LINCOLN — In the Big Ten men’s basketball preseason poll, Nebraska was picked to finish last.
“We could still get there,” NU coach Tim Miles said Tuesday.
But fans of the Huskers (12-10, 4-6) are thinking much higher than 12th and even better than the current tie for eighth because of the remaining schedule.
Nebraska is 10-1 at home, and five of the final eight regular-season games are at Pinnacle Bank Arena, starting Wednesday night against Illinois (14-10, 3-8).
Also, among those eight opponents, only two — Michigan State and Wisconsin — are now higher than sixth in the Big Ten. Thus, conversation has begun about potentially a .500 finish in league play and a bid to the NIT.
“Outside expectations? Is that media-driven?” Miles joked. “Let’s just say publicly it comes up that, ‘Hey, you guys might have a chance for postseason.’
“The trick for me is to keep the guys focused on the cliché of one game at a time and the process. We would have to make a gigantic run to talk about the NCAA, and a not-so-gigantic run to talk about being an NIT team.”
Before the season, Miles said, the Huskers set a goal to finish at least 9-9 in the Big Ten for a chance at postseason consideration. NU has reached .500 in conference play only once in the previous 14 seasons — 8-8 in the Big 12 under Doc Sadler in 2008-09.
Rethinking that goal during the season, when seven of the nine Huskers in the rotation are first- or second-year players, may not be wise.
“If you start looking at a big picture,” sophomore co-captain Shavon Shields said, “you get distracted on what’s going on. And if you’re thinking about other things going on, you’re not focused on the task at hand.”
The NCAA tournament was the players’ preseason goal, Shields said.
“It’s the biggest stage in college basketball,” he said. “Why wouldn’t that be our goal? We still have a chance to get to it.”
Walter Pitchford has been in an NCAA tournament.
The 6-foot-10 transfer from Florida played two seasons ago in second- and third-round games in Omaha as a Gators reserve. He would like his Nebraska teammates to share that experience.
“All of us, we really want it bad,” Pitchford said. “We have a team right now, and a team for years to come, that we can make it those years we’re here.”
Illinois made the NCAA tournament last year, and was ranked No. 23 this season on Jan. 6. Then came the school’s longest skid in 40 years — eight games — before a 60-55 victory Sunday night at Penn State.
Illini coach John Groce said he’s far from giving up on his players.
“They’ve been fighting for weeks,” he said. “It’s not like we just decided to fight and beat Penn State. They’ve been practicing pretty hard and pretty well, and we’ve done a lot of good things lately.
“It was great to see them get rewarded. We played well (Sunday). But how much better did we play when we came back from 21 down against Iowa? We may have played a little bit better then.”
Illinois inserted true freshman wings Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill into the starting lineup for the first time at Penn State. They combined for 30 points and seven rebounds.
Rayvonte Rice, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Drake, is Illinois’ top producer at 16.5 points and 6.0 rebounds.