Published Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at 9:36 pm / Updated at 1:15 am
basketball
Shatel: Fun coach, fancy arena just a start for Huskers

LINCOLN — “Herrrreeeee's Timmy!”

That was the Big Ten Network guy last week, coming back from the Tim Miles press conference at Big Ten media days in Chicago. That was before the BTN guy compared Miles to a stand-up comedian.

And then they talked about the new arena.

And then they moved on to Iowa or Wisconsin or Michigan State and talked about the Sweet 16.

That's the identity of Husker Hoops as we speak. Got a funny coach. Got a new arena.

“I didn't even think I was that funny,” Miles said Wednesday.

There are worse identities for Nebraska men's basketball. We've seen them. All of them.

Big Ten media types love them some Tim Miles. So do Nebraska fans. They're all hoping this is the guy who works out.

There's a buzz and energy entering Miles' second season, more than you would expect after a 15-18 first year.

Much of that has to do with the giant spaceship that landed in downtown Lincoln.

Pinnacle Bank Arena is the new toy in town, and it's a beauty. It will be the talk of the Big Ten this year. Yes, and then there will be the games.

I walked around the place during Monday night's exhibition game with the University of Nebraska at Kearney. It's got all the stuff that new arenas have. It's got the theme-concession stands. You can meet me at “Sandhills BBQ.”

It's got the concourse-level club, with a number of TVs and a bar at each end, stocked with potent stuff for concerts, not basketball games.

It's got the suites and escalators and elevators and TV screens in the concourse promoting future concerts.

And it's surrounded by a neighborhood of eateries and bars and parking garages, all within walking distance.

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This will be Nebraska basketball as you've never experienced it. The transformation begins Friday night.

It will take time to figure out. The actual attendance Monday was 7,804, a little disappointing considering the quick sellouts and all the anticipation. The giant section behind one basket was almost empty.

The place figures to be hopping Friday, when Florida Gulf Coast bounds into the arena. The Eagles like to run and dunk. The Huskers, missing three players including captain and leading returning scorer Ray Gallegos, hope to accommodate them.

It could be a fun way to christen an arena, if the officials and new NCAA defensive rules don't throw up a roadblock.

Hope not, because Husker Hoops has become more about entertainment now.

Miles and UNL officials will soon see that they have crossed into a new place. This isn't an on-campus arena. It's not about scholastics. It's about filling 15,000 seats, keeping the suites full, keeping bodies on the steps of the escalators.

At some point, school officials will have to take a hard look at selling alcohol. That shouldn't be a problem. Nebraskans handle it well at Creighton and UNO games in Omaha.

But even the coach knows what keeps big arenas full.

“Winning,” Miles said. “Buildings are great, but they aren't enough. We want to win.”

Nothing entertains like winning. But Nebraska is staring down a long road to get to that place.

In the meantime, there's a coach who makes them laugh and wants to play an entertaining style in an arena that could make a difference.

Sound vaguely familiar? I'm about to go out on a limb. Watch out below.

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Once upon a time, in a fun place called Big Eight basketball, Johnny Orr came to Iowa State. He made the people laugh. He recruited big-time players. His teams ran up and down the floor.

He walked onto the court to the “Tonight Show” theme and Hilton Coliseum lit up. He turned a place with little basketball tradition and hope into a big winner.

There's only one Johnny Orr. But that identity — the entertainment angle — is intriguing considering the things in place in Lincoln. The timing for an up-tempo, high-octane style couldn't be better, if the new defensive rules neutralize some of the big bruisers in the Big Ten.

What intrigues Miles is the idea of winning. He's won everywhere he's been, using whatever style worked in that situation.

“It's not like I'm (Syracuse coach) Jim Boeheim, with my 2-3 zone,” Miles said. “I'm more of a nomad. We'll play gypsy ball here.

“What I want to do is be fun to watch. I want to be athletic and score fast, and I want to play physical defense and bring scintillating players here.”

Nebraska will have better players this year. The Huskers have more size and athleticism. Freshman Tai Webster gives them a big point guard with a lot of upside. Walter Pitchford is a 6-foot-10, 234-pound body who loves to shoot — from 3-point range. Shavon Shields already looks better.

It's a team with better individual parts. But will it be a better team? It could be and have a worse record than last season. The rest of the Big Ten keeps moving forward.

There will be growing pains. Already are. Gallegos got himself suspended for the first two games for breaking an undisclosed team rule.

It's a building block season, with new amenities. But what this first year in the new palace absolutely must be for Miles is a recruiting tool. These next few recruiting cycles are crucial. NU will sign only one player during the fall period.

Ultimately, recruiting was the secret behind the Hilton magic of Johnny Orr: He and his staff had a pipeline of great players in Michigan.

“This (building) gets us in the conversation with big-time talent,” Miles said. “They also want fan support. They want to see fans who care. But I have to get them here. We have to get that guy to come here.”

If he can, who knows? Miles might get his own theme song.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

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

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