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FIRST DOWNS AND SECOND GUESSES

Shatel: Given the state of Husker hoops, 1996 NIT title doesn’t seem so bad

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Erick Strickland

Erick Strickland was a key contributor on the Huskers' 1996 NIT championship team.


“We’re No. 65! We’re No. 65!”

The sarcasm leaked from my laptop and flowed directly out of Madison Square Garden and into the city streets on that March 28, 1996, night.

The Nebraska men’s basketball team had just won the National Invitation Tournament. I saw it as quite the consolation prize, an underachievement for arguably the most talented team in Nebraska history.

Erick Strickland. Jaron Boone. Terrance Badgett. Tyronn Lue. Venson Hamilton. Mikki Moore. Andy Markowski. One era of Husker Hoops molded with another, for one season. One unforgettable season.

It was a collision of personalities, expectations and personal agendas.

NU was 15-4 after beating Missouri on Jan. 24.

Then came the collision.

Nine straight losses. The dam officially broke Feb. 3 after a 75-65 loss to Iowa State. I’ll never forget World-Herald beat man Lee Barfknecht and I standing outside the Husker locker room, waiting for coach Danny Nee, who was a little busy.

We could easily hear several players shouting at each other and at Nee, who shouted back. Not words of encouragement.

The family squabble led to the famous “player walk out” two days later, in which the team did not show up for practice. Instead, players marched to the office of Athletic Director Bill Byrne, who immediately told them to get back to practice.

They would, and they would lose six more times. We all thought Nee was going to get fired.

Instead, his team got invited to the NIT — and won it.

There’s probably a book to be done on that era. There’s certainly a lesson or two to be learned.

Me? I used to jokingly call the Devaney Center the “Orchard” for all the “Big Apple” NIT banners hanging from the rafters.

Nebraska could use a few more of those now, huh?

Postseason hoops have been few and far between for NU. Of course, Tim Miles took the Huskers to the NCAAs two years ago. Before that, it was the NIT in 2011.

Twenty years later, Husker Hoops is in a much different place.

There’s still a restlessness around the program. Some of that comes from the program never really establishing an identity, or a standard. There have been three coaches since Nee. A new arena and practice facility. A new conference. Same old results.

And it’s true, the more you fire coaches, the more ready fans are to hit the eject button again.

There’s talk about putting the heat on Miles next season to reach the NCAA tournament. It’s good to have standards. Urgency. All that.

But I don’t know that you can judge this program now by making NCAA tournaments. NU had been to four in a row between 1991-94. This program isn’t that program anymore.

Also, there are 14 teams in the Big Ten. In a given year, the most you can expect the league to send to the NCAAs is seven. That’s half. In a given year, half the league is staying home.

That’s not an excuse. That’s reality. Until you build a program to live in Tom Izzo’s neighborhood, it’s a good idea to find a coach you like and try to make that upper-seven tier as often as you can.

Is Miles that guy? Through four years, he’s been a terrific face for the program. Energetic. He pulls people in toward Husker Hoops. No easy task.

The folks Miles needs to be using his magnet on are big-time recruits, preferably the large variety.

Miles made an NCAA tournament in his second year. That gives him some room, in my book. Yes, that team got hot. But in the Big Ten, that’s how you’re going to make the NCAAs some years. Get on a run and hang on.

For now, I’m judging Miles on his players. Talent. Recruiting. He had a slow start. But look at the roster now: There’s been a noticeable upgrade.

Glynn Watson, Ed Morrow, Michael Jacobson and Jack McVeigh are a nice nucleus of Big Ten players. It’s the best group NU has had in a long time.

That’s a welcome sign that Miles is on the right track. Next year, Anton Gill, a transfer from Louisville, hits the floor. Yes, recruiting transfers is part of the game now, too.

The jury is still out on Miles the recruiter — and his staff, for that matter. A difference-making staff is a must at NU, hard lessons Barry Collier and Doc Sadler learned.

Talent, not necessarily NCAA bids, is where the focus should be with Miles. This program has been so devoid of talent for years. If the players are there, the banners will follow. If not, well, there’s that restlessness.

Twenty years later, that hasn’t changed. But my appreciation of that NIT title? Different story.

» Bud Crawford is a champion of the people. But is there some showman in the Omaha boxer?

Last week, while hyping his Madison Square Garden fight in New York, Crawford shoved opponent Hank Lundy at the press conference. Hard to believe Lundy would actually get under Crawford’s skin. That’s not the first time Bud has heard trash talk.

You wonder if that was for show, to get the New York media buzzing about Bud. I get that. But I hope it doesn’t become part of a campaign to make Crawford a “villain” in order to get bigger fights.

Crawford is a regular guy, a good man, a class act. That in itself should make him a popular draw among sports fans.

Then again, I watched ESPN's “SportsCenter” late Saturday night and it had highlights of a UFC fight, but no mention of Crawford winning at the Garden.

» The Omaha Racers are back!

Well, not exactly. But the atmosphere at UNO men’s basketball games at Baxter Arena sure reminded me of the old Racers games at Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. The action was up and down, and the medium-sized crowd was into every play.

Look down near the court and you’ll even see former Racers owner Steve Idelman as a regular fan.

All of these are good things.

» What’s going on with UNO hockey? The Mavs ran into two of the top teams in college hockey, both playing extremely well. The problem is, UNO was expected to be one of those teams. The Mavs didn’t play badly, but they aren’t at the level of those teams right now. They better put the brakes on, and quick. If they lose out, this weekend in Denver, and next weekend in the conference playoffs, they’ll be staying home this postseason.

» Nobody asked me, but I think the Big East should try to get some games back on ESPN. It would help promote the “new” league by getting on one of the doubleheader nights with the Big 12, Big Ten or ACC. Remember “Big Monday” with the Big East/Big 12? It was must-see TV.

» Jerry Murtaugh’s Nebraska Greats Foundation, which has provided financial assistance to Dave Humm, Larry Florence, Josh Jones and Jim Unger, is going golfing.

The foundation will hold its first golf outing May 23 at Omaha Country Club. The fee is $250 per golfer. For information, go to nebraskagreatsfoundation.org.

» One more and I’m outta here: RIP, George Kennedy. Got his Oscar for one of my all-time favorites, “Cool Hand Luke.” Still glad he smashed the prison guard’s sunglasses.

Contact the writer:

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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