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Nebraska Basketball

Power Five Basketball, 'Non-Basketball' Schools and Nebraska's Place

March 27, 2019
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After Nebraska lost to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament and it was confirmed the Huskers would miss the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in Tim Miles’ seven seasons at the helm, conversation surrounding the team quickly shifted to Miles’ future with the program.

BTN contributor Andy Katz jumped to Miles’ defense from the set of the BTN postgame show, saying it would be a mistake to let him go. Miles’ job status became a hot-button issue with the way the Huskers’ closed out the season and postseason, so dissenting opinions on whether he should stay or go are one thing, but the way Katz framed his argument raised eyebrows.

“Nebraska's never been a basketball powerhouse, and I don't know if they ever will,” he said. “They'll be a program that, every once in a while, maybe can get in the NCAA Tournament. But they're not ever going to be a program that's going to consistently win the Big Ten. 

“So, know who you are. Know what you want at your university. Ethics and character certainly have to be at the top of the list."

It’s a comment essentially saying Nebraska can’t run a successful basketball program because it hasn’t yet had a successful basketball program so why try and change that? Doing things the right way is better than winning. In some circles, you might find programs okay with that line of thinking. 

Not at Nebraska. 

Especially not with Athletic Director Bill Moos running things.

“I hear ‘Well, Nebraska’s a football school and we’ve never gotten it done in basketball and when we have it hasn’t been consistent.’ What’s it going to take?” he started Tuesday after officially relieving Miles of his coaching duties. “Well, you look at our facilities—Pinnacle Bank Arena and our practice facilities—you look at the infrastructure and all the things we have to offer for student-athletes, our tremendous reputation academically, it’s pretty good. It’s about as good as there is. We’re in a great conference, a very prestigious conference, both academically and athletically. You look at where we rank in attendance and were we have [ranked] in some really off years, it’s pretty impressive. 

“People say, ‘Why Nebraska?’ I say, ‘Why not?’”

The Huskers have invested in training facilities that rival some of the best in the country and Moos said on several occasions Tuesday he feels Pinnacle Bank Arena — the Huskers’ home that feels more like a pro arena than a college court — is the best in the business. The Huskers have averaged 15,000 fans in that arena every year since moving in. All that sells to both players and coaches. 

The arguments for maintaining status quo were centered around the notion that basketball should be content having the occasional good season while football pulls in the big bucks for the athletic department. That line of thinking doesn’t work for a revenue sport, and certainly not one as big as men’s basketball. 

Nebraska basketball is not Kansas football, and even if we were going to entertain that comparison, Kansas football recently fired a respected, likable coach in David Beaty for a splashy name in Les Miles and green-lit a $315 million project to renovate the football facilities. Not even Kansas can openly accept mediocrity in a revenue sport, the optics on that are hard to come back from.

And that’s a good jumping off point. Because Nebraska might be a football school, but there are plenty of other “non-basketball” schools throughout the five major conferences that succeed on the hardwood. There is little to suggest Nebraska’s history as a basketball program impacts its future potential. In basketball, you are one coaching hire away from changing your fortune. 

The following is every Power Five program, listed by conference. The data tracks back to the 1985 season when the NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 64 teams. It reflects tournament appearances since that time, the best tournament finish for each team, winning percentage since 1985 and the number of official coaches each program has had. 

 

There are only 10 programs who can claim to have won 60 percent of their basketball games and 60 percent of their football games since 1985 — Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Florida, Alabama and Utah. The Badgers and Mountaineers and Utes suggest regional geography isn’t the only barrier to success. Who knew? Let’s look at two of those 10. 

The first is the surprise of the list: Utah. Utah has produced three top-50 high school prospects in the last 15 years and none have signed to play basketball for the Utes. So the team hasn’t been consistently brimming with high-end talent. Instead, Utah has been successful because Utah has made the right hires. 

Florida did the same. Before Billy Donovan came to town, Florida had qualified for the NCAA tournament just five times and owned an all-time winning percentage of .493. That’s at the University of Florida, with elite athletes in its backyard and sunny beaches to sell. Donovan won 71 percent of his games, made 14 tournament appearances in 19 seasons and won two national championships. 

Florida is one of only four programs to have won at least 65 percent of its basketball games and 60 percent of its football games since 1985. It isn’t on that list without Donovan. 

Fortunes change very quickly if you have the right personnel. “I’ve seen programs go from the outhouse to the penthouse in a year or two,” Moos said. Get a star point guard in place and it can change your five-year outlook. Hire a coach like Bo Ryan at Wisconsin and 100 years of .500 basketball (.533 to be exact) with seven total tourney appearances turns into 15 straight tickets to the Big Dance. 

It’s possible the next coach Nebraska hires isn’t the right guy. Everyone within the athletic department hopes that’s not the case, but the optimism for Miles was high and seven seasons made it clear he wasn’t the guy.  Programs like Nebraska set expectations and when those expectations aren’t met, changes happen. 

Look around the college basketball landscape. 

Cal fired its coach after just two seasons. 

Arkansas fired coach Mike Anderson on the heels of an 18-16 season. Anderson had made three trips to the tournament in five years and won a combined 49 games during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. 

At Texas A&M, a program with a worse all-time record than Nebraska, coach Billy Kennedy was fired after making two Sweet 16 appearances, earning a regular-season SEC title and winning an average of 19 games a season over eight years. The 2018 campaign marked the first losing season under Kennedy since his initial year on the job.

From TexAgs on the dismissal: “Kennedy’s ouster ends an erratic eight-year stint that produced some of the A&M program’s greatest moments but too often was mired in mediocrity.”

From The Houston Chronicle: “While Kennedy’s tenure had a couple of bright spots, it primarily was punctured by multiple key transfers ... and five losing seasons in league play.”

Seeing parallels? Miles had five losing seasons in Big Ten play as well.

Do all of these other schools have NCAA tournament wins to their credit? Yes. Does Nebraska? No. But to go winless in seven tries spread over 30-some years feels more like a random trivia night answer than any kind of indictment on the program.

Get to the tournament more often and you’re likely to get a win. At the most basic level, that’s why Moos made this move. Nebraska, he said Tuesday, should be making the NCAA tournament three times every five years, at least. Nebraska should be more competitive than it has been.

 
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