This is a column about basketball. Yes, college hoops. Sure, it's Oct. 3. But practice started last week, in September.
So actually, this is late.
This is about the new pizza joint across from the new arena in Lincoln. This is about Bill Raftery finding his way to Omaha in October for Creighton practice and then dinner. So, essentially, it's about food.
It's about the earliest opening day ever for men's college basketball. The NCAA moved it up this season, in the name of spacing out practices and giving the players time to breathe. Some coaches like it, some don't.
For local hoop heads, the move is right on time.
If there were ever a season you wanted to start early, this is it.
|TOM SHATEL ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the daily conversation on the Tom Shatel Facebook page.|
Nebraska's new building. Creighton's new league. New toys for everyone. Merry Christmas in October.
There have been NCAA tournament teams and conference tourney titles in these rafters. But this will be a basketball season like no other around here. Basketball games will be big events. In Creighton's case, bigger events.
Greg McDermott and Tim Miles don't look different. The uniforms haven't changed. But we'll look at these men and their programs in a whole new light. New expectations. New hopes. New dreams. Starting now.
On Oct. 3.
Jim Boeheim. Jim Calhoun. John Thompson. Lou Carnesecca. Greg McDermott.
Mac is a Big East coach now. Again, he doesn't look different. He doesn't wear a towel over his shoulder now. Doesn't speak like he's out of the movie “The Departed.” There aren't Big East logos pasted all over the walls of the CU basketball hallways.
“I don't feel any different than I did before,” McDermott said.
And yet the Big East is here. It's early Wednesday afternoon, before practice, and McDermott tells an assistant to let him know when Raftery arrives.
“He's coming to practice,” McDermott said. “Then we're going out to dinner. Going to take him to the Drover.”
Perfect. Old-school Omaha for an old-school hoops guy.
|BLUEJAYS TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Bluejays Today Facebook page.|
The big-time likes of Raftery, now the Big East analyst for Fox Sports, never came to town when the Jays lived in the Valley.
Mac says it's exciting, yes, but he's trying to keep it cool. There's enough buzz all around him. Creighton fans are counting the days until Marquette shows up on New Year's Eve. The idea of the Big East teams coming to the CenturyLink Center is sinking in quickly.
But the CU coaches aren't poring over films of Big East games or scouting personnel or matchups. Not quite like that.
“It's exciting,” McDermott said. “It's challenging. But we're not really looking at (the Big East) yet. We're more concerned about us. We've had success in the past against BCS teams doing what we do. We'll just have to do it a little better.”
Not that they aren't thinking Big East. John Cahill, the Big East's coordinator of officials, will visit CU next week. On top of Mac's list is to ask what style of play the officials will encourage.
“The Big East is known to be a smash-mouth league,” McDermott said. “That's not in our favor.”
That's for January. For now, McDermott is like every other coach, trying to negotiate the NCAA's new practice calendar, which allows 42 days to get the normal 30 days of practice in. The Jays practiced on Wednesday. Then they'll take a week off.
McDermott says he's not a big fan of it, because the season is long enough already. Summer hoops now blends into late September. It could mean fatigue or burnout by late January. Then again, won't there be too much excitement this year to get burned out?
“You can be excited. That doesn't mean your body won't be tired,” McDermott said. “We'll make sure they get enough rest. There's a long road ahead.”
I met Miles for lunch on Tuesday. Miles is a pizza guy. The natural place to go: the new Mellow Mushroom pizza place, right at the doorstep of the Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The pizza was almost as good as the view, which is outstanding. The new Haymarket district crawls right up to the arena, and when all of the businesses and bars and eateries have filled in, it will be a happening. A hoops happening.
It will be similar to the CenturyLink Center atmosphere in Omaha, and yet different, because the majority of spots in the Haymarket will be closer to the arena than in Omaha. It doesn't take much to see that basketball is about to become a big event in Lincoln.
“It reminds me of downtown Louisville, with the Yum! Center,” Miles says. “They have a restaurant and lounge in the (Yum! Center) that is like its own universe. If you listen to Louisville fans, they say there's 20,000 fans per game, and 11,000 after halftime because they're in the restaurant hanging out.
“What I see is something similar here. You will see people hanging out over here, and walking to the game, then coming back later. It's an amazing setup. It's a true connection to the city. The arena and Haymarket and city are all linked together.”
Miles walks over to a window and points to an area of bars across the street, surrounding an open courtyard and a huge TV screen on the side of a building. He's selling the experience, the potential of a hoops event, as if I'm a recruit.
Practice has started, but we're talking about the arena and the district. This is how it will be this year. Ray Gallegos and Shavon Shields are the big names, but the headliner and star of the show this season is the new arena and its sidekick, the Haymarket.
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
This will be the storyline. Nebraska may be improved, and it may be hard to tell in the Big Ten. But the hoops won't necessarily be the story unless it's how the arena and the crowd inspired the lads to glory.
And that's fine with Miles, because if people are talking about Pinnacle Bank Arena, they're talking about Husker Hoops. As the saying goes, at least they're talking. And not just the locals.
“We've had some top-list recruits in,” Miles said. “Now, we haven't gotten them. But (the arena) has kept us in the game longer than before. You can see them and hear them when they're here. It's gotten their attention. Compared to other places in this league, Lincoln is now one of the more progressive places in the Big Ten.”
Miles is getting pumped as he's talking about how the arena sounds, how the vertical design seemed to keep noise close to the floor during the open house last Friday. The thing is like a ball of clay, ready to be molded, and there's an excitement about being in on the ground floor of something new, something big. Creighton and Omaha did this 10 years ago. It changed the city, and this figures to change Lincoln.
But Miles the coach has to remind himself that the first game is still five weeks away.
“I think (burnout) is a valid concern,” Miles said. “You just have to be mindful of how you practice and giving them time. I could see us backing off this month and making one practice just teaching how to play against a zone.
“But right now my guys are fired up about this arena. We asked them, “Where do you want to practice?' And they voted to practice at Pinnacle all the time. And we have the best practice facility in the country.”
As he's speaking, nobody in the crowded pizza place notices Miles. The waitress didn't recognize the head men's basketball coach, the man who will soon be in the middle of a packed arena and the hoops circus taking place next door.
That's OK. It's only October.