Omaha Central stakes its claim today as the best Nebraska team of all time.
Central’s rotation includes five Division I-caliber players. But aside from individual talent and athleticism, what makes Central Central? I asked five experts that question Friday and they touched on several points that illustrate why it’s so hard to ground the Eagles.
Central’s strength is rooted in unselfishness, says former Husker Andy Markowski, who will analyze today’s state championships for NET.
From the Josh Jones era to the Akoy Agau era, players have consistently put aside their egos for the betterment of the whole. They understand their system and they commit to it.
That’s a credit to coaching, says Tom Tvrdy, whose Seward girls team won 104 straight games.
Eric Behrens is “a master at corralling and channeling their athleticism into a cohesive unit,” Tvrdy said.
More often than not, Tvrdy said, coaches with that much talent can’t get everyone to buy in. KJ Scott transferred to Central as a junior. Nick Billingsley transferred as a senior. And, like Central’s other starters, both have accepted their roles.
For Doane College coach Jim Weeks, who watched Central’s semifinal win from courtside, the difficulty of beating the Eagles starts with tempo. They always dictate how the game is played.
“They won’t let you play slow,” Weeks said.
If you try to slow down, they trap. They gamble. Get by the initial wave and they have Agau blocking shots at the rim. You must make them pay by making open 3s, Weeks said, not layups.
Trouble is, open shots are a rarity, Kearney coach Scott Steinbrook said. Because of Central’s length and quickness, shooters constantly are worried about a defender in his comfort zone. It’s hard to find a rhythm.
Steinbrook can cite a whole list of characteristics that make Central great. But it comes down to this, he says.
“They have the unique ability to play their best when it means the most. It’s impressive to watch them elevate their level of play.”
Markowski calls it a “Duke-esque quality,” a supreme level of self-belief.
Perhaps Deverell Biggs describes it best. Some teams are happy just to get to the Devaney Center, Biggs said. For Central, the season starts at state.
“Everybody wants to win,” Biggs said, “but we know how to win.”
>> There’s plenty of chatter this weekend about the state tournament potentially switching to a two-site, four-day format. All games could be played at the Pinnacle Bank Arena and the Devaney Center — a huge upgrade from Pershing and Lincoln high schools.
But here’s a bolder step: Let’s go back to four classes, just like the old days. This isn’t football; you don’t need to match an opponent’s enrollment to win a state championship.
From 1960 to ’83, Nebraska employed a four-class system in basketball. Class A had 32 teams, Class B 64. Class C had 128, Class D about 150. When the state switched to six classes, there were about 375 teams.
Now, due to consolidation and co-ops, we’re down to 285. The small classes continue to shrink — D-2 has only 57 teams. You can see the talent dilution on the court.
Yes, a change would mean taking a state tournament berth away from 16 schools — and a banner away from two champions. It would mean a significant revenue hit for the NSAA.
But there are benefits. No more morning games, which are a pain for players and fans. No more high school gyms. Most important, it would raise the bar, making the state tournament more meaningful. No more seasons in which fans get to Friday and wonder, “Are these teams really worthy of a semifinal berth?”
Consider this state tourney schedule, with games each day at 1, 3, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.:
Wednesday: First round of Class B games at Devaney and the first round of Class A games at Pinnacle Bank.
Thursday: First round of Class D games at Devaney and the first round of Class C games at Pinnacle Bank.
Friday: Semifinals for Classes C and D at Devaney and the semifinals for Classes A and B at Pinnacle Bank.
Saturday: Finals for all the classes at Pinnacle Bank.
At the very least, can we agree that next time Omaha Central puts an all-star team on the court, we don’t schedule the Eagles at 9 a.m. on Thursday and Friday?
>> Wahoo may be the only place where tradition casts a longer shadow than it does at Central.
The Warriors won eight state championships between 1988 and ’98. Jonathan Abbott, Wahoo’s leading scorer this year, was born in March 1995. He knows all about the Wahoo dynasty. He’s seen the old videos.
His dentist, Jason Glock, was a senior in ’92. His uncle, Louie Wotipka, was a senior on the ’94 team that won 27 games, a school record.
“We got ’em,” Abbott said after his team moved to 28-0 Friday. “But we’re not finished yet.”
When Abbott needed shooting instruction last summer, he didn’t tap Glock or Wotipka. He received help from another Warrior legend, one of the best 3-point bombers in state history — Mike Hancock.
They started meeting 1-on-1 a few times a week. Hancock put Abbott through shooting workouts. Dribble from half-court and shoot a running 2-footer. Do it again from 5 feet. Then 10 ...
He polished Abbott’s technique. Don’t drop your guide hand, Hancock said.
After districts two weeks ago, they met after practice every day for about an hour. Abbott, who averages 14 points per game, had 30 in Friday’s semifinal, including 12 straight.
How did he and Hancock come together, anyway?
“I’m dating his niece.”
Better not forget her birthday.
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