It was just over two years ago, March 24, 2012. Tim Miles was introduced as the new head basketball coach at the University of Nebraska. Who was this guy? He wasn't John Groce. He wasn't Ben Howland.
"Have you ever heard of him?"
"No, I've got no clue who he is"
That was the common conversation around the copiers and over text messages among the 6,000 or so Nebraska basketball fans that were paying attention to what was happening with the not-so-prolifc basketeers down on Court St.
And why would anyone know who he was? Nebraska fans had long forsook college basketball that season. No one except a few people in Ralston paid any attention to Colorado State basketball. Half an hour later, he had the state buzzing. Two years later, he had taken Big Ten basketball by storm and this Miles guy had a basketball team that fans have fallen head over heels for.
With his introductory press conference in mind, this is a look back at what was a magical 2013-14 season.
"I was watching TV one day in a hotel room on the road recruiting. Outside the Lines had a kid on there from Duke who did a study on what comes first, fan support or winning? Successful programs, what do they have first? Do they have winning programs and then the fans come and support them, or do they have this rabid fan base that allows for a home-court advantage. They said it was fan support first. It wasn't winning."
The Huskers opened up their shiny new toys. And in this case, it was literally shiny. The glass and metal exterior reflects the high afternoon sun so much that you are advised to wear your sunglasses when driving past on I-180 as you drive in to town. This place is a jewel. Pinnacle Bank Arena was set to open. Everyone figured there would be an uptick in ticket sales. The 2012-13 campaign finished with a bit of excitement as the Huskers knocked off Minnesota to close out the venerable Bob Devaney Sports Center and rushed the court. Then they shoved Purdue off their pedestal in the Big Ten tournament before giving Ohio State everything they could handle.
This team was at least likeable, but nobody saw coming. On May 3rd, PBA ran out of tickets for the season. That's one serious uptick. The fans were buying in. They wanted to be there from Game One. The theory would be put to the test. The fans were there first.
"I promise you this, you give us a chance, Husker fans you give us a chance and we're going to come through for you. We've exceed expectations everywhere we've been and I intend to continue to do the same. I know what we're dealing with; we're dealing with the elite basketball conference in the country right now, the Big Ten."
The fans took up him up on the offer. They gave them a chance. The team exceeded expectations. Boy, did they. It started with a showdown vs. Cinderella. Florida Gulf-Coast, the first team to ever advance to the Sweet 16 as a #15 seed was in town. Dunk City. The place was packed. All the stops, they were pulled. The marching band packed the floor. Tommy Lee (for reasons still yet to be explained) dropped a few beats (I think I'm using those terms correctly...), the lights were bright, the stage was set.
The season wasn't without its speed bumps. The Huskers, talented as they appeared to be, struggled to get all the pieces to fit together for the first 18 games of the season. In four seperate games they fell behind by at least 20 points. Three times by more than 30.
After starting conference play at 1-5, it looked like it was going to be a long season, but then they figured it out. Winning 10 of their last 12 headed into conference play including a stunning upset at #9 Michigan State, their first road win over a top ten team on the road since 1997, was capped off by a game vs. Wisconsin that no one who was there will soon forget. With fourth place and a bye in the Big Ten Tournament on the line it was dubbed #NoSitSunday. The fans were more than willing to oblige and nearly all of them stood for the entire game, most of them yelling as well. The energy in the building propelled the team to capture a season defining win over #9 Wisconsin. Those expectations, yeah, they'd been blown out of the water.
"If you're going to win, you have to win your locker room first. If you don't win the locker room, you're not going to win many games. If those guys in the locker room aren't on board, if they're not bleeding red, if they're not what we're all about, if they don't have a commitment when they're walking through campus and they see their other classmates in college and that kind of thing, if they're not tied into that, if they're not invested, then we have a problem. I want guys that are invested in the University of Nebraska."
"We want to play winning basketball, if that means we're going to run it down the floor, we'll run it down the floor. If that means, we're going to work the shot clock to two, we'll work the shot clock to two."
Things were looking bleak. The team had just knocked off a reeling Ohio State team at home. They should have no trouble with Penn St. right? Sitting at 0-6 in conference play, it appeared the Nittany Lions were ripe for the picking. Notch your first road win, that'd make for two in a row before you head home for two games vs. Minnesota and Indiana, maybe this thing could still be salvaged.
The Huskers led for nearly the entire game, but at the end, Deverell Biggs had a costly turnover and they lost the game in the final moments. Things were coming unraveled. It looked bleak. Shortly before the Minnesota game, it was announced that Biggs would not be at the game. They beat the Gophers. The next day, Biggs was dismissed from the team. Questions persisted, how would this team deal with its second leading scorer at the time? How would this affect the chemistry of the team? With touted freshman Tai Webster struggling, he'd surely take advantage of the opportunity, right? Well, it didn't quite go as expected.
That Minnesota game, the first without Biggs, was the start. There was no more disputing who the team leaders were. It was Petteway's team. Shields and Walter Pitchford would emerge as his wingmen.
They were off. Well, almost... It wasn't quite a smooth transition, they needed a second half come back vs. Indiana and a dose of reality vs. Michigan to finally whip them into shape.
That cold bucket of water in Ann Arbor is widely regarded by those in the program as the moment things changed. Upon returning home from that game, instead of reaming out his players, Miles instead took inventory. Where were they headed? What were they doing? Why were the doing it? That short period of time was the defining moment for this team? What did they want to do? Whatever it takes to win. And for this team, that meant play defense.
In came Benny Parker and David Rivers, two players that had seen limited minutes up to that point, but their contributions were indispensable to the success of the team. Parker became the cult hero. The spark plug off the bench, he came in and made life a nightmare for the other teams point guard. Rivers was a solid defender, but he became one of the teams best rebounders, something this team needed in the worst way. Everyone had their job to do. They started doing it. The clubhouse had been won. And the games followed.
"I want to win an NCAA tournament game. That is my goal, let's do it. We can do it here, there is no doubt about it, and it's a matter of time."
That time is still coming. This team did make it to the NCAA Tournament and threw a wild party in the process. They fell to Baylor, but in the process, the 2013-14 will go down as one of the most satisfying seasons in program history. Miles was quick to remind anyone that would listen that this team was picked to finish last in the conference. They finished fourth.
It is yet to be determined what lies ahead for this team. The pieces appear to be in place for a special run over the next couple of years with a core trio of Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford all still have two years of eligibility remaining. So does Benny Parker. Tai Webster still has three. With other players coming in and some already here that will be added to the mix, the challenge will be in replicating the chemistry this team developed down the stretch. The foundation is in place, however. As we move into the offseason, rosters are filled out and coaching vacancies are filled, there will be more than a few moments that Nebrasketball fans will sit back in their recliners and savor. Finally, after 16 years of waiting, next year has come and gone and the Huskers had a team worth paying attention to. Hope has returned and it's no longer wishful thinking that this team can compete. Next year it will be the expectation.