It's Friday! That means Ten Big stories in 10 little bites. We'll cover Darin Erstad's rebound and closing barn doors in Kearney, Nebrasketball's spunk and Iowa's No. 1 fan in Northern California, the problem with Carolina and more.
But first, Monty Williams' resilience.
A year ago, after a surprisingly good season in which the New Orleans Pelicans made the NBA playoffs, Monty Williams was fired. I didn’t know much about Williams. I didn’t really care. Then I saw him do this interview with a TV reporter who literally showed up at his door.
Wow, I thought, that’s a class act. Williams moved on to Oklahoma City, where he joined Billy Donovan’s bench. I forgot about him. Then last week, Williams' wife died in a car accident in OKC. A woman traveling 92 mph in a 45 mph zone crossed the center line and hit Ingrid Williams head-on.
Monty and Ingrid have five kids and, as a father of three little ones myself, I can’t fathom his situation. I watched that interview from New Orleans again and this time it felt awful, knowing what lie ahead for him.
“I am certainly hurt, knocked down a little bit, but God’s brought me through too much to complain and be bitter," he said last year. "But I’m hurt and we’ll get over it and be better for it.” I started connecting dots. If Williams wouldn't have been fired in New Orleans, his wife never crosses paths with that car in OKC. How horrible.
On Thursday, friends and family celebrated Ingrid Williams’ life at her funeral. The crowd included Kevin Durant, Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and several other dignitaries.
Monty Williams delivered a seven-minute eulogy that made the rounds late Thursday night online. I was floored when I saw it. And hopefully it reshapes the way I look at a lot of things.
“We didn't lose her," he said. "When you lose something, you can't find it. I know exactly where my wife is."
If you missed it, I promise it'll lift your spirits.
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>> At the risk of setting the bar laughably low, I’m going to give you a stat that should surprise you — and might impress you.
When was the last time Nebraska basketball went through a conference season without losing at least one game by 20 points or more? In other words, when was the last time NU didn’t get blown out?
Answer: 2000-01. Barry Collier’s first season. Fifteen years ago!
The Huskers were beaten at Indiana 80-64, their worst defeat in league play. And yet even without Shavon Shields, they were IN the game. They’ve been IN every single Big Ten game. They battled at Purdue, at Wisconsin. They won at Michigan State. They refuse to be humiliated. That’s extremely unusual for Nebraska basketball, which, even when it has a “good team,” always gets buried at least once.
I give Tim Miles’ team credit for fighting. Nebraska didn’t stand much of a chance at Indiana, but the Huskers went toe-to-toe with IU for 17 minutes. Back in November, I said Nebraska was a .500 team. Too small and too inexperienced. (Some fans thought I was being overly pessimistic).
NU is 14-13, but it’s actually been a better year than I expected. The young guys have indeed developed. Andrew White has been better than advertised. And Miles is building a competitive spirit.
You have to look past the box score sometimes, but you can see it.
>> Nice bit of reporting from Lee Barfknecht, who finds that Nebraska is trying to schedule Kansas in basketball. Doesn’t sound like Bill Self is terribly interested, but I admire Tim Miles and Marc Boehm for trying.
Personally, the nostalgia for Big Eight basketball is stronger than for Big Eight football. If KU doesn’t work out, I’d love to see the Huskers hook up with Iowa State, Missouri or another former rival (aside from Colorado).
Makes a lot more sense than a home-and-home with Rhode Island.
>> Could the Big East really get two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament? If the season ended today, it might happen for Villanova and Xavier. But by the time mid-March comes, I don’t see it. I think one comes from the Big East, one from the Big Ten (Iowa, Maryland or Michigan State), one comes from the Big 12 (Kansas or Oklahoma) and one goes to the ACC (North Carolina or Virginia).
Oh, and by the way, No. 1 seeds don’t matter a lick this season because there’s no tournament favorite. Sometimes you want a No. 1 seed just to avoid a dominant team in your region (like Kentucky last year). This year, the only significance is geographic proximity for regionals.
This bracket, potentially more than any of our lifetime, will be a crapshoot. Your office pools are gonna be nuts.
>> Speaking of Iowa basketball, one of its proudest alums is keeping track on the Hawks from Sacramento. Andre Woolridge, the Omaha Benson grad, told me this week that it’s been “a long time coming, but they’re looking pretty good.”
Woolridge, who works in private basketball instruction, said he’ll probably hold a camp in Iowa this summer.
“We did great in football, now we’re coming through in basketball,” he said. “I’ve been ordering extra Hawkeye gear lately. I can’t go in a sporting goods store out here and buy Iowa gear. I have to buy it online or get my friends in Iowa to send me some stuff.”
>> Really cool interview from Minnesota’s upset of Maryland. Drake transfer Joey King gave Richard Pitino a heckuva recruiting tool, if he’s smart enough to use it.
>> There’s just something about Duke-Carolina, isn’t there. I was at Doane College Wednesday night and in the lobby of the arena, there were five or six students going crazy during the final few minutes of Duke-Carolina. It’s uncanny how much people in Nebraska care about that game.
Full disclosure: I do, too. My mild interest of the Tar Heels and major distaste for the Blue Devils combines to make my blood boil.
Anyway, the difference in the rivalry at this point — Duke has won 11 of the past 14 — is probably coaching. As I stated on Twitter the other night, Roy Williams’ free-flowing system produces beautiful, successful basketball. But he errs in the details.
It’s almost like Ole Roy needs to be head coach for the first 35 minutes, then hand the keys to an assistant for the final five. That’s not practical, but the longer he struggles against Duke, the more you have to wonder if Carolina fans will wish they had someone else.
>> The old barn at Kearney High School is closing. No!!! Citizens of Kearney are building a new school and there’s no need for one of Nebraska’s most unusual gyms. With its curved wooden ceiling, it is small and it is loud.
I gotta be honest, until this year, it was among the only Class A gyms I hadn’t visited. Now I kind of love the place. Closing “The Barn” is a preview of another sad finale next season when my alma mater, Columbus High, retires its gym. I ran a lot of line drills on that floor!
It’s a tough time for the romantics! I just hope Norfolk High doesn’t get any crazy ideas. That’s the best Class A gym in the state.
>> With Brian Duensing signing a minor-league deal with the Royals, we’re going to be deprived of our annual Gordon vs. Duensing matchups.
The two former Huskers have battled 34 times since 2009 (I’m pretty sure the play-by-play announcer has noted their connection every single time). For the record, Gordon had an OPS of .692 against Duensing, 91 points below his career average. If Duensing pitches like that in 2016, he’ll be a useful lefty out of the Royals bullpen.
>> Evan Marshall was almost killed by a comebacker in Triple-A in 2014. Now the Diamondbacks pitcher has returned. He tells his incredible story to Tim Brown.
>> NCAA president Mark Emmert doesn’t love Jim Harbaugh’s spring break plans. Yet, as I noted last Friday, Jim Delany is mysteriously silent on the issue.
>> Remember when Dwight Howard was a superstar? Now he's a punchline. Ryan Phillips with a blistering takedown of the Rockets’ center. I still can't believe Howard has been in the NBA for 12 years.
>> Random non-sports item of the day: “Sorry, we’re out of barbecue sauce” is the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard at a fast-food restaurant.
>> Finally, it’s college baseball season, the unofficial end of winter. OK, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s 20 degrees on opening day. But this year, with temperatures in the 60s, you can almost smell the popcorn.
It’s a big year for Darin Erstad, who was in really good shape on April 1, 2015, then fell apart in Big Ten play. Imagine Erstad, who produced 1,697 major-league hits, watching his anemic offense last April and May. Surely it drove him crazy. Can he translate his wisdom to his players in 2016? That's the big question.
“I have a lot of knowledge,” Erstad said, “but being able to articulate that into something a kid can understand and relate to it — I feel like I’ve done a much better job of that.”
The Huskers can’t count on the pitching and defense to be elite. The bats must come alive.
>> Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.