LINCOLN — It's time for a Nebraska basketball player to get the same love Husker fans show other favorites who excel on both sides of the hyphen in “student-athlete.”
Rise and cheer sometime soon for senior forward Brandon Ubel. He's a poor man's Rex Burkhead.
While Burkhead rightly gets heavy attention for boosting the image of NU football with his grace, class, smarts and performance, Ubel has done much the same, only in obscurity.
But his head coach has noticed.
“Brandon is a dream come true to coach,” Tim Miles said. “He's a great kid, a model citizen and a heck of a player.”
Those in the award-winning College of Journalism and Mass Communications have noticed.
“He's one of the favorites among the folks in our college,” said Rick Alloway, associate professor of broadcasting. “He's been a great young man to get to know.”
Most important, Ubel's teammates are well aware of his contributions.
“Rex is exactly who Brandon is like,” junior guard Ray Gallegos said. “Everybody on campus knows Brandon. He's this big friendly guy and a good person to know because he's real smart and he'll help anybody.”
Ubel is hard to miss going across campus at 6-foot-10 with blazing red hair. His smile-and-look-you-in-eye style has earned him mayoral-like status.
Yet he would have ample reason to mope, considering his circumstance.
In basketball, Nebraska is enveloped in a dozen years of darkness, marked by modest results, record attendance lows and no NCAA tournament bids.
Despite some recent changes in facilities, the impact of this institution's long-term acceptance of mediocrity will linger. Ask those trying to recruit around the empty trophy cases. Or check with the in-state prospects who look first to go elsewhere.
Ubel's challenge to stay on task has been complicated by the inexplicable beating he has taken on message boards since his arrival. He isn't LeBron James, and he never said he was.
Yet verbal vandals have hacked at Ubel since his freshman year, somehow ignoring that he played immediately instead of redshirting; he often played out of position due to injuries or recruiting failures; and his statistics suffered because he was overloaded with on-the-floor grunt work to make his team better.
Oh, and did anyone recall that Ubel has carried out orders from two head coaches and 11 assistants in 3Ĺ years?
After all that, he's lucky he can see straight.
Yet Ubel has stayed focused well enough to make academic all-conference in the Big 12 and the Big Ten, and get named to the first team of the Big Ten Network's all-improved team last week. His scoring (13) and rebound (seven) averages have nearly doubled.
Through it all, he holds no bitterness.
“I wouldn't trade any of this for the world,” Ubel said. “I've loved it here, even through all the ups and downs on the court. I love Nebraska.”
That love affair started when the Overland Park, Kan., native — now just one elective shy of graduation — first visited campus.
His older sister already was an NU track athlete, but Ubel wasn't a lock to follow. He had late interest from Stanford, Cal and Marquette, and offers from Wichita State, Drake and Utah State besides Nebraska.
“When I came here for my visit,” Ubel said, “it was one of those deals where you get that feeling that it's the right place for you.
“I can't name just one thing. Sure, the facilities and the academic center catch your attention. But seeing the fans and meeting the people, I fell for the place.”
With just three months to go in his last season, it's time for the fan base to love him back.
Ubel, like past unsung Husker basketballers in the dark period such as Jake Muhleisen, Jason Dourisseau and Lance Jeter, has shown a servant's heart and a leader's mind in setting examples and caring for teammates.
“If there is anything I can do or say to help, that's what I want,” Ubel said. “And that's whether it helps them now or a year from now or three years from now.”
Gallegos isn't sure where he would be in life if Ubel hadn't talked him out of transferring back to Salt Lake City three years ago.
“When I was down, we'd play pickup for so long that we would miss our meals and have to walk for fast food,” Gallegos said. “He invited me to his family's place. He does that for other people, too. He's just an all-around nice guy.”
Ubel's good works and do-it-right motto are evident in his journalism classes, too.
“I've seen him in the building early in the morning after a late-night game, jumping in ready to go to work,” Alloway said. “He is the last person who would ever ask for any special treatment.”
Miles, in his first season, has leaned heavily on Ubel.
“I need his voice,” the coach said. “He's somebody who will provide leadership on the team and reach out through the community and across the state.”
When Nebraska needed a player representative at its first two trips to Big Ten media days, who did it? Ubel.
When NU's Student-Athlete Advisory Council needed to fill an opening, who did it? Ubel.
When the Husker Athletics Fund needed a speaker after a recent ceremony at Pinnacle Bank Arena, who did it? Ubel.
There is no more of a stand-up guy for Nebraska than Ubel. Now it's time for Nebraskans to stand up for him before he says goodbye.
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