A season review with reflection, and a post-season preview for the local basketball programs.
By Phil Gillen
It happens every year, right after February Fever. Millions of people who paid little to no attention to college basketball for the previous four months suddenly become heavily invested, setting up bracket pools, betting untold amounts of money on game outcomes, and searching hungrily for underdog narratives and the next big basketball stars. That’s right, it’s almost time for the college basketball postseason and the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, along with all the other postseason tournaments across the college basketball landscape, for men and women.
As The Triumph’s resident sports obsessive, the task falls to me to cover this phenomenon for our readership, although most of you have probably turned the page or even dropped the ‘zine in disgust already. For those who remain, what follows is a thoughtfully reported, socially conscious, and proletarian examination of the postseason chances of the three major basketball programs in the state, men’s and women’s teams. Those who skipped this article will someday regret it.
Nebraska (Lincoln) Cornhuskers, Men’s team
The state’s talismanic Huskers have the mixed blessing of playing in the Big Ten conference, which is measurably the best and most competitive basketball conference in the nation. This means a high standard of play, TV exposure (and revenue), and recruiting advantages. It also means a relentless, punishing, often downright cruel conference schedule that chews and spits out players and coaches like a wood chipper. This year, the Huskers have again been the wood. Their chances were held high at the beginning of the season, and the team received Top 25 rankings three times over the course of the non-conference portion of the schedule. Then they imploded over the course of the Big Ten gauntlet, hemorrhaging points and giving up seven losses in a row. They now stand at 5-13 in conference, tied for second-last with Penn State, and with hopes of an NCAA Tournament appearance out of the window.
It’s been difficult to watch this stretch of results for such a talented team, with such great expectations. Most difficult has been seeing the predicament of coach Tim Miles as his team racks up losses and frustration. Miles, who arrived at the program seven years ago, seems like a thoroughly decent person, and seems to have supported and fostered a spirit of social responsibility in his players as well. As the great Argentinian soccer coach César Luis Menotti said, “..To those who say that all that matters is winning, I want to warn them that someone always wins. Therefore, in a 30team championship, there are 29 who must ask themselves: what did I leave at this club, what did I bring to my players, what possibility of growth did I give to my [players]?” Miles can definitely be said to have brought his players the possibility of growth, most memorably in the wake of last year’s protests against the presence of neo-fascist Daniel Kleve on UNL’s campus. Miles attended a rally in person, and the team began sporting “Hate Will Never Win” t-shirts in response to Kleve’s fascist rhetoric. Miles certainly set a great example outside of the game for his players, but his results have not been what the school and its supporters hoped for (and what his $2.25 million salary would seem to merit). If this is to be his last season, I wish him the best and will actively follow his career. Outside of the pressure of the Big Ten, Miles could thrive.
Creighton Bluejays, Men’s team
As a staunch partisan of the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, I won’t attempt to disguise my prejudice against the Jays. A well-boosted program of a private, comparatively wealthy school, the Jays are definitely the closest thing to a “blue blood” basketball team the state has to offer, and therefore make themselves the natural enemies of both public school ball programs and the class-conscious left. Their largely insufferable fanbase is another reason to oppose them. That said, there is still a part of me that wishes them well, as long as they aren’t playing either of the public schools. I grew up attending games with my uncle, so there is a nostalgic attachment, as well as the bare fact that the Jays more often than not are the sole team to represent Nebraska in the big tournament. In fact, I’ll rarely pass up an opportunity to catch a game, as I did with a recent game against Georgetown. As long as they aren’t playing or directly competing with the Mavs or Huskers, we have a cordial relationship.
While the Jay’s early results were disappointing, losing four in a row early in their conference schedule, and hitting another four-game skid more recently, they’ve competed resiliently in the Big East, which is another tough conference. They recently took highly-ranked Villanova to overtime, although they were eventually beaten. They saw their best result yet with an upset win over #10 Marquette. The Jays seem to have saved their best basketball for last, with three straight victories heading into the last games of the season. Wins against Providence and DePaul, and a decent showing in the Big East tournament, will give them a good shot at an invitation to the Big Dance.
Creighton Bluejays, Women’s team
I attended several Jays women’s games this season, more women’s basketball than I’ve been accustomed to seeing. The women play in the D.J. Sokol Arena, a small, on-campus venue. As fun as the pomp and circumstance of a big men’s showdown at a massive arena can be, sometimes the sport is better enjoyed without all the distraction. Catching a game at a more intimate arena like the Sokol strips the game back to its main appeal: watching the players compete, and enjoying the social atmosphere of support. There’s less pressure in the women’s game too, less tension, and the spectators feel more connected to the players and to each other.
The Jays find themselves in the middle of the league. I caught disappointing losses to South Dakota and Providence, as well as a disappointing win against my Omaha Mavericks, but the Jays have picked up wins elsewhere, including over #13 Marquette, same as the men.
To get to the women’s March Madness tournament, they would likely have to win their conference tournament, of which they are the #6 seed. An unlikely but not impossible prospect.
Omaha Mavericks, Men’s Team
The program of my alma mater, Nebraska-Omaha, will always have my highest sporting allegiance. While I grew up idolizing the Huskers, and still support them to this day, if it came to a head-to-head matchup, I would have to root for my Mavericks every time. Thankfully, that rarely happens, and I’m free to root for both the Huskers and the Mavericks in their various sports. In basketball, the Mavs have had the best season out of all of the previously mentioned teams. While pre-season rankings had held them at #8 in their Summit League conference, second-to-last, at the conclusion of the regular season the Mavs achieved second place, only a game behind perennial champs South Dakota State and their superstar Mike Daum.
The early non-conference schedule sputtered, and the Mavs were blown out by the big conference teams they played. They picked up steam in the conference, for the most part dominating the league, with South Dakota State as their only rival. Indeed, for a moment it looked like the Mavs would claim a share of the regular season title and the top seed in the tournament, and would have done so if they’d won their last two games. Sadly, they lost to Oral Roberts for the second time, the only team in the league they were unable to beat, and had to be content with second place. Still, this gives them a high seed in the tournament and a great chance to win it, which would see them qualify for the Big Dance for the very first time. I got tickets to the conference championship in Sioux Falls, and am hoping desperately that the Mavs win the two games needed to get there.
I’m hoping that the Mavs can become a basketball powerhouse in the future. While next year they will lose graduating guard Zach Jackson and forward Mitch Hahn, two excellent players who have been offensive assassins this season, a strong core of three guards will return. Two of these are veteran seniors along with perhaps the team’s most impactful player, beefy forward Matt Pile.
Following a mid-major conference like the Mavs’ Summit League has its own joys along the lines of following the women’s game. With less pressure, smaller venues, and less runaway commodification of everything, the game is more enjoyable as a game. Would I give up all the bells and whistles that come with big-time college basketball? No, I can’t say I would, but following mid-major contests is refreshing. If the prospect of big money games exhausts you, but you want to see high-level basketball play, consider going to a Mavs game.
Omaha Mavericks, Women’s Team
I only caught two Mavs women’s games, the one they lost against Creighton early in the season, and a heartbreaking 1-point loss against North Dakota at home, but have been keeping an eye on their results. Unfortunately, they haven’t done any better, losing all but two games in the Summit League to place them in the absolute bottom of the standings. To add insult to injury, as a nine-team league, only eight can participate in the conference tournament, so the women are completely out of post-season play. This is the worst-ever season for head coach Brittany Lange, who upon taking the job in 2013, was the youngest coach in all of Division I basketball. There’s not a lot to say about a season this bad. The team is young, that’s for sure, young and talented, and Lange is too. Next year they’ll all be a little wiser, and hopefully that will come with more success.
I saw more women’s games this year than I usually do, and I should make it a point to do so more. I don’t think anything separates the level of play of men and women in college sports besides support; whether financial, in attendance, or in broadcasting and media coverage. Sports that don’t cater to a highly specific body type but are open enough that anybody can compete if they can adapt their game, specialize, and be creative will see the lowest of differences in the men’s and women’s game. It’s up to us to increase the level of support we give to sporting women, and it will be to the benefit of sports for everyone as that gap decreases. Maybe sometime soon we can get rid of this gender segregation entirely, and if that’s radical, revolutionary even, well, that’s what this magazine is for.