By Chris Emma-
LINCOLN, Neb. (CBS) — Take a turn off the Cornhusker Highway toward Nebraska’s capital city and your eyes become fixated. Now, it’s not just the historic capitol building or the monstrosity of Memorial Stadium that grabs one’s attention.
In the heart of Lincoln’s replenished downtown district stands an incredible new sight. It took years of referendums, planning and dreaming. At the new Pinnacle Bank Arena, a long-dormant Nebraska program is thriving.
Basketball in Nebraska has forever been an afterthought. It’s a football school and state. Unless Kansas was coming to Lincoln, the old Bob Devaney Sports Center — a basketball arena named after a championship football coach — would draw sparse crowds each game. This isn’t the case in the Huskers’ new home.
A record crowd of 15,978 showed up for Nebraska’s 54-47 win over Northwestern on Saturday, a victory pushing it closer to an NCAA Tournament berth eluding the program since 1998. The building was more than 800 fans over capacity, and the volume inside reflected it.
“I love the people,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “I don’t know where they’re standing or if they’re cramming the luxury boxes. It’s unbelievable.”
In the exciting, enthusiastic Miles’s first season, he was known nationally as the coach who tweets at halftime of each game. Now, he’s the frontrunner for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Nebraska was picked by the media to finish last in the conference this season, but it’s a contender to have a successful postseason.
“The picked-last thing, take it for what it’s worth now,” Miles said. “They’ll probably pick us way too high next year. Whatever they pick us, it’ll be, like, four spots too high.”
Miles’s nature is reflected in halftime tweets and postgame press conference quips. Inside, he’s calm and confident. Yet, he comes across as the ultimate underdog — even after building five programs into a winner.
A master in developing talent, Miles has his Cornhuskers clicking at the right time. The ultimate example of that is sophomore guard Terran Petteway, who went from unheralded role player to potential Big Ten Player of the Year. But for Petteway and the rest of his Husker teammates, the chip never left the shoulders.
“We believe we can win every night out,” sophomore forward Shavon Shields said. “We’re trying to build a winning culture here and need to keep it going into the future.”
Rebuilding Nebraska was supposed to be a long-term process. Miles wasn’t expected to be winning in year two. But accelerated player development and a little late-season magic has the Huskers poised for position in the tournament.
Nebraska’s fan base is united by an upstart basketball program, even as spring practice begins for its storied football program. This is unprecedented territory in Lincoln.
When the 5-foot-9, 166-pound Benny Parker took a charge against Northwestern’s Sanjay Lumpkin to secure the Huskers’ much-needed win, the standing room-only crowd erupted — louder than any Nebraska crowd ever has. There’s an intimidating home-court advantage in Lincoln, reflected in the team’s 14-1 mark at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
There’s a buzz in the building for each game.
“The community is really rallying around us, and we’re rallying around each other,” Shields said.
Four games into Big Ten play, Nebraska’s conference record was 0-4, and it had lost five straight games. A stunning upset of Ohio State was cause for a court storming and celebration. The Huskers have won nine of 12 games since and stand at 17-11 overall.
Earning a ticket to the big dance will likely require at least a split of games at Indiana and home with Wisconsin, plus another win or two in the conference tournament. Every game seems a must-win for Nebraska’s postseason résumé, and nothing will come easy.
Miles’s Huskers still have the mindset of the underdog picked last in the Big Ten but also the credence of their confident head coach.
“I don’t think we’re going to be this favorite in either of the games,” Miles said. “Now, we’re back to that (mindset of a) last-place team playing with a chip on our shoulders.”
Counting out the Cornhuskers would be wrong with their recent run of success. Their NCAA Tournament hopes are real, something which seemed impossible when they were picked last in the preseason or even weeks ago after an 0-4 start in conference play.
Across the street from Memorial Stadium, the home of a college football power, a rejuvenated fan base is dreaming of the big dance.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.