Preseason college basketball annuals frequently and prominently listed Nebraska’s Tim Miles on their coaching hot seat lists before this season. Miles had registered three consecutive losing seasons since making the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, his second year in Lincoln.
University leadership showed faith in sticking with Miles for a sixth season, but if Nebraska stumbled at the start, his chair would have been more than warm this winter.
Instead, the Cornhuskers (8-4 Big Ten, 17-8 overall) come to Minnesota on Tuesday night playing like a team determined to prove its university’s decision correct.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino can relate. Athletic director Mark Coyle gave him another year after a program-worst 8-23 record in 2016, and Pitino responded with a 24-win team that reached his first NCAA tournament last March.
“They do remind me of our team last year,” Pitino said Monday. “Coach Miles may not claim he hears it. But when people are calling for your head and you get to come back and have a great year, you prove some people wrong. I know it felt good for me last year. I’m sure it probably feels good for him as well.”
The Cornhuskers, who had four players transfer from the program last year, were predicted to finish 13th in the Big Ten and be miles away from any postseason. That was similar to how the Gophers were picked last season, but they ended up third.
Nebraska entered Monday tied for fourth with No. 20 Michigan in the Big Ten. Miles’ team appears to be a couple victories away from booking another NCAA tourney trip.
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The Huskers have won five of their past six games, including three in a row behind the play of Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer Jr. and Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland. Palmer Jr., a 6-foot-6 junior guard, is the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer in league play with 20 points per game.
“I want [Miles] to lose Tuesday, and then have great success,” Pitino joked. “But I’m happy for him. He works hard and does it the right way.”
The Gophers, who have lost seven of eight, haven’t been able to build off last season’s school-record turnaround because of injuries and the suspension of center Reggie Lynch, the 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Lynch has a hearing this week on his appeal over being found responsible for an alleged sexual assault in April 2016 by a university panel.
Some fans are speculating again about Pitino’s future after the losses have piled up — five in a row after Saturday’s 76-73 overtime defeat at Michigan.
The Gophers are 1-8 without Lynch, and starting sophomore guard Amir Coffey could miss his seventh game and third straight Tuesday because of a right shoulder injury.
“It was certainly a huge loss, because he’s such a rim-protector,” Miles said of Lynch, the Big Ten’s top shot-blocker. “I think they’re a little bit a team of unknowns, because these guys who were going to be role guys are main players now. They’re starting to play a little better, so as we go forward we have to make sure to do a good job on everybody. They’re good, so we have to plan accordingly.”