were a team that got hot. We had some guys with career years last year almost, kind of came out of nowhere.
"This league is a bear, and there's no let-up. Penn State has got a player like D.J. Newbill that is going to play professionally for a long time somewhere, and they were 12-1 coming into the league. And I think they lost six or eight in a row or whatever it was, Northwestern lost 10 in a row, we ended the way we did. There's some teams that can do some major damage that can get overwhelmed, too. I'm excited about where we're going. I think we'll be back. I'd say get us while you can."
As bad as things have been over the last several weeks, the Cornhuskers had every reason to fold against Penn State. But they didn't. After falling behind 51-35 with 15:45 to go, Nebraska climbed all the way back and got within one at 66-65 with 43 seconds to go. One stop would give the Huskers a chance to win.
They got the stop and nearly had the rebound secured, but lost control and got tied up. The possession arrow favored the Nittany Lions with five seconds to go, and Nebraska had to foul. Penn State made both free throws, Shavon Shields missed a desperation 3 at the buzzer, and the season was over.
"That hurt because we had one guy with two hands on it and the other guy thought it was an opponent, so he knocks it out of our own guy's hand. Kind of a microcosm of our season," Miles said.
Petteway had 29 points on 7-of-17 shooting and Shields added 20 points and 10 rebounds, but made only 6-of-21 shots from the field. The Huskers shot 30 percent (19-of-63) from the field and had 14 turnovers. They outrebounded Penn State by 17 (51-34) and made 22 free throws to Penn State's 13.
"Even though the outcome didn't go our way, I thought our kids really battled hard all night, even when things weren't going our way," Miles said. "I'm proud of them for that, and I'll always be proud of them for that because a lot of teams would maybe mail it in, but these guys have not done that and will not do that."
Regardless, that effort didn't translate into wins in the latter stages of the season, and that's problematic. Miles knows this is a bottom line business, and he's determined to make the changes necessary in the offseason to get the program heading in the right direction once again.
"You go to the shopping center with your head down, and you go to the grocery store with your head down and hope you don't run into anybody and regurgitate what you're going through and the whole deal," Miles said. "It's difficult, but at the same time, it's a big-boy business, and these guys know that. Like I told them, 'losing doesn't make you a loser, winning doesn't make you a winner. How you handle yourself with dignity and how we respond from this as a team and as a program and these other guys moving on really is what matters most.'"