Tomorrow starts the greatest of weekends for basketball fans. The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament commence at 11 am CDT tomorrow morning. Yes, I am taking half a day off work to take it all in, Friday too. However, it is a bit of a melancholy time, because, you see, my Huskers once again did not qualify for the field of 64 (it’s actually a field of 65, they have a silly “play-in game” because there was a new conference added a couple of years ago and didn’t want to take a bid from someone else so they added this silly extra game which is technically part of the tournament but not really, anyway…) for the 11th consecutive year. Their season came to an end last night when they lost to the New Mexico Lobos. They had a good year, or perhaps just a better one than everyone expected.   If you really want to, I’ve included my recap of the year behind the cut.  If you don’t really care, that’s cool, I understand, it’s a pretty long synopsis.  Sometimes I wish I didn’t care so much, but I just…can’t…pull…myself…away. 

This was really a pretty satifying year.  Most expected the year to, well, to no go well, both on the board an otherwise.  No media outlet gave them much chance, certainly not nationally.  Most picked the Big Red to win 3 or 4, maybe 5 games in the Big 12. 

When they beat a Creighton team at the last second on a lay-in by Ade, some thought “maybe they were better than we thought, they might make some noise afterall.”  Well, make some noise they did.  A big, fat, THUD in an embarassing loss at home to UMBC, without Cookie Miller.  Still, you can’t lose to UMBC at home…ever.   Let’s just say expectations weren’t high going into Big 12 play.

Mizzou came into town and Ade led his Nebraska team onto the floor and played with a passion and energy that had been yet unseen this season building an 18 point second half lead.  Mizzou made a late charge but Nebraska held on.  So the question was, which was the real Nebraska? 

Nebraska built a reputation as a team that would fight and scratch and claw to the bitter end.  They were outmanned a couple times, but for the most part they were in every single game.  After 11 games in conference play they stood at 6-5 and tied for 4th.  They had fought the Oklahoma Sooners and everyone’s all-american, Blake Griffin, to a near stalemate in Norman.  They routed Kansas State.  They were within a point of the defending national champs with less than a minute to play.  They back-doored Texas in the second half.  They lost a heart-breaking overtime game to Oklahoma State on a cold, snowy, afternoon. 

Much consternation was spent over whether or not Jorge Diaz would make it to school.  Rumors and stories were flying around faster than the full court press.  Finally, he was cleared, three games into conference play.  He was supposed to be here in the middle of December.  He wasn’t.  Now, on the shortest team in D1, the question was, should he play.  After informing the general public he would prefer to be called Brian, game after game went by and still Brian didn’t play.  It was finally decided he would sit.  He tantalized in practice.  He’s got skills, we’re told.  He could have really helped this team…oh what could have been…

People began paying attention.  Fran Franschilla couldn’t open his mouth without words of praise for Doc Sadler and his troops.  Big 12 coaches had taken notice, Big 12 fans couldn’t figure out who this team was.  Rarely was a game pretty.  They had trouble scoring points and some junior high teams were taller than this Cornhusker squad, but with the consistency of the lunar tide, with 5 minutes left in the game, it was still in doubt. 

Then Texas A&M came to town.  Nebraska was doing whatever they wanted.  They were shooting well.  They were hitting their free throws and the Aggies were frustrated by the Husker defense.  7-6 was all but secure.  So was sole posession of 4th place with tiebreakers over A&M and Texas to boot.  If only they could have closed out the Okie State game.  Visions of the BIG DANCE were in the heads of the fans and probably the players too.  But wait…A&M has the ball for a last second shot to win…how did that happen…don’t let Sloan get a look…Holy $#!&…

Nebraska finished out conference play with a resounding win over Iowa State and a methodical win on the road over a reeling Baylor squad.  8-8, 8th place, the lowest a team at .500 or better had finished in the history of the Big 12.  Nebraska got hammered in the Big 12 tournament to the same Baylor Bear team they had defeated in Waco just four days earlier and could only watch as upset after upset happened all across the country in conference tournaments everywhere.  Suddenly, even the NIT was in doubt.  All for naught, as the Huskers were awarded a 6 seed and a trip to New Mexico for the NIT. 

The game was pretty rough actually.  New Mexico built a 19 point second half lead.  In typical Nebrasketball fashion they chipped away, getting it down under 10 for a while but could never hit the shot they needed to get a little closer and the season comes to a quiet end.  So too the careers of Ade Dagunduro, Paul Velander, Steve Harley and Nick Krenk. 

Dagunduro was the heart and soul of this team.  Its best athlete and most consistent scorer.  Many wanted the team to ride him a little more down the stretch as he became a very dangerous, very valuable player for this team.  Consistently charged with playing in the post on defense, he did whatever was asked of him.  A stubborn defender who’s aggressiveness got him some silly fouls at times.  His prowess on both sides of the ball will be difficult to replace. 

Velander was the little engine that could.  A reliable and deadly shooter most of his career but limited athletically, he did the little things well.  Leading the free world in charges taken and there for a while the NCAA in 3pt shooting percentage as well, his contributions were better calculated in floor burns than in a box score.

Steve Harley, the enigma.  An athletic shooting guard known for his pull up jumper as a JUCO all-american.  He came on strong at the end of last year and kept it up to begin this one.  Another tough defender who’s contribution can’t be fully calculated, struggled to score down the stretch.

Krenk, a walk-on who rarely played but was lauded for his subtle leadership consistent encouragement from the bench as well as his pushing the first team in practice.  It’s these contributions that can keep a team from falling apart at the seams when the going gets tough.

All in all, the future is bright for Nebraska basketball.  We watched young talent take their lumps and show briliiant flashes of things to come.  We hear stories of legend of players on campus and myth of those to come soon.  We hear the coveted practice facility is coming soon too.  Maybe a new arena? 

Doc’s laid the foundation.  We don’t know how much more he has yet to lay but it is strong.  The mansion he’s erecting is still far from a finished but the blueprint is cause for excitement.  The construction zone leaves many skeptical but there’s a great architect in town.  For those that have seen a glimpse of it, next year can’t get here soon enough.

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