March 12, 1998. Boise, Idaho. Arkansas 74, Nebraska 65.
If you listen to all those people who say (incorrectly) the regular season doesn't matter in college basketball, that was the last time Nebraska played a meaningful game of basketball. Since then, not only have the Huskers not been relevant, they haven't even sniffed relevant. Only twice since then -- the next year, when the 4th-place Huskers got hosed from the NCAA Tournament, and 2006, when the Huskers were a late-season contender in a watered-down Big XII, have the Huskers even found themselves on the "Bubble" after mid-January. In the same amount of time, every other Big XII team has made at least one NCAA appearance.
1998 was a different era in Nebraska Basketball, though. Danny Nee was the head coach, underachieving with a team that routinely featured future NBA journeymen. The eight years from 1991 to 1998 featured five of Nebraska's all-time 6 NCAA Tournament appearances, and three deep NIT runs. The next season, in which the Huskers featured Big XII Player of the Year Venson Hamilton, swept Kansas in the regular season for the first time in what seemed like an epoch, and went 4-1 against top 25 opponents, wasn't too bad despite the NCAA snub.
But, what has since become a familiar story in Corn Nation set in: Recruiting fell off. The team looked uninspired. A coach with a fairly impressive record was fired (though with little controversy). A drawn-out coaching search with rejections and bungling finally resulting in the uninspiring hire of a coach with the initials "BC."
To be fair to Barry Collier, Nebraska Basketball was a train wreck when he arrived. With the player pool fairly dry and most of Nee's recruiting ties gone with him, Collier had to purge the poison from the program and start from scratch. It was ugly, though, and even after things started to turn around at the end of Collier's tenure, he seemed disinterested at times (anyone esle remember Collier leaned on the scorer's table checking texts while the Huskers struggled against KU in the 2006 Big XII semis?) and was uninspiring to the fans.
Along came Doc Sadler in the fall of 2006. Doc's firy and enthusiastic (unlike Collier) and seems to get his players to overachieve (unlike Nee). Since Doc's arrival, the fanbase has generally seemed much more positive about Husker Hoops, despite the similar records posted in Collier's last few years with Doc's first two.
Over the last three seasons, long-suffering Texas A&M, Baylor, and Kansas State fans saw their teams finally break horrendously long NCAA droughts. Now, Husker fans want to know: Is this our year?
Unfortunately, that’s a hard question to answer. The Big XII Coaches picked NU 9th, while Athlon magazine projects the Huskers 8th, so the consensus is “no.” However, there are reasons for optimism. The Big XII is in a transition year, and the league champion is likely to have at least 4 losses. Seasons like this generally wind up with a logjam of .500 teams in the middle of the Big XII. If the Huskers can get to 9-7 in league and pick up some strong wins along the way, they can at least make plans to watch the selection show on March 15, even if they wind up in the NIT.
Unfortunately, the non-conference schedule doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities to distinguish themselves from other middle-of-the-league Big XII teams. There’s 11 likely wins there, but everything is likely to come down to the two big games against Creighton and Arizona State.
Guarantee Games (8 – San Jose State, Ark.-Pine Bluff, Alabama State, IPFW, UMBC, So. Carolina St., UMES, Florida A&M)
These are games the Huskers are unlikely to lose, added specifically to boost their win total and show off to home fans. Projected Record: 8-0.
Likely Wins (3 – TCU, St. Louis, Oregon State)
These are games against teams that could beat the Huskers, but are still games Nebraska should win. Nebraska’s struggled in these games on the road the last few years (Western Kentucky, Rutgers). The bad part about these games is that they could do more damage (bad losses) than help the Huskers’ NCAA resume. Projected Record: 3-0.
The Big Games – Arizona State and Creighton
Nebraska’s only got two real chances in the nonconference slate to distinguish themselves. Creighton is the Huskers’ biggest nonconference rival, but the rivalry has been extremely one-sided; Nebraska is 2-8 against the Jays the last 9 years. However, NU needs to win this game, and at least win their home games in this series. Plus, a win over the Missouri Valley’s favorite would be a big win for the tourney resume. However, Creighton’s going to be pretty good this year and Nebraska is an unknown quantity. Early Projection: Toss-up
The Huskers visit Arizona State for the return game for the Big 12-Pac 10 Hardwood Challenge for last year’s 62-47 Nebraska domination. ASU brings pretty much everyone back, and is projected to finish 2nd in the Pac-10 and compete for the conference title. Nebraska hasn’t had success in big road non-league games in a long time. Early Projection: Loss
The League Slate
It’s harder to predict what the Huskers will do in conference. The schedule lines up to benefit the Huskers, though, with winnable games against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M at home, and a slate of winnable road games (Iowa State, Colorado, Texas Tech). Further, there’s a good chance the Huskers can get to 4-1 to start the season, and there’s no long road trips or long streaks against teams likely to blow Nebraska out (like last year), which should build Nebraska’s confidence. Unfortunately, the Huskers are going to need to pull off a win against Kansas, Texas, Baylor, or Oklahoma to really get attention for the NCAAs. Projected Record: 8-8
I think the Huskers are going to fall just short of the NCAA Tournament this season. There simply aren’t enough chances for the Huskers to distinguish themselves that they’ll be able to win. However, a deep run into the NIT is a strong possibility. Projected Record: 20-10 (8-8), NIT Berth
Tomorrow: The Roster