Nebraska: When Programs Become Persons

It is one of the endlessly fascinating aspects of collegiate team sports: 20-year-olds come and go every two to four years, but the personality of the program remains intact, for better or worse, over many decades.

In college football, Northwestern — a Sisyphus within the sport (there are more than one) — fights like hell to roll the boulder up the hill but loses on some impossibly absurd play or sequence in the final few minutes of regulation. Arizona makes mischief as a spoiler at home, but when the Wildcats arrive at a moment of truth, they get punched in the gut. Some programs — see Michigan State and Clemson in recent years — push past their baggage-laden histories, but others don't.

There are plenty of examples to be found in basketball.

South Carolina never really recovered from its two NCAA tournament losses as a top-three seed in 1997 and 1998. Virginia Tech hasn't bounced back from dozens of accumulated last-minute losses and, in particular, a 2011 NCAA Tournament snub that helped usher Seth Greenberg out the door and on his way to Bristol, Conn. Today's Virginia Tech players aren't the ones who played for Greenberg in 2011, but you can feel the weight of a program's failures crashing down on the Hokies' shoulders.

Dayton, under a new coach (Archie Miller), is showing the same season-long inclinations as it did under previous coaches (Brian Gregory). Under Richard Pitino, the 2014 version of Minnesota is — in some very direct ways — retracing the path Tubby Smith took to the 2013 NCAA Tournament: February nosedive; season-rescuing home win over a good team; a likely sub-.500 finish in the Big Ten; and a probable double-digit seed, maybe a 9 seed only if things break really well in the Big Ten Tournament. 

The players and coaches come. Then they go.

The psychology of the program remains.

Let's look at one team that is trying to push past its demons as March approaches:

The line between curse and blessing — between being laughed at and fondly remembered in sports — is often a fine one. Former Nebraska coach Danny Nee is the man who guided Nebrasketball to five NCAA tournaments. He's also the man who went 0-5 in the NCAA tournament in Lincoln. How do you reconcile those two realities? 

While you ponder that mystery, realize that Nebraska was nothing before Nee arrived, and it's been nothing since he left. The Huskers own as many NCAA tournament wins as Northwestern, the one power conference school that has yet to even make the Big Dance. This might be a football school, but the Big Red Nation is yearning for the day when it can celebrate a win in America's favorite bracketed sporting event. Psychology lingers in these kinds of situations. Programs turn into persons, patients with documented and continuous histories. It is at once the beauty and the sadness of college sports, a big reason why many of us watch.

Tonight, then, amidst a schedule of games that really doesn't move the national needle, a few contests stand out. 

One of them involves Nebraska.

Yes, the Huskers are on the bubble. Their equation-changing triumph over a week ago at Michigan State has put them in the bracketology conversation, but tonight's game at Illinois marks the first time since the win in East Lansing that Nebraska will be a road target in the Big Ten. Illinois and the other subpar teams left on the Huskers' schedule would like nothing more than to ruin Big Red's ultimate dream. You can't win (an NCAA tournament game) if you don't play, so NU — now in an enemy lair — will face in full the long wingspan of Old Demon Pressure.

Avenging road losses to Penn State and Purdue was one thing; now, the road begins to get even tougher for the Huskers, even though they can legitimately claim to be superior to each of the next three opponents they'll play (the fourth team left on their Big Ten slate, Wisconsin, obviously exists in a different weight class).

When you watch Nebraska tonight (Big Ten Network has the broadcast at 9 p.m. ET), feel free to focus on the Xs and Os, but the central drama of this contest lies in the way the Huskers handle the heat. Psychology is a living, breathing thing, and while it is plainly evident that Nebraska coach Tim Miles has Nebraska headed in the right direction, one never knows how a response to a moment of great significance can alter — or, in some cases, fail to transform — a program that has lived in the valley of the shadow of heartbreak for so long. 

How will the patient — this person known as Nebraska men's basketball, nicknamed "Nebrasketball" — respond to a strong dose of Champaign and an Illinois team that — as evinced in a recent road thumping of Minnesota — doesn't seem likely to quit on its season?

This is why we watch. This is why we care. College (sports) psychology class is about to reconvene.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.