Football Magazine

NEBRASKA BASKETBALL: A Sleeping Big Red Giant Waits

By Huskerlocker @huskerlocker

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By Chris Labenz
With only seconds remaining in Nebraska’s toppling of then-No. 11 Indiana, most of the 8,613 fans at the Bob Devaney Sports Center were nervous and on their feet. The Huskers led 70-69, but the then Hoosiers had the ball and with it, a chance to steal the win.
Leaning over to my brother, a fellow Husker hoops diehard, I said, “Man, I hate when things come down to the wire like this. We have no luck. We’re going to blow it.”
He responded, “Dude, who cares? If we lose we lose, we’ve done it forever. If we win, it’s great but it’s not like we are going to the tourney or anything. Nothing is at stake.”
That exchange eased my nerves and sure enough, Nebraska managed to pull out the victory followed by a pouring of the student crowd onto the court. Doc Sadler had his yearly upset and all was well.
The preceding illustrates the problem with Big Red roundball – “Dude, who cares?” That question seems to echo the collective mindset of the Nebraska athletic department when it comes to putting together a winning and exciting men’s basketball team.
Sure, Nebraska built a brand spanking-new arena set to open next season and the practice facilities are top notch. However, all the money that was poured into those facilities will have gone towards window dressing if the team continues to disappoint every season.
Watching the Cornhuskers play, you’ll notice two of the primary deficiencies under Doc Sadler’s leadership right away– recruiting and offense. Nebraska’s 2012 roster consists of a point guard who transferred from LSU because he was no longer welcome, two primary contributors from the JUCO ranks and players from California, Germany and all points in between.
To make matters worse, if Bo Spencer hadn’t transferred from LSU, there would’ve been no one else to play his position except for freshmen who aren’t ready for the Big Ten. This is not an unusual problem for Sadler, though. During his tenure, the Huskers have been a patchwork quilt of different faces, many of whom were only in Lincoln for a year or two at most.
By the time they’re ready to contribute, it’s either too late to build upon (Lance Jeter, for example) or they’ve left for greener pastures at Doc’s suggestion (Cookie Miller). This methodology of consistently plugging holes with JUCOs and foreign players worked for Doc at UTEP.
However, it will never consistently work in the Big Ten. There are far too many good coaches and systems in place for Nebraska to get by on spare tires and second helpings.
The second major problem is Nebraska’s lack of any offensive rhythm or identity. There’s no resume for Doc’s job on my desk, but I’ve played and watched enough basketball to know that anytime your offense starts the majority of its possessions ten feet beyond the three point line, you’re in big trouble.
Furthermore, when you can count to two before the ball is passed, the defense is already in place to stop whatever hope Nebraska has of getting a good look at points. Again, this is nothing new for Sadler’s crew. Priding the team on defense is fine, but that’s not going to get it done to compete on a level necessary to win come March.
Even worse, it’s a huge deterrent to Sadler’s efforts on the recruiting trail. Young kids don’t want to play for a team whose style is reminiscent of the peach basket days.
Therein lies the major disconnect between the Nebraska athletic department’s expectations for the program – a team good enough to fill a brand-new and highly leveraged arena and support. Sadler seems like a good guy. He’s a hit with the media and very cordial from all reports, but that doesn’t mean he is beyond criticism.
Anytime a critic presses him, fans are quick to point out Nebraska’s lack of tradition in college hoops and built-in recruiting disadvantages. Fair points, but so what? No organization improves by sitting on its collective hands and complaining about how difficult things are, whether it is a sports program or a small business.
To get better takes hard work, and even more importantly resources. This is where fans become confused with how the athletic department has addressed Nebraska men’s basketball for the entirety of its existence.
Why build a brand new arena and top notch facilities if you’re not going to bring in a coach who puts fans in the seats every night? To steal a line from “Rounders,” that’s like putting together a fantastic steak dinner but leaving out a fork and knife to eat it with.
Fans also point out that hiring a good coach would be expensive, and they’re right. A counterpoint: In Nebraska, if you start having a fun team to watch, fans will flock from all corners to support it. The volleyball team sells out every night. Connie Yori’s women’s hoops squad lands great attendance relative to the rest of the country.
Husker fans are passionate, both their cheering and their wallets when it comes to a winner. It’s safe to assume that the high upfront cost of a new basketball coach, probably in the two million dollar range, would be paid back tenfold in only a few years.
Put together an NCAA tournament run, and the new arena will sell out just as fast as Memorial Stadium. Local businesses would also get a nice return on their tax dollars with the abundance of people attending games and socializing downtown Lincoln.
“Dude, who cares?” Until the athletic department is willing to stand up and say, “We do,” Nebraska men’s basketball will continue to go into March hibernation while fans fixate themselves on filling out brackets and planning for the Spring Game.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @chris_labenz
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