Husker fans everywhere are pretty excited about basketball these days. And for good reason: Nebraska has played itself into contention for an NCAA men's basketball tournament berth. Just look at the last couple of weeks: a huge road upset of Michigan State, then back-to-back thumpings of Penn State and Purdue at home. But the NCAA tournament berth isn't anywhere near a lock at this point with four games left in the season; they may have to win all four of them to get there.
But this isn't to talk about whether Nebraska can win these four, but rather to take a look down the road. In the grand scheme of things, just getting into tournament speculation is a sign of improvement...but that's all it is. Improvement. We're not anywhere near the goal at this point. It's a good foundation: a team that was picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten has a good chance of finishing in the upper half of the conference standings. But upper half isn't the goal; contending to win the conference title is. Being on the bubble of the NCAA tournament isn't the goal, the goal is to be wondering what seed Nebraska will be at this point of the season.
So while we should be ecstatic over the progress of the basketball program, we shouldn't fret if they come up short. My first concern is that expectations have now been raised to the point that an NIT berth would be viewed as a disappointment. It shouldn't be in 2014. It's a sign of progress. In fact, some people think that it might be better for Nebraska to play in the NIT (and play longer) than it is to get into the dance. I don't subscribe to that notion. Ride this rocket as far as it can go. Worry about next season after this one is over.
Needless to say, the future is looking very bright for Nebraska basketball. Those sophomores making plays in 2013-14 will be more experienced in 2014-15. Normally, I'd say the fan support will be even better next season after this run, but Nebraska's already selling out the Pinnacle Bank Arena this year. Nobody is giving up their tickets, except in cases of moving or death. (And I suspect a few tickets will be somehow be retained despite that!)
This basketball season is bringing back the enthusiasm levels of the early and middle 1990's. Nebraska basketball was THE thing in the winter time in this state back then; the Devaney Center was sold out in the days of Eric Piatkowski and Erick Strickland. They twice played for the Big Eight title, winning it in 1994. I know, because I was there for quite a few games back in those days. Those weekend conference games were usually sold out early in the season, so you had to make plans early to be able to catch a Nebraska basketball game.
Danny Nee lost control of the program a few years later; his players walked out on practice once, and discipline went out the window. Barry Collier brought discipline back, but had a poor eye for talent. Doc Sadler was the coach everybody wanted to win, but bureaucratic snafus in the athletic department and in the registrar's office kept his best recruits off the team. All the while, Nebraska basketball wallowed in mediocrity. The fan base eroded. Many simply decided to stay home. Others headed to Omaha, where the Creighton Bluejays were winning Missouri Valley titles on a regular basis.
That led to a debate last week as to whether Omaha will support Nebraska basketball. I believe it can, and likely will. 20 years ago, Creighton basketball was in shambles. Many nights, they probably couldn't fill a high school gymnasium - mostly because the team probably couldn't beat some high school teams. When Nebraska came to play Creighton at the old Civic Auditorium, the crowd was dominated by fans wearing red. It was a "Hus-Ker Home Game" right across the street from Creighton's campus.
Would many Creighton fans jump on the Nebrasketball bandwagon? Not many I suspect. There certainly are a few fans of both programs who'll support both, and some "Jayskers" might switch back. The majority won't as long as Creighton basketball continues to enjoy the success they had in recent years; they've built their fan base up, and it won't disappear that fast. But still...
1) Creighton is always going to be ahead of Nebraska IN OMAHA. Why? Because we live here. Not there. Location matters.— Dave Sund (@davesund) February 17, 2014
Nebraska deserves credit for yesterday's upset, but get the **** out of here with that nonsense about Creighton losing Omaha to the Huskers.— Matthew DeMarinis (@mjdemarinis) February 17, 2014
That I wouldn't bet on. Omaha is still part of the state of Nebraska, and believe me, I know far more Omahans who DESPISE Creighton than I know actual Bluejay fans. You've heard the jokes about sweater vests and fans hanging out at the Bud Bar in the concourse, being seen instead of watching the game...and the stereotype has a foundation in reality. It doesn't matter so much whether Creighton fans abandon their program. (They probably won't, FWIW. At least not anytime soon.)
It's more that the Husker fans will come out of the woodwork. You know those Husker fans...the ones that jam I-80 on football Saturdays? Omaha is a metropolitan area of nearly 900,000 fans; you don't think there aren't Nebraska fans in town? Heck, in terms of alumni, Creighton ranks no better than third in Omaha behind Nebraska-Omaha.
Just look at what happens when Nebraska and Creighton play baseball in Omaha. It's a definite pro-Nebraska crowd each and every time. Creighton basketball fans may continue to sell out the CenturyLink Center, but that doesn't mean that Creighton has some sort of birthright to the affections of the Omaha area. Nebraska fans support just about everything Big Red - especially when they are winning. Creighton fans have simply mistaken the silence and malaise surrounding Nebrasketball as some sort of proof that Omaha Husker basketball fans don't exist.
Is Nebrasketball emerging from dormancy? It might be a little soon to say for sure, but the trend looks awfully promising.