Courting the Nebraska Cornhuskers
By Brian Speers
Changing conferences is a big deal for any college athletics program, and it’s especially true for the University of Nebraska because the Huskers have competed against the core members of their former conference, the Big 12, for more than a century. In fact, Nebraska has battled college basketball icon Kansas more than 240 times since 1900.
So before we examine the impact that Doc Sadler’s team could have on the Big Ten standings in 2011-12, let’s begin with a look at the history of Nebraska basketball.
Game Day and FacilitiesNebraska’s basketball team is currently winding down a 35-year era playing at the Bob Devaney Sports Complex, called “The Bob”; the arena will be replaced by a new facility in the Haymarket District of downtown Lincoln. The new, 16,000-seat arena is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2013-14 season.
Husker basketball games feature many of the same traditions as Big Red football games, meaning you can expect giant red flags and a chanting, raucous student section.
If Nebraska has a solid record heading into its conference game versus Ohio State, you can probably expect a sold-out arena (capacity at The Bob is 13,595). But if the Huskers have struggled, then standing in line to get a legendary Runza sandwich at the snack bar will be a breeze.
The “Red Zone,” Nebraska’s answer to Michigan State’s “Izzone,” is comprised of hard-core student fans whose primary responsibilities are to scream like banshees and jump around until their legs give out. The Red Zone is easily the loudest and most dependable segment of attendees, but even these fans can lose steam during a losing season. Husker hoops fans can be fickle.
Nebraska is 398-125 all time at the Devaney Center, which is 35 years old and hosted NCAA Tournament games in 1980, 1984 and 1988. The facility is also home to Nebraska gymnastics, track and field, swimming and diving, and women’s basketball. When the basketball programs move to the Haymarket Arena in 2013, the Devaney Center will continue house Big Red teams such as the wrestling and volleyball programs.Scouting Report: 2011-12The theme of Doc Sadler’s first five years in Lincoln is “close, but no cigar.”
Sadler has struggled to keep his rosters intact: Players have transferred, been dismissed, and quit. The turnover has led some fans to conclude that Doc has lost control of his team and is struggling to connect with his young players. Sadler will try to disprove that theory in 2011-12. Two seasons ago, in 2009-10, the Cornhuskers struggled to field a competitive team on the court and finished with a 2-14 conference record. The silver lining was the roster’s youth, as numerous underclassmen gained valuable experience.
Although four more players departed after the season due to transfers and dismissals, the Big Red headed into the 2010 season with high hopes. Indeed, the Huskers used strong defense to exceed expectations and compile a 7-9 conference record, 19-13 overall. Senior point guard Lance Jeter spearheaded the feisty Husker squad, and although Jeter is gone, the foundation is now in place.
This season, the Huskers will rely on some of the players who gained experience in the 2009-10 debacle and are now vastly improved veterans. Guards Brandon Richardson, Caleb Walker and Toney McCray, as well as forward Brandon Ubel and center Jorge-Brian Diaz each return with at least two full seasons under their belts. These five players accounted for 61% of the total scoring and minutes played for Nebraska in 2010-11, and their experience should anchor the Husker attack this season.
In addition, the Cornhuskers are counting on contributions from two newcomers: Bo Spencer, a senior point guard who transferred to Nebraska from Louisiana State, and Dylan Talley, a junior-college transfer.
Spencer, who sat out last season due to transfer rules, was the starting point guard at LSU, and will provide an immediate shot in the arm for a Husker offense that can always use the extra point production. He scored 25 points in consecutive games versus Kentucky and Tennessee in 2009, and was a rising star in the SEC.
Spencer, along with returning starters Richardson, Walker, Diaz and McCray, will likely account for most of the Husker scoring this season, with help from experienced bench players Ray Gallegos and Eshuante Jones.The Huskers ranked 16th nationally in total defense last season, and defense should again be the team’s strength this year. The coaching staff wants tough, gritty defense to be Nebraska’s hallmark.
Last season, the Huskers held Big 12 opponents to just 60 points per game. That would have ranked the Huskers first in the Big Ten (Wisconsin led the conference by allowing 62.5 ppg).
The question marks are disappearing for Doc’s teams, and skeptical fans in Lincoln are slowly starting to convert as the Big Red keeps making improvements. Nebraska should field a competitive Big Ten team this season by adding more backcourt scoring and maintaining its defensive wizardry. The Huskers may just surprise the Big Ten.The Big Ten transitionIt’s tough to speculate what impact the change in leagues will have on Husker basketball. The Nebraska faithful hope the move pays off with enhanced recruiting, fan support and national exposure.
Some experts figure the fertile recruiting grounds of the Ohio River Valley and the eastern portion of the Big Ten landscape won’t send any recruits west to Nebraska. But with its move to the Big Ten, Nebraska will have a chance to introduce itself to millions of new fans—and prospects.
In terms of fan support, don’t expect to see a lot of Nebraska fans at Big Ten road games. It’s about 200 miles from Lincoln to Lawrence, Kansas; East Lansing, by contrast, is more than 725 miles from home. The price of a plane ticket represents serious spending for fans who save their Husker vacations for football season.
The third major change is the addition of more Big Red games on television. Now that the Big Ten Network is on Nebraska cable stations, fans of Husker basketball will have the chance to gorge themselves on a steady diet of TV games; in the past, the Huskers have too seldom played on TV. Because every Nebraska conference game will be televised in 2011-12, Husker basketball may see its fandom reach new heights.
Nebraska hasn’t had a true rival on the basketball court, with the possible exception of Missouri, and it’s unclear if that will change in the Big Ten. Many fans on both sides of the conference divide are probably unaware that both Nebraska and Iowa made their initial efforts to join the Big Ten way back at the turn of the last century. Iowa was accepted, while Nebraska was not. (There must have been some sort of Missouri River bias back then.) Perhaps Iowa will take on its longtime neighbor on as a newfound rival.
One thing is certain: there is a lot to learn on both sides. As the Big Red finally land in the conference where they belong—a century late—there’s a strong sense of excitement among fans. They get a new arena, new opponents and new fans, and they’re hoping for new results on the hardwood.
Omaha native and lifelong Cornhusker Brian Speers writes about Husker basketball for CornNation.com. Brian lives in Iowa, where he covers the Iowa Energy of the NBA D-League as well as the Iowa Hawkeyes.