CHICAGO — Big shoulders. Big banners.
People ask the difference between the Big Ten basketball tournament and the old shindig in Kansas City. For the answer, look directly up, to the rafters. To the ceiling.
On one side of the United Center, you see the work of Michael Jordan. Six NBA championship banners. Salute. Kneel before them. Be impressed.
On the other side hangs the history of the city’s NHL team, the Blackhawks of the Original Six. The stuff of goose bumps.
From the statues of Jordan and Stan Mikita to the imposing skyline to the east, everything about this venue says it: Big time.
You feel it when the Big Ten tourney sets up camp in Indianapolis, too. This league plays in NBA arenas. It plays before huge, passionate crowds, passionate about their teams, about their hoops.
It’s not Kemper or Sprint, it’s not Oklahoma City, or Dallas — the latter two NBA arenas located in burgs where hoops is a secondary language.
Nebraska now plays basketball in a league that cares about basketball.
The Big Eight tournament always felt like a Kansas party, with special invites to Mizzou, K-State and Iowa State. Jayhawks ruled the building.
Walk around a Big Ten tournament and behold the kaleidoscope. Every color in the league makes an appearance. There’s a little Husker red and Penn State blue. But the other 10 schools are well-represented here. This isn’t about one school. This bash belongs to the entire Big Ten. From Indiana to Iowa, Ohio State to Minnesota, the teams and fans push each other.
If the folks at Nebraska U. are the competitors I think they are, they’re going to want to partake in the fun and not spend every winter in the basement.
This conference might be just the thing to light the flame to Husker Hoops. In the old days, Nebraska was the football school in the Big Eight and that was that. In this league, the football schools like to hoop it up, too.
The timing couldn’t be better. Nebraska has a practice Taj Mahal that is the envy of college hoops, a new downtown arena opening next season, and it looks like the Huskers found a coach. I know I’ve said that before. Tim Miles showed this year he can coach.
But can he have the vision to lead this team through the Big Ten and to the other side? Can his boss, Shawn Eichorst, be that athletic director to change Nebraska’s identity?
And in this league, what exactly would that identity be? What does Miles need to do?
Get some big flat-topped galoots to throw their weight around? Find himself a point guard with sergeant stripes? Practice nothing but defense and rebounding and see if the Huskers can outscore Wisconsin?
I asked around Friday to see if there’s such as thing as a Big Ten formula. Turns out there isn’t, and there is.
“Is there a prototype in the Big Ten?” asked Dan Dakich, the former Indiana player and ESPN analyst. “I don’t think so. Every style works here. Look at Indiana. They have a lot of guys who can play in a variety of roles. Same with Michigan. Michigan State likes to get physical, but they push the ball, too. Iowa is trying to do that.
“I would stay with what Tim wants to do. You can’t get away from what you like to do just because you’re in a different league.”
Matt Davison, radio analyst for the Husker Network: “It starts with the point guard and taking care of the ball. Turnovers are killers in this league. The players in this league are smarter, every possession means more, they’re not as free with the ball as they were in the Big 12.”
Mike DeCourcy, veteran of the Sporting News and the Big Ten Network: “There’s no formula. But you have to have a good coach, and they’ve taken care of that. Timmy is really talented. You can’t just take five guys and win a game against some teams. There are no bad coaches in this league. In some leagues, half or one-third aren’t good. Here, there are no flukes.
“The key in this league is to find guys who will stay four years, accept coaching and are mentally and physically tough. And then build on that. That’s what Tim has to find.”
And Eichorst, who was an assistant A.D. in charge of basketball at Wisconsin: “I don’t think one size fits all. It’s about very solid basketball players, discipline, playing hard. You’ve got to play defense in this league. You’ve got to be mature, and value the ball and make good decisions.”
Notice a theme? Smart. Value the ball and each possession. Discipline. Defense. Mature.
These are the things that give Miles a fighting chance in this league. The Big Eight/12 had always been a talent league; the last several years, it became a one-and-done and NBA lottery league. NU couldn’t compete with that. Those players weren’t coming to Lincoln.
But Nebraska will have a better chance recruiting kids in the Big Ten areas, kids who know the value of the ball and the stocking cap.
“I was on the Dan Dakich radio show in Indianapolis a couple weeks ago,” Miles said, “and he said, ‘Do you know where Nebraska basketball is really big?’ He said northwest Indiana. He said six of Nebraska’s 1,000-point scorers are from northwest Indiana.
“So we got that going for us.”
But there’s a caveat to this plan. The Big Ten isn’t just a bunch of solid gym rats. The league, led by Ohio State and Indiana, has upped the ante in recruiting. There’s greatness everywhere.
So forget the CBI and the other meaningless postseason tournaments. Miles needs to hit the road and find some help.
“Upgrade the talent level,” Miles said when asked what he learned about the Big Ten this year. “We have good players coming back. We need to find more.
“This is a players’ league. Guys in this league know how to play basketball. They’re smart, crafty. The defensive game plans in this league are really good. They don’t give you anything. We just need to get better everywhere. If you have one piece of the puzzle missing here, you get buried. You have to have it all.”
Miles welcomes reinforcements next season who can handle the ball and score: point guards Tai Webster and Deverell Biggs, shooting guards Nathan Hawkins, Nick Fuller and Terran Petteway. Walter Pitchford, a 6-foot-10 transfer from Florida, will have to be a rock inside. Seven-footer Sergei Vucetic looks like a project. NU won’t be big next year, unless Miles finds a late prize.
The next two years of recruiting will be crucial. At least the coach has a new building to open, fans who like him and a boss who believes in him — and the idea of basketball banners at a football school.
“Why not us?” Eichorst said. “A lot of programs up there now started in a similar situation. The Big Ten needs Nebraska to be good in basketball.”
And Nebraska needs to be good in hoops. I’m not sure it’s a league requirement. Right now it’s more like a secret handshake.
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