LINCOLN — Call him “the realistic dreamer.”
Tim Miles, Nebraska’s second-year men’s basketball coach, knows full well he runs one of the two power conference programs in the country without an NCAA tournament victory (Northwestern is the other).
Yet, here’s what he said last week:
“The standard is to get to the NCAA tournament and win. That’s not the goal. That’s the standard.”
At times, Miles openly and cold-bloodedly details the weaknesses of his players — and himself. Then he’ll tell you a key to a successful season is never to set limitations on a team because you don’t truly know what you have in November.
And in an era in which many coaches pad their nonconference schedules with patsies to reach 20 wins, he calls Duke.
“That’s the thing with Coach,” NU director of operations Jayden Olson said. “He’ll try to play anybody.”
Whether you consider Miles a mad scientist or simply mad, his style is helping football-centric Nebraskans quickly relearn whether a basketball is pumped or stuffed.
A single-game school-record crowd of 15,119 people jammed into Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday night to watch Miles’ Huskers punish Florida Gulf Coast 79-55 in the season opener.
What follows is a peek at Miles’ blueprint for more victories and how to sustain interest in the program that long has been the black sheep of Nebraska athletics.
Identity/style of play
Miles claims no ties to “rules” on how to play. When you’ve rebuilt four programs, often starting with bubble gum and baling wire, you learn to do the best you can with what you’ve got.
“I want to win, so whatever it takes,” he said. “Because I’ve had so many jobs and rebuilds, there’s not a ‘certain way’ I want to play every time.
“I’ve had teams that always go inside. I’ve had teams that have never thrown it inside. It’s my job as a coach to give us a chance to win every night, whatever we do.”
That said, there are tenets Miles holds dear.
Ľ Drink from the cup of easy baskets: transitions, free throws, open shots and second shots. Those are the four easiest baskets you can get.
Ľ You control tempo by good defensive possessions where you make them take a long time to score.
Ľ We are going to be fun to watch on offense and hard to play against on defense. We are going to be a physical team.
Ľ Motion offense is a way of life, so I like highly skilled players who can make good decisions.
Nebraska is expected to sign just one player when the early letter-of-intent period opens for one week starting Wednesday. The Huskers have two scholarships open for 2014-15. Under Big Ten rules, they could over-sign by one.
The committed player is 6-foot-10, 235-pound Jacob Hammond from Duncan, Okla.
Miles doesn’t see a problem not filling his allotment in the early period.
“I like to sign them early,” he said. “But I don’t view it problematic if we don’t. It’s changing, too. In the old days, if you didn’t have two or three signed early, you were worried about it, like back in the ’90s and early 2000s
“Now, it’s a different game. Guys are waiting. There is way more free agency than ever before, whether it be signees or transfers.”
Look for future Nebraska rosters to retain a foreign flavor, too, especially as the drought of top-level recruits out of the Omaha-Lincoln area continues into a second decade.
The Huskers already have a commitment for 2015 from 6-8 Keanu Pinder from Australia. They also have pursued 6-8 junior college forward Deng Deng, an Australian citizen who has lived in Sudan and Egypt.
Has Miles “cracked the code” on how to earn a high Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) number, which is one of the tools of the NCAA selection committee?
“I’ve been accused of that by SportsIllustrated.com,” he said, “and then ESPN picked up on it.”
Consider Miles’ first season at Nebraska. The Huskers (15-18) were the only team in the country with a losing record to finish in the RPI Top 100.
That’s why you see Florida Gulf Coast and the Charleston Classic and a road game against Cincinnati this season, even with more scholarship newcomers (seven) than returnees (five).
“I’ve talked to some of the members of the selection committee,” Miles said. “They say it really matters to us what you do and what you can control. You can’t control how good your league is going to be, but you can control who you play in the nonconference.
“That seemed to make sense to me to play good teams. So we have.”
Miles’ postscript to that: “I’m not going into the Hall of Fame anyway. I don’t need a career record that is sparkling.”
Miles is the darling of the Big Ten media corps with his jokes, self-deprecating humor and tweets at halftime.
Some of it is shtick. Yet there is a method to it, too, especially at a program in dire need of a face.
“I am a coach at heart, and dealing with the media part is an obligation,” Miles said. “I try to enjoy everything I do in life, so I try to enjoy the process of dealing with the media.
“Sometimes people worry, ‘How does he come off?’ I know how I am and how my team plays. I’m secure with that.”
Miles has used this general plan of style, recruiting, scheduling and public relations for success at an NAIA Division II school (Mayville State), an NCAA Division II school (Southwest Minnesota State), a D-II school transitioning to Division I (North Dakota State) and a mid-major D-I (Colorado State).
Skeptics wonder if it will work in the Big Ten, which again will challenge for the title of toughest conference in the country.
Miles, the realist, understands the questions. Miles, the dreamer, doesn’t let them weigh him down.
“Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve driven attendance and won games,” he said. “We intend to continue to do the same.”