A new era is dawning for Nebraska basketball. Tonight marks the first game, an exhibition, but a game none-the-less for the Husker men in their sparkling new home, Pinnacle Bank Arena. Finally, Husker Hoops has a home commensurate with the rest of the venues that litter the Nebraska athletics landscape. However, fancy practice facilities and new homes don’t guarantee any level of success. The team still has to figure out how to win basketball games, something that hasn’t happened much the past 15 years or so in Lincoln. Excitement has rarely been higher headed into a season for Big Red, as evidenced by record setting ticket sales, good luck finding one. They sold out the season for the first time in school history...in May...for a team that finished tenth in the Big Ten and hasn’t finished above .500 in conference play this century and has only one top half finish in that same time frame. With that brings an increased level of expectation or it won’t be long before tickets become easy to find once again.
Nebraska fans also have a reputation. And it’s not a good one. For years the Devaney Center had a nasty little nickname: "The Library". Often the atmosphere resembled something close to a supermarket on a Tuesday afternoon, a low murmur of conversation with occasional interruptions with announcements from the loudspeaker, than a major conference basketball game. Occasionally that might lull an opponent to sleep, but more often than not, the Huskers home didn’t scare many opponents. Fans routinely left midway through the second half, often with the game still in the balance. Other fans and beat writers alike incredulity levels rose with each passing game. Visiting fans were given fuel for their mocking chants and reporters in town to cover their teams mostly left puzzled as to how a fan could leave a three point game with five minutes left. We’ll likely never know for sure what led so many of these fans to head for the exits early. It didn’t matter when the game was play, just that it was played seemed reason enough.
For decades, season ticket holders for the football team had the option to also have basketball tickets. With the move to the new arena, that is no longer the case. Football and basketball tickets are no longer tied together. Husker hoops diehards hope that will reduce the number of fans streaming for the exits. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, though, with a sold out season, there will be a whole host of new fans or fans that have laid dormant for years and years. Much like the young team on the court, there will be a learning curve for the fans, as well. How are the Husker faithful going to handle that new responsibility? Will they embrace it and be a difference maker during the game? As much as any sport, the crowd can play a pivotal role in the outcome of the game. Or will Nebraska fans sit back and wait for something to happen like they’ve done for the better part of a decade? Time will tell us the answer to that question.
One of the greatest things about being associated with SB Nation is that there is a spirit of compradore amongst the associated blogs. Since I’ve never been around or apart of a great college basketball atmosphere except for a few occasions when I paid a visit to Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, I didn’t think I was the best option to start dispensing wisdom about what makes for a great place to watch a game. So, I reached out to several other writers for various SBN blogs that cover places that all Husker Hoop heads want for PBA to become about what makes for a special atmosphere. One thing that became clear: there’s not one singular way to do it. Each school, each arena, each program and each fan base is different. But as Glenn Logan of Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation writes, "there are two things that are common for all these diverse approaches: A passionate fan base, rabid about basketball, and a team that wins basketball games. You must have both of these before your program will deliver a great experience for, and along with, the fans."
"The product on the court is what will make your games memorable," he continued. "Outside of that, you can do a lot of marketing, hire a coach that will excite people about the future, and really show a commitment to the sport. For a school like Nebraska, that's doubly daunting, because you are already known as a football school, and until your school shows the kind of commitment to basketball that it takes to make a winning program, there is no sleight of hand that will make your environment great. You have to make people WANT to be there, and they don't want to be there to cheer on a losing squad. It's really that simple."
While it can be a difficult proposition to create atmosphere and traditions at a school that has lacked it as greatly as Nebraska has, there is no question that it can significantly impact what happens on the court, and in fact, many times they play off each other. A big three or a massive dunk out of seemingly nowhere or a great defensive play can spark the crowd. The opening tip of a big game can have a similar effect.The Huskers first get their opportunity to do that tonight when they take on Nebraska Kearney at 7:05 in their only public exhibition game of the season. Games count for real beginning Friday evening when the Husker take on Florida Gulf-Coast at 8 pm with the Lady Huskers tipping things off at noon. It’s going to be a terrific day of basketball in Lincoln.
"Even watching a game on TV you can feel the momentum shift if the crowd gets amped up," says Brian Barbor, a writer with Tar Heel Blog. "That is why coaches call timeouts, not so much because they think the game is necessarily getting away from them but because they need to deflate the building a little. The crowd noise building on a succession of positive plays increased the pressure on the visiting team and is very tough to combat."
"There is a symbiotic relationship to some extent with the crowd feeding off the game and on some levels the players can get a boost when the home crowd is really bringing the noise" says Jake Fischer of Mid-Major Madness.
"Students have the biggest role in creating those atmospheres outside of the actually on-court product," he adds. "They're the ones that bring the energy, the excitement and fuel the players' intensity."
"You're only in college for four years and the original purpose of collegiate athletics was to enhance school spirit. Go to the games, get loud, get rowdy and appreciate every moment of sheer passionate sport."
Ah, yes, the students. The Red Zone, as it is called at Nebraska will undoubtedly play a big role in the energy in the building. Josh Adler is a member of the Red Zone Club, an advisory group that has been working with the athletic department in preparing for the upcoming season. "Our job is to set the tone for the rest of the arena and to set up the atmosphere to make PBA an intimidating place to play," Adler said.
"The Red Zone students have always been a loud and rowdy group. Our biggest improvement that we need to make is attendance," he said. "With a sold out student section we feel we will be louder than ever before. We expect to have a massive impact on the game and to energize the crowd."
Julian King of Duke Basketball Report says "The best thing though is to create a festive atmosphere because that builds on itself."
"Find as many people, preferably students, as you can who really like basketball and get them to sit together," King added. "Then get them to be as loud and involved as possible. That's really important. If it's a big party other people will want to hang out and they'll grow to love it too."
In the past, The Red Zone was split into two sections. One on each end of the court which created for a bit of a disjointed effort at times. This year, they’ll be unified. The entire student section will run the length of the court behind the benches with an adjacent section behind what will be the visitors hoop that will extend up the entire lower level. This should bring a more unified student section and the newspaper toss after the Husker score that first basket is going to look really, really cool on TV.
"There are many great atmospheres across the College Basketball landscape for us to draw ideas from," Adler said, "and many are excellent examples of ways we would like to see the Red Zone involved in the game day atmosphere."
"Our standard that we would like to set is to be the most intimidating home court advantage in the nation."
What are some ways you’re going to do that, Josh? "No comment," he says. Guess you’ll have to come check out a game to find out for sure.
But as Logan reminds us, "there is only one real way to get a big-time basketball environment - play big-time basketball. It all starts, and ends, with the team."