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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
March 9, 2009

They did it the hard way, but they got it done. The Nebraska men’s basketball team has finished at .500 in Big 12 Conference play for the first time in 10 years. It can’t be called a breakthrough moment, but regardless of what happens in the postseason, it’s a nice step in the right direction for coach Doc Sadler, who did it while using one of the shortest lineups in America.

It looked like the Cornhuskers (18-11, 8-8 Big 12) had squandered their best chance to accomplish the feat. After beating Texas on Feb. 7, NU could have hit .500 by simply winning out at home, but when the Huskers collapsed in the final minutes against Texas A&M on Feb. 24 at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, it forced them to win their third conference road game of the season to make up the difference. To their credit, they did, thanks to an 18-point effort from freshman Toney McCray and 10 consecutive made free throws at the end of the game.

Nebraska’s 66-62 over Baylor Saturday puts the Huskers within reach of a second consecutive 20-win season, something else that hasn’t happened since Danny Nee’s teams did it a decade ago. Not spectacular, but not bad.

Attendance held steady at Husker games this year despite the sharp downturn in the economy. The average actual attendance in NU’s eight home conference games was 10,343, which was up slightly over the previous season. Again, not bad, but it proves there’s no rush to build a new arena in the Haymarket district. First, build the proposed practice facility at the Devaney Center.

Sadler, in his third season at Nebraska, will need to accomplish larger goals in the next few seasons to keep the natives happy and take the Devaney Center to capacity (13,595) on a regular basis. He will need to get a few more Big 12-caliber players. It would be great to see 6-foot-11 redshirt freshmen Brian Diaz and Christopher Niemann on the floor for Nebraska next winter, but the Huskers also need a couple of space-eating 6-foot-8 forwards who can help even things up on the boards.

The last time NU went .500 in conference play, Venson Hamilton was named the Big 12 player of the year. Hamilton and Tyronn Lue (1998) are the only Huskers ever to make first-team men’s All-Big 12. No surprise here: it will take more good players to achieve better results. To move up farther in the conference ranks, Sadler will have to improve his recruiting outcomes.

I say outcomes, because Sadler already has done a better job recruiting than he will ultimately get credit for. It’s the fault of the NCAA clearinghouse and the NU academic compliance department that Roburt Sallie is playing for Memphis instead of the Huskers. Sallie has averaged about five points and 13 minutes per game for Memphis, and ranks second on the team with 37 three-point goals. Sallie could have helped the Huskers this season and possibly would have been a major factor in 2009-10. But we’ll never know; Sallie wanted to play for the Big Red but due to administrative foul-ups, never made it onto the court in Lincoln.

For now, the best probable scenario for the Cornhuskers is to beat Baylor for the second time in five days in the Big 12 Tournament opener and the next week, host and win a first-round NIT game. Then look ahead to next season, when McCray and two other promising freshmen (Brandon Richardson and Alonzo Edwards), plus sophomore Cookie Miller and junior Ryan Anderson all return. It would be a bonus if Eshuante Bear Jones, a 6-4 shooting guard, proves he can overcome a couple of injuries and make a difference for the Huskers.

Anyone ready to dream? If Nebraska is to ever approach what Oklahoma and Texas have done in the Big 12 and become a major factor in both football and basketball, the coming season is a pivotal one. The Husker football team got back to the nine-win plateau in Bo Pelini’s first season, and expectations will be higher from now on.

What about Sadler and Cornhusker basketball? Twenty-win seasons should be the minimum standard from here on out. Husker fans should expect finishing above .500 in Big 12 play or making the tournament semifinals every year, and yes – in 2010, Doc needs to take his team to the Big Dance.

Why not? The Husker wrestling team broke through and won a conference title last week by tying perennial powerhouse Iowa State for first place in the Big 12 meet at Lincoln. The Cyclones have 10 nationally-ranked wrestlers, but Mark Manning’s Huskers won four individual titles to claim their first conference championship since taking the Big Eight meet 1995.

The success can – and should – spread to men’s basketball. It can be done. Nebraska is not going to eclipse Kansas as the main basketball power in the northern plains, but the Huskers have to get back to tormenting the Jayhawks in the Devaney Center, like they used to in the 1980s and 90s. And an occasional Big 12 Tournament title should definitely be part of the discussion.

It won’t be easy for the Huskers to get to that level. But Nebraskans shouldn’t expect anything less.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com.

 
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