Shatel: Maybe Nebraska finally has the spark to start a fire like Creighton -
Published Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 9:59 pm / Updated at 8:53 pm
Shatel: Maybe Nebraska finally has the spark to start a fire like Creighton

He blew into town unnoticed, like a tumbleweed, from west Texas. Terran Petteway was a transfer from Texas Tech. So what?

So maybe this is how it starts.

How do you find a spark? Confidence. The winning habit. A tradition.

Sometimes, you gotta get lucky.

Nebraska men's basketball coach Tim Miles has the hippest practice facility in the country to sell. A big-time arena. Sellout crowds. But that's not enough for a salesman. You have to sell hope. Proof.

And now here are the Huskers, in sixth place in the Big Ten, as the Hoosiers and Illini and Boilers stumble around a Big Ten Conference that looks a little soft in the middle.

Sometimes, you gotta get a break.

“No doubt about it,” Miles said.

Today is Big Sunday. Creighton hosts Villanova in a downtown showdown for first place in the Big East, potential high NCAA seed stuff, big stuff. The rejuvenated Huskers have a tall task at Michigan State, but home games and hope abound once you look past the Izzone.

The things that have to happen to get here, and the way the stars align and dominoes fall, will boggle your mind.

Take Creighton. Go back to the spring of 1995, the end of Dana Altman's first year at CU. The spring recruiting period was winding down. The Jays were just about done. Assistant coach Greg Grensing had found a kid from Milwaukee who looked like he could play. Nobody was in on him. Altman needed players.

Rodney Buford, Creighton's No. 2 all-time leading scorer, was the last guy to sign in 1995.

A couple of years later, Altman was scouting summer ball in Iowa. He saw a small kid, a point guard, who was tough and savvy and making all the right plays. The kid was on nobody's radar. Altman had to have him. The rest of college basketball said, sure, go ahead, knock yourself out.

Good thing. Ryan Sears became arguably the most important piece in jump-starting Creighton's recent winning era.

Then there was a kid named Kyle Korver. Northern Iowa backed off him. It was CU and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. You know the rest.

And of course there's the story of Doug McDermott, the coach's kid who looked like a nice player four years ago and grew up into a generational player in college basketball. Anybody see that one coming?

Don't ask. Don't apologize. The stars are aligned. Follow the stars.

Is there a star falling from the sky and into the Haymarket?

Petteway grew up in Galveston, Texas, down near the Gulf of Mexico. Miles tried to recruit Petteway to Colorado State (along with AAU teammate Mike Evans, who became a star receiver at Texas A&M). Petteway decided to play Big 12 ball at Texas Tech.

Then the dominoes began to tumble. Texas Tech fired coach Pat Knight, hired Billy Gillispie, whose offense put Petteway in a corner, where the slasher and playmaker didn't want to be.

Petteway wanted to transfer. Just as Miles was taking the job at Nebraska, as fate would have it.

Fate. It also helped Miles land Walter Pitchford, a Michigan big man who transferred to Lincoln from Florida.

This is pretty typical stuff when you build a program. You get transfers, castaways. What's not typical is what Petteway has become in his first year at NU: the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten and a budding star, a guy who looks like he might be able to lift up a losing program.

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“He was looking for a fresh start,” Miles said. “And that's what we were: a fresh start, with a new arena and everything else. He was part of the revitalization of our program.”

If Petteway can light the fire, he's the best advertisement Husker Hoops could have. He saw an opportunity in Lincoln.

Speaking of opportunity, how about that Big Ten?

It's a very strange place this year, and that's a very good thing for Nebraska. The Big Ten is still highly rated and still very good at the top. But the middle — the place where Nebraska needs to be — is suddenly open real estate.

In a league where hoops matter, you expect this to be cyclical. This looks like an amazing window — a perfect storm in the same year Nebraska is developing confidence in a new, sold-out arena, with this tumbleweed from west Texas who keeps driving to the hoop.

Don't ask. Don't apologize. Go with it.

And speaking of perfect storms, there's Creighton's first year in the Big East. The Jays got McDermott and Grant Gibbs back, in the same year that the Big East is in a rebuilding mode. They're making an unbelievable first impression. Timing is everything.

You can call it luck or breaks or karma. And certainly when you look at how Creighton was winning with McDermott when the Big East came looking, it looks like an angel's camped out on their shoulder.

But there's a saying: People who are smart and work hard make their own luck. Buford and Sears and Korver still had to be coached. They were put in a system that allowed them to thrive. Same with Doug McDermott.

Gibbs needed to transfer from Gonzaga, and coach Greg McDermott had recruited him and had a relationship with him. Just like Miles and Petteway.

Just like CU Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen, who knew McDermott and needed one phone call when Altman left for Oregon — and the timing for McDermott to leave Iowa State just happened to be right.

Are the breaks starting to fall Nebraska's way? Most mid-major coaches wouldn't give a glance at Nebraska's opening two years ago. Why would they? It's been a dead end for coaching careers.

But instead of an end, a dreamer with a sense of humor and adventure from Colorado State saw a beginning.

“I think there's a great opportunity here,” Miles said. “That's why I came here. We are going to get this thing started and put one in play. I want to be the first to win an NCAA game at Nebraska.”

The key word there is opportunity. You can fall into a great player or a down year in a league, but you still have to seize the moment.

Or, on Big Sunday, seize the day.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

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

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