Published Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 10:26 pm / Updated at 10:28 pm
Shatel: Haymarket gives a major bounce to Husker hoops

Did you hear that noise Tuesday night? It was the sound of a jet taking off in downtown Omaha, on the CenturyLink Center runway, with 17,000 screaming fans aboard the Doug McDermott Express.

It was the sound of winning.

There's a noise building off in the distance, 60 miles to the west. Press your ears to the wind on a cold winter's night, and you can make out a distinct new sound.

It's coming from Pinnacle Bank Arena. There's a party going on.

Tonight, Indiana is the guest of honor as the Nebraska men's basketball team and Nebrasketball fans try to light a fire in the dead of winter. Husker fans, your job tonight is to sit down only when IU coach Tom Crean plops down in a chair. Hint: he never sits down.

They would like to make it three home wins in a row. It was Ohio State last week and Minnesota on Sunday. Yes, back-to-back home Big Ten home wins. Sellout crowds for hoops on a Monday night and Sunday evening. What in the name of the Polish Rifle is going on?

There's something going on here. Sound familiar?

Nebraska and Creighton basketball fans do not like to even appear in the same sentence. I understand. But this comparison is unavoidable.

Ten years ago, CU moved on up from an outdated Civic Auditorium to the comfortable and luxurious Qwest Center Omaha. It transformed the Jays' program, changed the expectations, expanded the brand, upped the ante in the community.

Did Dana Altman winning have something to do with that? Yes. But Creighton fans became a force and CU games became a happening. And I'm here to tell you those sellout crowds contributed to the winning. CU fans are partners in their program's success.

The red side of the state brushed it off as a sports bar. Yes, there is beer. But I don't believe CU fans flock to games to get a drink. The folks who go to Creighton games are addicted to a drug, but it's not alcohol.

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It's winning.

I see a similar vibe going on in Lincoln's Haymarket. Pinnacle Bank Arena is an incredible place. The concourses are a little tighter than in Omaha, the layout of seats is more vertical. In Lincoln, the places to eat and drink are, um, stumbling distance from the arena.

There's a neat little ice skating rink in the middle of it all, with a huge outdoor TV screen to watch a game. The entire area has a distinct, welcome feel; a great place to park and walk around. The centerpiece is PBA, a beautiful structure where folks want to hang out, inside or out.

The result is that Nebraska basketball games are becoming a happening. And guess what else is happening?

The team is 9-1 in its new home, and in the loss to Big Ten leader Michigan, the Huskers had the ball with a chance to win on the last possession.

Which comes first, the winning tradition or the fans? In some cases, they happen together.

Tim Miles and Co. need their fans more than ever. Building a hoops winner in Lincoln is like climbing out of quicksand.

Beat Ohio State, lose at Penn State. Beat Minnesota, boot point guard Deverell Biggs off the team.

Here in his second season, Miles has a team of transfers and holdovers, some who have won a little, some who have never won. He's trying to make a big impression for recruits. He's trying to do it against Crean and Tom Izzo and Thad Matta.

The historic plight of Husker Hoops is well known. It's a graveyard for coaching careers. Everyone has a plan. Miles has built winners at smaller programs. Sure, at this level it's about recruiting. But in one sense building here is no different than at Colorado State or North Dakota State.

You have to learn how to win. You have to expect to win.

The Huskers did not play like a team that expected to win at Penn State. With a lead on an overmatched opponent in an empty arena, the Huskers couldn't make the plays to finish. They froze. Miles took the blame. He wants his players to figure out what to do on their own. When they froze up and looked to him for answers, he didn't respond.

It was a team loss. A step back in the search for confidence.

“You have to go out and earn victory,” Miles said. “You have to earn confidence.”

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Miles readily quotes from the books in his office. One of his favorites is from Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley.

“There comes a point in time in every man's life when he has to plant his feet and stand up for what he believes in,” Miles said, quoting Riley. “I truly believe when you establish your program, you have to plant your feet at some point.”

The Huskers might be learning to do that at PBA.

Nebraska's win over Ohio State was part of the Big Ten Network's show “The Journey” this week. When OSU stormed back to take the lead in the second half, cameras showed Miles pointing a finger at each player and telling him to “Fight.”

The Huskers have to learn to punch back in this fistfight league. It happened that night, with the help of the second-largest crowd in school history that carried the team back in crunch time.

Yes, a Nebraska basketball crowd. The late Iowa State coach Johnny Orr, who once said Devaney Center crowds had the energy of dead dogs, would never believe it.

“During that time, Leslee Smith is in the huddle saying, 'They are not winning in our house — this is our house,' ” Miles said. “It was like a defining moment.

“I've never thought we were going to lose a game in Pinnacle Bank Arena. I thought we would still come back and beat Michigan. It's got a life of its own. It's completely different of anything I've been around at Nebraska.”

Eric Piatkowski remembers sellout crowds and big noise. He played in front of them at the Devaney Center from 1990 to '94.

The “Polish Rifle,” who lives in Omaha and is an NU season-ticket holder, sees and feels a similar vibe at PBA. With so much more potential.

“It's great,” he said. “The student section is great. I've been really impressed. Nebraska needed this.

“It's loud, but it can get louder. I would like to see Nebraska fans become a little more educated in the game. Sometimes they'll stand up for a rally and then sit right down. They need to keep standing up and yelling, whatever it takes, from one TV timeout to the next. If the Huskers are making a run, keep it going.”

That will come with winning. And that's what this season is all about. Not the NCAAs or the NIT. It's about winning and winning again. Tonight NU will try to win consecutive conference games for the first time in three years. Think about that.

There's a nucleus of young talent here. It needs help at point guard and inside. But mostly it needs to win. If NU has a chance to play in any postseason tourney this year, it can't thumb its nose. It needs to play and win games.

Nebraska players, and fans, must remember how to win again. In their new plush surroundings, perhaps the Huskers and their fans can learn together.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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