Derek Johnson Muses

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Tag Archives: College Basketball

Beating A Want-to-Be Rival was Fitting Way to Close Out the Devaney

A note on these post: as I announced on Twitter this past Monday, I will now be contributing to the website HuskerMax.com. It’s been a bit of a drought between the end of Husker Locker and joining Husker Max, and I’m grateful to David Max and Joe Hudson for the opportunity.

I’ve decided to continue to post Husker content here, because I can use my photos here. But I would appreciate it if all of you here click over and read my work on Husker Max, as I am paid by pageviews for my work on that site. Thanks to all for continued readership and support.

Tim Miles watches over his team.

Tim Miles watches over his team.

Last Saturday, I went to the Nebraska-Iowa game at the Devaney Center on a bit of a whim. It was the third Nebraska basketball game I’ve been to this year, and in all cases, I have wanted to care about going to Nebraska basketball more than I actually wanted to go to the games themselves. And even after the game, I felt like I didn’t learn anything towards whether or not Tim Miles will be the right coach long-term, only that he’ll have one nice conference win on his resume for next year.

Fittingly, the opponent was a team that I wanted cared more about beating than I actually did care. I want to rout against the Iowa Hawkeyes, want them to be Nebraska’s blood rival. But, for whatever reason, they haven’t seemed to be that, in football or otherwise, maybe because beating them has come easy. When I stopped for a quick lunch at Runza, there were numerous Iowa fans there, and as I made my way into the arena, the generous number of black-and-gold clad fans made me upset. But given the product that Nebraska’s put on the court of the last year, it wasn’t like I had a right to be mad at my fellow fans.

There were plenty of Iowa fans up in the rafters and throughout the arena, although not close to the Nebraska-at-Northwestern ratio in football this past year. But it was embarrassing in terms of how much noise was made in the first half. As a whole, it was nowhere close to the sellout it was said to be with were blocks of empty cushioned seats across the arena, the apathy the Bob has become known for. Given the abrupt change in date from Thursday to Saturday, there were bound to be some no-shows.

In typical Devaney Center fashion, I didn’t pay attention early in the game. It was obvious Iowa’s rooster, while not vastly superior, was better. All of their players were thicker, and were looking to step out and shoot. Nebraska’s roster is full of tightly muscled guys who wish to do nothing more than cut to the basket, except none of them are good enough to do it consistently. While Nebraska got behind by the number of free throws they missed, I worked on my to-do list for the upcoming week and took a few pictures. With Iowa leading by 18 at halftime, I went out to the concourse, sat writing in a corner, and didn’t realize that the second half started until they were two minutes in.

I went back to my seat, wondering when Husker fans would start exiting the building. (Answer: the first did so around the ten minute mark). Eventually, the Huskers made a run and got the game back to about ten points, and I thought, Okay, this will be a nice memory of the last time the Bob kind of rocked.

Except that Miles’ crew didn’t stop with just getting the game back to about ten. They got it to seven, and at that point, people started getting out of their seats when Iowa brought the ball to the other end of the court on offense. As the duel carried on, I never expected Nebraska to come back, but I didn’t think that they were not able to come back either. Turns out, they got the better of Iowa, and the nothing-but-net three ball to give Nebraska was a fitting great moment.

I grew up when Nebrasketball was a viable team every year. Not great, but at least they were making the postseason every year in the 1990’s and had shots at the NCAA’s. Success in college basketball at Nebraska wouldn’t be as meaningful as the football success, but given how college basketball has been watered down, it is success that is seen in a different light. Leaving the Bob last Saturday with the silenced Iowa fans, it was nice moment, but it will be a while until any Nebraska fans know if it was the start of anything. I’m not even going to judge how good of a coach Miles is off this year, because of his history suggests he takes more overlooked, great plains players. But early signs suggest it’s not a disaster.

As far as the rivalry with Iowa, I don’t know if it’s going to get chippy just because some Iowa fans from Omaha got disappointed for driving an hour to see their team loose on

Gallegos before attempted the free throw to put Nebraska up for. Curb your enthusiasm, please.

Gallegos before attempted the free throw to put Nebraska up for. Curb your enthusiasm, please.

the road on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, Nebraska’s dominating Iowa in all sports, but I think Nebraska fans assumed this. (As someone who occasionally has to stand Des Moines sports radio, I know whose standards are higher.) I don’t know what’s going to have to change to make this a better rivalry or make me care more about it, but then again, maybe nothing needs to change. Maybe it just needs to give us final minutes like on Saturday.

With ten minutes to go, I moved down to some of the cushioned seats that were a few rows up from the exits. Even with the late game drama, there were still fans who made their way to the exits right after Dylan Talley made the go-ahead three, and left as soon as Ray Gallegos made the free-throw to put them up four with 2.3 seconds to go. I hope that tradition of leaving early ends with the move to Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Shrinking the NCAA Basketball Tournament

College basketball isn’t something I care about deeply, partly because the college basketball program I grew up following (Nebraska) isn’t very good. I like March Madness, although I don’t make a point to fill out a bracket every year. I don’t write this post in bad will, but I assert a common point: the quality of college basketball is not as great as it was fifteen to twenty years ago because of how quickly stars bolt to the NBA. That’s not the fault of the schools that care about basketball: Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina are always interesting, and put out great shows on game day. But March Madness has diminished, and I have unconventional solution.

Cut the NCAA Tournament to 32 teams.

Such a solution would go against the nature of college basketball, a sport whose pundits want to make the selection committee cry because of the last five teams left out of the Tournament, most of which haven’t beaten a good team on the road or scheduled hard enough. College basketball’s inclusive mentality (the polar opposite of football) hasn’t help the sport gain more public support, and if anything, the tournament is going to get bigger rather than smaller. But let me make a case for it.

Play a 32-team NCAA Tournament over two weekends, keeping the Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday and Wednesday-Friday-Sunday format that used now with the First Four. The Final Four will be the next weekend. Around this tournament, have a bunch of smaller, consolation, 8-team tournaments that wrap up by the Sunday/Monday/Tuesday that the NCAA Elite Eight wraps up. These 8-team tournaments can be considered the “minor bowls” of the college basketball postseason, and pod seeding can keep teams closer to home. The Final Four can be played in the same manner it always is.

Benefits: More drama in late regular season games. This is the most obvious reason to reduce the NCAA Tournament. Yes, there is currently drama among the last teams in, but the debate is always about who is better, the ninth team in the ACC or the seventh team in the Big 12. Reducing the tournament would make a February matchup between the second and third teams in a particular conference all the more meaningful, as the looser likely would be out.

:Eliminate Automatic Bids and Get a Better Field. There would have to be a new selection process, and no disrespect to Missouri Valley Champ or the A-10 Winner, but you more often than not have no shot to win the Tournament. Guarantee that the Tournament will include a certain number of conference champs (20, 22), and leave up to the schools to play a tough enough schedule.

:The Lesser “Bowl Game” Tournament Would Direct Agreements with Conferences,
which would lead to the conference and teams getting more money directly. And unlike the bowl system, cold weather cities wouldn’t be excluded, so you could have tournaments in Chicago, New York, and Boston.

:Lesser College Teams get More Chances to Improve. Remember that streak of NIT winners reaching the NCAA’s the next year? All those games help teams get better. A lot of teams in the middle who exit the Tournament in the first round loose an opportunity to get better. With 8-team tournaments, college basketball teams have the opportunity to win a tournament and go into the off-season with momentum for the next year, as their counterparts in football do.

:Making the Tournament Mean More. The great programs won’t celebrate appearance, but when Iowa or Pitt hang banner for making the tournament, they will represent special teams. And all the teams who are annually good can get in.

Biggest Unknown: How will the Lesser Tournaments Fair? Will NC State fans care about winning the Capitol One Tournament in Orlando? Will Iowa State fans head to Chicago to watch the Cyclones play the MAC Champ? What would be really telling is if Kansas fans would drive to Omaha or Oklahoma City after a disappointing year.

Biggest Myth: Coaches will have Less Job Security. For the record, college football coaches have much less security than college football coaches, save for a handful of basketball first jobs, because of the money in football. If anything, winning one of the “Bowl Tournaments” will do more to help a coaches image than just going out in the first round of the NCAAs or in the third round of the NIT. Keeping your job will still come down to recruiting and filling your arena.

This formula isn’t perfect, and yes, the great 5/12 upsets will be gone from the NCAA’s. But the Tournament is expanding itself into oblivion, because college basketball is nothing but a good ‘ole boys network that will put routine over what’s best for the sport any day. This system increases the value of the regular season, the urgency of the postseason tournament, and keeps more teams involved longer. It won’t happy, but I’d love to see it

Filibuster: Bo Ryan Reacts to Jarrod Uthoff’s Request for a Divorce

When I got out of the shower this morning, I heard some old geezer whining on ESPN Radio with Mike and Mike, and when I heard Mike Greenberg ask him to stay on through a break, I  assumed it was Bo Ryan, the Wisconsin basketball coach who was not allowing Jarrod Uthoff, a true freshman who redshirted this past season, to transfer. What I couldn’t understand is why Ryan would call up in the middle of a radio show he was being criticized on and offer up additional fodder. (Mike and Mike Interview.)

While Ryan clearly made his situation much worse, I was reminded of Darnell Autry wanting to leave Northwestern prior to the Wildcats’ miracle run to the Rose Bowl in 1995, a story that I read in Gary Barnett’s book High Hopes over ten years ago. Autry was even visiting Arizona State when Barnett called then-Sun Devils coach Bruce Synder and told him that Autry wouldn’t be given a release. The memory of that story struck me, so I serached for it and found a LA Times article (Link) from before the ’96 Rose Bowl about Autry’s literally playing Hamlet in the 1995 off-season. The difference between that situation and the Ryan/Uthoff was that, one, Autry’s debate stayed private, and two, we are listening to Ryan discuss the situation mid-divorce.

To be fair, Ryan should be angry at this point. Uthoff told him he was leaving while Ryan on vacation, and, with all that Wisconsin has invested in Uthoff’s development, Ryan has a right to expect a conversation with him. In many ways, Bo Ryan is like a spouse who has been asked for a divorce out of the blue; maybe didn’t even realize that Uthoff didn’t like it at Wisconsin. So he feels betrayed, but going on a popular national radio isn’t exactly keeping it “in house”.

The Divorcing Parties

But Ryan convinced Uthoff to come to Wisconsin. In his book A March to Madness, John Feinstein chronicled how Mike Krzyzewski did it: he flew back with each recruit after their on-campus visit to make sure they were the kind of player who fit in at Duke, a private, exclusive school which every urban high school basketball player might not be comfortable at. As much as Bo Ryan has to go out to seal Wisconsin, it’s no good if it is to someone who doesn’t want it. Granted, Uthoff may not have realized he didn’t want until he got to Wisconsin, but still, Ryan has to read every recruit and ask himself, will this guy gel on campus?

As for the transfer process itself, it needs to have some restrictions on it. Right now, Garrett Gilbert is taking a whooping 27 credit hours (nine more than I ever took a semester) to graduate from Texas and play this fall at SMU. College basketball is frustrating enough with its one-and-done, and now transfers? In my opinion, Doc Sadler was fired at Nebraska because players transferring (and other reasons here stated), and it’s always easier to keep an old customer than to recruit a new one. Ryan said that other NCAA coaches were supporting him in his efforts to restrict Uthoff’s transfer, and of course they would. Likely most have been in a similar situation, knowing that if the loose a good player already in the program, it could be big trouble

But where Ryan becomes petty is when he blocks Uthoff from transferring to Iowa State, a school that’s isn’t going to be playing Wisconsin in the next couple of years (and where a former Wisconsin Deputy Athletic Director, Jamie Pollard, serves as AD). When Ryan says, you can’t go to Iowa State, he’s basically saying, I’m so upset at you, I’m not even going to let you play in your home state. I’m making this personal.

This is the classic divide between older people and younger people. Hey, I’m the first to admit, young people can be cocky and brash to their elders, and I have been. But young people also have more options in this society then their elders did fifty years ago, and young people know their worth these days. They won’t put up with cranky old guys who are always whining about how much better stuff was forty years ago. The old guys may not like it, but look at Mark Zuckerburg-the guy had a great idea and drive, and he absolutely earned every penny of it. If they had the options we do now, who’s to say they wouldn’t have used all of them? (Being a young man in an old man’s church)

Then there’s the desperation of the rural northern program. While Madison is a great city, there aren’t a plethora of great basketball players who want to play there in the winter. Tom Izzo was willing to consider the Cleveland Cavaliers job because he was frustrated that, after six Final Fours and a National Title, he still had a hard time convincing top recruits to come to the alma mater of Magic Johnson in central Michigan. Consider how it must be for Ryan.

But what I come back to is the point in the Mike and Mike interview where Ryan ended up playing his own defense attorney, trying to muddle the issue after he couldn’t defend himself with the facts. After Mike Golic asked him when the list of schools Uthoff could transfer to was so restrictive, Ryan went on about how it is when a team practices together every day and how Greenberg couldn’t understand because he didn’t play the game. Just what happens in a messy divorce.

Tim Miles: At Least He Looks the Part

Saturday I awoke to see one of my Facebook friends had already bemoaned another stint of Nebrasketball irrelevance because of the hiring of Tim Miles as Nebraska’s men’s basketball coach. While he’s not a wow-hire, Miles has  two qualities that give a chance to succeed at Nebraska: one, he has a recruiter/spokesman’s personality, and two, he’ll recruit and sign Nebraska high school players.

To the first point, Doc Sadler didn’t work as an AQ-conference coach was because he was from the Bobby Knight-John Thompson red-faced -yelling sschool. Great players didn’t want to play for him, and the players who did come to Nebraska didn’t stay here very long. Miles is a young, bright media face who tweets during halftime. While he might not be able to sign a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, Miles should give Nebraska a positive voice that isn’t hoarse from screaming and wears on players like John Gruden’s did.

Osborne with his new protege.

To the second point, the fact that Miles had four Nebraska natives on his current CSU team  must have been impressive to Osborne, maybe more so than it should have been. Miles is a South Dakota native who spent most of his career coaching in the Dakotas and Minnesota. While Nebraska doesn’t produce a lot of D-I players, keeping the few will do go a long in endearing Miles to the Nebraska fans. Look at this way: if you sign the T.J. Pughs and Wes Eikmeier of rural Nebraska instead of letting them go to Iowa State or Kansas, then at least Nebraska fans will come and support them. Barry Collier had worse record at Nebraska than Doc Sadler did, but was kept after his sixth year while Sadler was fired. The reason: Collier recruited a bunch of local players his first year at Nebraska, endearing him to the locals. If you’re going to serve a bad basketball product, at least buy it locally.

But Nebraska’s inability to hire a great basketball coach stems from the fact that there’s no urgency to win in college basketball, even at major programs. Look at Maryland and Missouri, the two best jobs that opened last year. Missouri hired a coach had been to the NCAA Tournament once and hadn’t won sixty percent of his games at Miami (Frank Haith). Maryland, in a basketball-first league, hired a coach who had been to the Sweet Sixteen once at a mid-major (Mark Turgeon). Given Nebraska’s lack of interest in basketball for the last twelve years, Miles may be the best hire they can get. Even coaching at the school where a long-time Osborne aid is the football coach, Ohio coach John Groce may have his sights set on a bigger job, like Illinois.

In the video below, Miles talks a lot about something that many Nebraska beat writers have been pointing out about Nebraska basketball: raising the standards of a program. Colorado State had finished no better than sixth in the Mountain West the previous seven year before Miles arrived at CSU. Miles had just two scholarship players on his first team but improved every year. At North Dakota State, Miles upset both Wisconsin and Marquette after the school jumped to Division I, and Miles’ players continued to win after their coach left. Maybe Nebraska has found a coach who’s peaking; either way, it’s a better resume than Sadler had when he came to Nebraska (two years, one NCAA bid, one NIT bid, with Billy Gillispie’s players), and everyone supposedly loved him.

I’m not going to say that I’m uber-thrilled with Miles’ hiring at Nebraska, but I am going to watch his introduction today with some optimism. As long as he can recruit local players and there aren’t too many empty seats at Pinnacle Bank areana(or worse, Creighton fans), it will justify a six year tenure, which is what Osborne is going to give a coach if he makes the postseason by year three. When Sadler was named the Nebraska men’s basketball coach, he brought a combative bravado that wore thin over time. Miles looks like a long-term, positive builder, which is exactly what Nebraska needs.

(More Husker Posts)

Update: In his introductory presser, I thought Miles came across very well as the fresh-faced CEO that Nebraska basketball needs. He talked very postively about creating buzz within the fanbase, exactly what Nebrasketball needs to succeed (and fill the new arena.) I had forgotten the North Dakota State connection with Craig Bohl that undoubtedly helped him land the job.

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem very eager to talk about recruiting Nebraska when he was asked about recruiting, instead speaking of the Big 10 and old Big 12 north footprint. Hopefully, he will maintain his old connections and sign local prospects, but I wish someone would have asked him about the Nebraskans he had at CSU.

One last carp: why in the world did we have to hear so much about Doc Sadler? Clearly, everyone cares about him more now that he is gone than when his teams took the court.

Doc Sadler’s Sad Goodbye Reflects the Sad Face of Nebrasketball

When I saw that Tom Osborne allowed Doc Sadler speak to the media after the former had fired the latter, I couldn’t believe it. I understand Illinois letting Bruce Weber speak after he was fired, but Weber delivered a national title game appearance to the Illini. The terminated Sadler, whose never got a team to the NCAA tournament, spoke for a teary four minutes, claimed he didn’t see his firing coming (like most people who get fired), and no one had any questions for him, likely because Nebraska could have shuttled him out the back door. They had, after all, not allowed Mike Anderson to speak to the media, after he was broken off after nine seasons, five postseason appearances, and a CWS appearance in 2005, a much better record than Sadler. Guess we know which sport Osborne thinks is more important.

I realized a year or two ago, Sadler looked like the exact kind of mistake that a football school would make on a basketball head coach. His rah-rah personality, reminiscent of the late great Bob Devaney and current Husker football coach Bo Pelini, isn’t a great sell to premium recruits. Yes, it’s reminiscent of Bob Knight, but over time (and ESPN exposure) he didn’t get the best recruits. (Ironically, Texas Tech, the last school Knight coached at, was interested in hiring Sadler last year.) Sadler always had a player or two transfer after every year, and it makes you wonder if his hot-head style wore players out the way Jon Gruden’s did. Sadler’s defensive-style was another reason that he fooled Nebraska for six years. A defense-first approach appeals to a football mecca like Nebraska, but at some point, a coach has to recruit scorers, and Sadler didn’t do that.

Then there’s Osborne’s role in keeping Sadler on. Osborne said he was embarrassed by Sadler’s low guaranteed money, but why did wait until three and a half years after becoming athletic director to address it? While I understand Osborne’s motivation, if he felt he had to give Sadler the extra money to succeed, he should have fired him last March, after Wichita State had run Sadler’s team out of the gym in the NIT. He should have asked himself, can I still keep this coach if we have a terrible year next year? And with the conference change, there was no guarantee that Nebraska could keep pace in the stacked Big 10. In the end, one wonders if Osborne, with the midset of a former coach, gave one chance too many to Sadler.

Think Nebraska looks bad for keeping Sadler? Kansas State kept Jim Woolridge for six years, and he finished with a record of 83-90 in 2006. There’s no urgency to win in college basketball, because football is what carries the athletic department The reason Osborne gave Sadler a bigger buyout than Bo Pelini (really) rather than break him off last spring was that he could. He’s not the football coach. At least right now, Osborne and Mark Boehm are saying the right things, that they will now spend $1.6 to $1.7 million a year on a basketball coach (Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Michigan’s John Beilein both make $1.6), so at least there’s a chance Nebraska can land a good coach, although Shaka Smart turned an alleged $2 million a year from N.C. State last year, so don’t hold your breath on him.

But back to Sadler, who spoke to the media in tears on Friday. I felt somewhat sorry for him, although not because he lost his job. In spite of Nebraska’s poor basketball facilities, Sadler couldn’t get out of his own way. And of course his buyout automatically suspends sympathy. I feel sorry for him because someone who has failed so publicly shouldn’t be trotted out there to wheeze to the media like that. That might be what’s really wrong with Nebrasketball.

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