Nebraska’s Dachon Burke Jr.

Nebraska’s Dachon Burke Jr. (11) attempts a layup during a game against Indiana at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It’s been a long week, to say the least, for Nebraska Hoops. After football hogged the spotlight last week with staff turnover, all was pleasantly quiet around Memorial Stadium this week. So here is a rare, basketball-only edition of Five for Thought.

1. Husker Hoops has lost five-straight but is still rapidly improving. Especially in the paint.

The beat went on for Nebraska basketball this week with losses at Wisconsin and Rutgers, and its conference record is now 2-7. As someone who has lived his entire life in Big Ten Conference country, I have seen my fair share of horrible Big Ten teams.

This year’s Nebraska isn’t one of them. 

Any Nebraska fan that has followed the program for over three years should know what a team looks like when it gives up on a season. It’s still only January, but Fred Hoiberg still has almost the entire team engaged in the moment and fighting to improve. And make no mistake, the Huskers are improving. 

The most notable and surprising improvement recently has been the increase in frontcourt production. Against Wisconsin and Rutgers, two of the most physical teams in the conference, Nebraska averaged 28 points in the paint. More impressively, the Huskers only allowed 46 points in the paint over the past two games combined.

To put that in perspective, Rutgers scored 52 of its 79 points in the first matchup inside the paint. Not only has Nebraska improved at finishing around the rim, but it is also getting better at defending in the paint.

Some may be discouraged by the Huskers blowing a late 72-66 lead at Rutgers over the final three minutes of the game, but that happens more often than one might expect in college basketball. In fact, Kentucky let the exact same lead slip away at Texas Tech four hours later.

2. As Nebraska continues to grow as a team, so are players individually. 

Junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. had one of his best games this season at Wisconsin. Ditto for freshman forward Kevin Cross. 

Junior forward Thorir Thorbjarnarson shot an astounding 5-8 on 3-point attempts at Rutgers Saturday, pushing his season clip up to 46 percent. For the fourth-straight game, Nebraska had a positive point differential with formerly benched and suspended shooting guard Jervay Green on the court. 

When you look for how a team is still giving this amount of effort despite the continuous losing, look no further than the individuals. Almost everyone on the team is showing improvement, and it’s safe to say they’re buying into Hoiberg’s teaching and coaching methods.

3. Some observations from my first trip to the Kohl Center.

Not to date myself here, but my first trip to Madison for a Nebraska-Wisconsin showdown ended with Melvin Gordon rushing for 408 yards. My last trip for one ended with the Badgers draining a school-record 18 3-pointers. Next time, I’m staying home.

It’s always fun seeing Nebraska on the road, where you get to see how the team acts outside of its comfort zone. It was clear that there is some strong chemistry being built on the floor, and players are being much more supportive of each other than they were at the beginning of the season.

As for the Kohl Center itself, it is clear why it is such a distinct home-court advantage. The arena fits over 17,000 people into a much smaller space than Pinnacle Bank Arena. When it is sold out, there aren’t many environments more daunting than that. 

The University of Wisconsin as a whole also has done a much better job at clearing snow from the sidewalks and streets compared to Dear Old Nebraska U. With the same amount of snowfall, I managed to keep my feet dry for the entirety of my time in Madison yet lasted mere seconds before they were drenched in the slush-filled abyss that once was Lincoln.

Also, is there anything more Wisconsin than the fact that the entire team celebrates home wins by going to a bar named The Nitty Gritty?

4. Sizing up the Big Ten Conference near the halfway mark.

This week, every team in the conference will play its 10th conference game of the season, which is crazy given that it is still only January. A lot has already been said about how wild this season has been, but an order is slowly being established. 

It’s safe to say that Michigan State is still the best team in the conference. The Spartans may still lose the occasional road game, but they still have the most amount of convincing wins in the conference. This doesn’t make them a lock to win the conference, especially given Tom Izzo’s history of having lulls in February, but come March, they will once again be the best team.

Tier two of the Big Ten houses just Maryland and Illinois at the moment. It’s fitting that the two teams’ first matchup of the season was decided by one point because there is not much of a difference between them. Both have elite and experienced guards to complement raw and athletic forwards. Both have lost a decent amount of games they should have won, but both picked up impressive road wins over the past week. 

In tier three sits Rutgers, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin. Plenty would argue that Iowa should be in tier two, but I know better than to fall for Iowa getting hot in January. Every Iowa season since Fran McCaffery took over has featured at least a three-game losing streak in February or March. 

As for Rutgers, Indiana and Wisconsin, I wouldn’t trust any of those three to beat a ranked team on the road if their lives depended on it. 

Tier four features Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan. All five of these teams have the potential to make the NCAA Tournament, but it really will come down to how they play in close games. 

In conference play, Minnesota (5-5) is 4-2 in games decided by 10 points or less. Penn State (4-4) is 3-2. Purdue (4-5) is 1-2. Ohio State (2-6) is 0-2, and Michigan (2-6) is 1-5. The margin for error with these teams is incredibly small and will stay that way for the rest of the season.

5. This has been one of the darkest weeks in the history of basketball.

Between the massive brawl between Kansas State and Kansas, Illinois guard Alan Griffin stomping on Purdue guard Sasha Stefanovic’s chest and the death of Kobe Bryant, it’s been a horrible week for the sport. 

Here’s to moving onward and upward and not taking a second of this life for granted.