LINCOLN — Tim Miles lifted his new, dark chocolate, square-framed glasses.
“You don’t get raccoon eyes because you want them,” he said, showing off the bags his glasses were hiding.
During Creighton week, you don’t rest. You try to convince yourself it is just another game, Miles said.
“But when you’re in it, it means everything,” Miles said. “You don’t sleep.”
Not when you’ve lost 14 straight games to Greg McDermott, and you’re sick of being handed golf balls with your 0-7 record against Creighton on it. Not when have your best team in years and the pressure of beating Creighton is mounting. Not when you’re on a one-year contract with a new athletic director and not when you’re coming off a loss that made the fan base anxious.
Rested or not, Nebraska (7-2, 1-1) will host Creighton (6-2) at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday in a game that really, really matters.
“We all accept it as a big game,” Miles said. “I do, certainly.”
Forward Isaiah Roby said on Friday he’s been told by friends they don’t care how the team does as long as they beat Creighton. And entering this season, it appeared that this might be the year, with Miles’ returners and Creighton rebuilding, that this would be the year Nebraska could handle Creighton with relative ease.
But the circumstances of the next chapter of the Nebraska-Creighton rivalry have shifted over the past few months.
In one corner, there’s Creighton. A team that, in recent weeks, has found its stroke. After struggling early on to find replacements for Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, Creighton’s become one of the best offensive teams in college basketball. Ten players shoot better than 48 percent from the floor, and they’re making 45 percent of their 3-point attempts and 57 percent of their shots from inside the arc. The Jays took No. 1 Gonzaga to the brink in a 103-92 loss last Saturday and have had a week off to prepare for Nebraska.
In the other corner, there’s Nebraska, a team coming off a disappointing loss at Minnesota, in which the Huskers blew a 13-point lead in the second half. Before the season began, this team was crowned as Nebraska’s next hope, with All-Big Ten player James Palmer and the rest of the core four. Preseason predictions had the Huskers in the NCAA Tournament — and winning when they got there. And though those goals are still in view with the 7-2 start, the loss Wednesday night has soured some of those expectations for fans.
The start is the best for a Miles team at Nebraska in seven seasons. But that isn’t stopping the criticism that’s flooded in over the past two days about Miles and the direction of the program.
Miles sees the hate online. He gets it. He understands it. The criticism, he said, means the fans care.
“They need to be saying, ‘This bum, what’s he doing? Why are we still stuck with them?’ ” Miles said. “I’m not happy, either. Guess who else is grumbling? (My wife) back at the house. ‘Why aren’t you calling timeouts?’ I’m getting business from the dog. And so you should get that.”
After awhile, when a coach is at a school long enough, Miles said, it becomes about what they can’t do that defines them.
That’s Creighton for Miles. Not only have the Bluejays beaten Nebraska the last seven years, they’ve won by more than 10 points in each game.
Saturday’s game will be Nebraska’s third in six days. And yet, despite the history and the Nebraska’s loss on Wednesday, the Huskers are favored on Saturday by a touchdown. The last time Nebraska was favored was 2014, when NU was coming off its NCAA tournament bid the year prior. The Huskers were a 5 1/2-point favorite. They lost to Creighton by 10 at home.
That 2014 season is what Nebraska is trying desperately to avoid. That was the last time the Huskers were ranked, the last time there was obvious optimism surrounding the program. A win over Creighton could win over naysayers, who haven’t bought into the team yet. But a loss could lead to a hefty amount of fans jumping off ship.
On the other side of Interstate-80, Creighton knows what’s coming. They’ve won the last few years, but that means little.
“We’re always going to get their best,” Creighton guard Davion Mintz said. “Regardless of how their team may be, we know they’re going to play their hardest just because it’s us.”
For everyone, there’s extra motivation heading into Saturday.
For fans of both sides, Saturday represents a day to claim the throne. Creighton fans will want to prove despite Nebraska’s preseason hype, they’re still king. Nebraska fans will have an opportunity to yell at Creighton players and coaches for the first time since the program was named in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. Creighton’s first true road game will be a sellout, and the arena will be packed with nervous, anxious, excited hatred.
For Creighton, the extra motivation is to defend its streak. For Miles, it’s for punching back at McDermott.
“I haven’t beat him. So I need to beat him, right? And I won’t be happy until we beat them 14 straight,” Miles said.
And for the Nebraska team, the motivation is all of it. The streak, Miles, pride. Everything.
After practice Thursday, Palmer told the team in the locker room they had to win this game for Miles. Isaac Copeland added they needed to win for Glynn Watson, the four-year starter who has yet to beat the Jays.
“We gotta win this for us,” Thomas Allen said.
The team, the program, knows what rides on Saturday.
“We all wanna beat Creighton,” Roby said.
Strength vs. strength: Potent Creighton attack to test stingy Husker defense
There’s no secret how Creighton plans to take down Nebraska on Saturday.
The Bluejays want to run. They want to shoot 3s.
But they know they’re going up against a defensive-minded team built to constrict and disrupt even the most explosive offenses. The Huskers have proven this season that they can handle fast-break threats and they can take away the 3.
That’s what makes Saturday’s matchup so compelling.
“Something’s got to give,” CU coach Greg McDermott said. “We’ll just try to get into a flow and see what happens.”
The statistics suggest that neither team has faced a challenge like the one it will meet Saturday.
The Jays are the 11th most efficient offense when attempting shots in transition — they’ve produced a 68.3 effective field goal percentage in those situations, according to Hoop-Math.com. But NU?
It’s holding opponents to a 37.3 effective field goal percentage on their quick shots (fourth nationally).
At the 3-point line, Creighton is second nationally (45.8 percent). But Nebraska’s 12th in 3-point defense (26.1). CU’s made at least nine 3s in all eight of its games while NU’s not allowed more than seven 3-pointers in any of its nine outings.
It’s strength on strength. And both teams are confident in what they do best.
They know a test is coming, though.
“You have to make adjustments,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “You have to be able to consider Plan A, Plan B, C, D …”
The Huskers were ready last year. In the first half, they forced 10 Creighton turnovers, gave up just two fast-break buckets and held CU to 2 of 13 from the 3-point line. NU led 33-28 at the break.
The Jays countered and prevailed — but it took nearly the entire second half to seize control.
CU players could see a scenario where Saturday plays out similarly. Maybe it takes time to adjust to the aggressive Nebraska defense. Maybe they miss a few shots early.
Sophomore Mitch Ballock said it’ll be important for Creighton to stay committed to its brand of basketball.
“It’s just doing what we do and playing how we play,” he said. “I think that is our advantage. Our speed and our pace to the game. Hopefully we can wear them out on the defensive end and make stuff difficult for them to stop.”
During the Jays’ seven-game winning streak against Nebraska, they’ve scored an average of 74.6 points per game and made 49.5 percent of their shots. They have the potency to even exceed those numbers Saturday.
But it won’t be easy against NU, McDermott said.
“Nebraska’s elite defensively, especially at home,” he said. “It’s a very, very good defensive basketball team.”
Often unnoticed, Husker and Bluejay managers have forged their own rivalry — and a unique trophy
LINCOLN — The most coveted Little Tikes hoop in the state of Nebraska sat on the edge of the Hendrick’s center practice court on Friday night.
It stood just in front of the treadmills head coach Tim Miles sends players to if they’re not hustling back on defense. The canary yellow net, stained from years in a previous life, hung onto the rim for dear life. A Creighton basketball bag with street clothes held it from tipping.
Don’t let this hoop’s childish features fool you. It is the only physical symbol of a winner in the Nebraska-Creighton rivalry. There is not a trophy for the Nebraska-Creighton basketball game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday night.
But on Friday night, in the annual Nebraska-Creighton managers game, this rivalry absolutely has a trophy. And it is this raggety, old, former Goodwill Little Tikes hoop.
At 7:15 Friday night, the Creighton managers showed up in blue sweatshirts, carrying this hoop like the Stanley Cup. They placed it in the corner where they warmed up.
“We lost that last year,” senior history major and 4-year basketball manager Noah Llteras said as they walked in. “That ain’t happening again.”
Welcome to the underground managers college basketball league. And ground zero for the Nebraska-Creighton rivalry.
It’s almost fitting that this world goes mostly unnoticed. Student managers are the unsung, unnoticed heroes of college basketball. Without them, teams would not be able to function.
They sit idly by and do the bidding of coaches and players. When anyone falls on the floor at practice, four of them run out with white towels to dry off the wet spot. They squeeze water into players’ mouths on the sideline. They’re often seen rejected on TV, offering players water or a towel on the bench, usually ignored or waved off by a player frustrated with a foul.
Being a manager is a job. They’re not on scholarship. Most aren’t in majors even close to sports.
“It really is a job, I mean, we’re here an hour before practice, we’re here an hour after the players and coaches leave,” Llteras said. “It’s a serious, serious time commitment.”
For some, this is actually their second job. Add practices and travel and two jobs on top of regular school work, they might just be as busy as anyone on campus.
But the perk? This league. They love it.
The managers, most of them at least, are basketball freaks. Like Llteras. He wasn’t good enough to play in college, he said, so he joined as a manager to stay close to basketball. So it’s natural for groups of college men across the country yearn to play ball, when they may not have time for usual intramurals.
When the team travels, managers set up games with opposing managers. Most say yes. When Illinois visited last Lincoln last Sunday, Nebraska managers picked up Illinois managers and drove them to the Hendrick’s.
“We haven’t played all year so we’re going to be rusty,” an Illinois manager said on the drive to the Bob Devaney Sports Center.
The Illini wiped the floor with the Huskers and won by 40.
“Best shooting performance I’ve literally ever seen,” Llteras said.
There are actually rankings of the managers team’s on KPIsports.net. At the moment, Chattanooga is No. 1, followed by Indiana, Liberty, Rutgers and Illinois. Nebraska entered Friday No. 52, with a 1-1 record. Creighton was unranked.
But records be damned. This is a rivalry. This is the game that matters most.
Hence, the Little Tikes hoops.
It was an idea from a Nebraska manager in 2012.
“He felt like we needed a trophy so he just went to Goodwill and brought it to the game,” Llteras said.
Winner writes their name on the blue plastic pole holding up the hoop takes it home.
This is Nebraska-Creighton, so yes of course, there was a long winning streak hanging over the matchup recently. Nebraska won this game six years in the row. The streak ran opposite to what happened in front of thousands of fans, with Creighton’s streak over the Huskers. Tim Miles’ managers had never lost to Creighton.
Until last year. Creighton pulled off the upset — well, an upset if you ask any of the Nebraska managers — and the Jays took the Little Tike’s hoop for the first time.
They drove north on Interstate-80 and that night, placed it on Creighton head coach Greg McDermott’s desk. That bothered Nebraska managers, obviously, so Friday night was for redemption.
And though the game is somewhat thrown together, this league is serious. One Nebraska manager showed up wearing a plain blue sweatshirt.
“Really?” Another manager said. “Had to wear blue tonight?”
There’s two, 20-minute halves in this league. Running clock. Call your own fouls.
Creighton took a 16-6 lead early Friday. After that, fouls after that got a little harder.
Managers games are raw, sloppy, beautiful basketball. There are loud, sarcastic claps in faces after made baskets. Arguments about fouls calls and trash talk aplenty after turnovers or 3s.
“He can’t shoot, don’t guard him out there.”
“They can’t stop you man, they can’t stop you.”
After one foul call, a Nebraska and Creighton manager had to be separated for nearly touching noses. Both sides, when subbing in and out, turned to teammates and complain about the opposite side.
At half, Creighton led 27-16.
“Less than a point a minute,” Llteras said, out of breath, “is bad.”
Creighton extended its lead in the second. A Jay hit a 3 to go up 30-16.
“Oh that was a travel from here to Africa,” Nebraska manager Jacob Bigalow said from the bench.
It got a little chippy after that. A hard foul made the Creighton bench spill out onto the floor with a mix of “what was that” and words that aren’t appropriate for newspapers.
The claps from the Creighton managers got louder after that, too. The shots from Nebraska a little more erratic. Teams stopped helping each other off the floor.
Nebraska made a run as the game got more physical. It was 40-32 with 8 minutes left. But Creighton had too many shooters, not much different from the team the scholarship Huskers will play Saturday.
The Nebraska managers fell 48-37.
The two teams shook hands at midcourt. A Nebraska and Creighton manager hugged with sly smiles.
A Creighton manager picked up the hoop and planted it — like Baker Mayfield at the Horsehoe — at midcourt. They kneeled and posed for a photo.
“Well,” said Vince Fritz, a Nebraska graduate assistant. “Get the one that matters tomorrow.”
Nebraska-Creighton series results
1922-23 CU wins 46-24
1923-24 NU wins 25-21
Feb. 28, 1925 NU wins 15-11
Jan. 9, 1926 NU wins 20-15
Feb. 15, 1926 CU wins 15-11
March 4, 1932 CU wins 47-18
March 7, 1932 CU wins 28-26
Dec. 9, 1977 NU wins 65-58
Dec. 9, 1978 CU wins 78-61
Dec. 8, 1979 NU wins 64-55
Dec. 6, 1980 CU wins 66-61, OT
Dec. 5, 1981 NU wins 86-46
Dec. 4, 1982 NU wins 65-62
Dec. 3, 1983 NU wins 65-56
March 15, 1984 NU wins 56-54
Dec. 8, 1984 NU wins 78-73
Dec. 12, 1985 NU wins 71-52
Dec. 6, 1986 CU wins 78-66
Jan. 3, 1987 NU wins 70-65, OT
Dec. 9, 1987 CU wins 88-73
Oct. 26, 1988 NU wins 86-77
Dec. 14, 1989 CU wins 86-83
Dec. 6, 1990 NU wins 97-63
Dec. 7, 1991 NU wins 90-85
Dec. 10, 1992 NU wins 100-83
Dec. 9, 1993 NU wins 67-53
Dec. 7, 1994 NU wins 85-57
Dec. 6, 1995 NU wins 88-67
Jan. 8, 1997 NU wins 71-52
Jan. 10, 1997 CU wins 84-73
Dec. 9, 1998 NU wins 76-60
Dec. 9, 1999 CU wins 89-72
Jan. 1, 2001 CU wins 62-51
Dec. 12, 2001 CU wins 76-70
Dec. 21, 2002 CU wins 81-73
Dec. 10, 2003 CU wins 61-54
March 16, 2004 NU wins 71-70
Dec. 11, 2004 CU wins 50-48
Dec. 11, 2005 CU wins 70-44
Nov. 18, 2006 NU wins 73-61
Nov. 24, 2007 CU wins 74-62
Nov. 29, 2008 NU wins 54-52
Dec. 6, 2009 CU wins 67-61
Dec. 5, 2010 NU wins 59-54
Dec. 4, 2011 CU wins 76-66
Dec. 6, 2012 CU wins 64-42
Dec. 8, 2013 CU wins 82-67
Dec. 7, 2014 CU wins 65-55
Dec. 9, 2015 CU wins 83-67
Dec. 7, 2016 CU wins 77-62
Dec. 8, 2017 CU wins 75-65