There was a time last season when it seemed Tim Miles was tempted to throw up his hands and simply let his team play.

In just his second season at Nebraska, his Cornhuskers — the unanimous pick for last place in the Big Ten in October — had started the "innocent climb," as the coach likes to call it. Nebraska was winning. Rising in the rankings. Getting new attention. The train was moving.

"Everybody is just having a great time," he said. "Rocking and rolling, doing the whole thing."

Flash forward a season later and the Huskers — just like last year — have started slowly. A handful of nonconference losses, including a 74-73 home loss to Incarnate Word in a guarantee game, gave way to a modest 2-3 start in the Big Ten, with victories over Rutgers and Illinois.

This season, though, their steady in-season improvement hasn't been rewarded with the proverbial pat on the back by media and fans. Nebraska, ranked No. 21 before the season, had already broken its 16-year NCAA tournament drought. This was supposed to be the year the party started.

"I think the first [step] is easier," Miles said. "Then all of the sudden expectations come."

Such as: Nebraska (10-7 overall) going to the Big Dance in back-to-back years for the first time since Danny Nee got his teams there four seasons in a row from 1991 to '94. Such as: The Huskers challenging favorite Wisconsin for a shot at the league title, something Nebraska hasn't achieved since 1950. Such as: Finding ways to finish games. With the exception of a 70-55 loss at Wisconsin, Nebraska has held a second-half lead in all of its games, yet lost seven. Such as: Terran Petteway — whose transfer from Texas Tech was barely discussed before last season — living up to the preseason All-America talk with NBA scouts in the stands.

The redshirt junior has so far improved his scoring average, his rebound, assist, block and steal averages and his shooting percentages from the field and three-point range — but he still has been criticized. Around Petteway, the rest of the offense has dropped off more than a tick. With a month and a half to go until March, Nebraska, after falling at Wisconsin on Thursday, still doesn't have a signature victory.

But wait. Don't write off the Huskers just yet. Although Nebraska has yet to make the statement it did last year when it knocked off Ohio State to set up an 11-3 conference finish, the Huskers have played with a renewed energy since getting 6-8 senior Leslee Smith (ACL tear in July) and 6-9 senior Moses Abraham (who missed six games with a broken hand) back in time for Nebraska's first conference victory.

They have shown better screen-and-roll action and better physical play, and also a better spark, the coach said.

"It just gives us a breath of fresh air," Miles said. "Just our body language in practice after the Rutgers game, even after a win, was just completely different. We've had other games that we've won, and the guys have just looked tired and gassed and almost like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. And this one was different because the guys were like, 'OK, we can do this, this is more like us.' "

Will the Huskers, who face the Gophers twice before January ends, reach the next step this season? Maybe, maybe not. But, at least, the players now seem ready to embrace the climb.