- Jason King
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After visiting the University of Nebraska last spring, former Florida forward Walter Pitchford was asked numerous times to sum up his trip to Lincoln.
The answer was almost always the same.
“Mind-blowing,” Pitchford would say.
The description may seem a bit flattering for a program that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten standings last season and has never won an NCAA tournament game. Still, the more time Pitchford spent in Lincoln, the more it became obvious things could soon change.
Known nationally for its success in football, Nebraska is now determined to become a basketball school, too.
The Cornhuskers are one year away from opening Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln. The venue will seat approximately 16,000 fans and feature a number of suites and loge boxes.
The project comes on the heels of the construction of the Hendricks Training Complex. Completed last fall, the two-level facility features practice courts for Nebraska’s men’s and women’s teams, along with expanded player lounges, a nutrition center, locker rooms and coaching offices.
First-year coach Tim Miles said the arena and practice gym carried a combined price tag of more than $200 million.
“Once everything is complete, we’ve got to be in the top five or 10 in the country in terms of facilities,” Miles said. “We’re trying to get people to come check us out.”
The word is spreading quickly.
Nebraska’s coaches and players have spent a large chunk of their summer giving tours of the new practice facility to prospects on campus for unofficial visits.
“We’ve had top-100 recruits in here -- guys who have seen a lot of places -- and they say this is the best,” Nebraska senior Brandon Ubel told the Omaha World-Herald. “They come in and their eyes light up. How could they not light up? It’s an amazing facility.”
The players' lounge features three 103-inch TVs and six 65-inch plasmas. In all, the Hendricks Training Complex boasts 121 televisions.
Prominent Nebraska donor Neal Hawks and his father, Howard, made significant donations to ensure the structure was first-class. The Hawkses decided to contribute after walking away displeased with the initial renderings for the facility. They felt additional features -- such as a hot-and-cold soak tub and a video suite that resembles a movie theater -- needed to be added.
Neal Hawks is the brother-in-law of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (their wives are sisters), so he’s had a firsthand look at the facilities that are regarded as the best in the NBA.
“I donated because I’d like to see Nebraska basketball be relevant and a source of pride for our state,” Hawks said. “With the right commitment, there’s no reason it can’t be.”
There certainly hasn’t been much reason to get excited about Nebraska basketball in the past.
The Huskers haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, and they haven’t had a first-team all-conference player since 1999. Former coach Doc Sadler posted four winning records during his six years in Lincoln, but he never finished higher than seventh in league play. He was fired after going 12-18 last season and replaced by Miles, who spent the previous five years at Colorado State.
Miles said one of the biggest reasons he accepted NU’s offer was the school’s obvious desire to improve the basketball program, which was evidenced by the new facilities.
“There’s no reason why Nebraska shouldn’t be very competitive in both men’s and women’s basketball down the road,” athletic director Tom Osborne said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but we do think we’ll gain considerable momentum.”
The upgrades are already paying off for a program that hasn’t won a regular-season conference title since 1950.
Transfers such as Pitchford and forward Terran Petteway (Texas Tech) signed with Nebraska this spring. So did junior college All-American Deverell Biggs, a point guard who hails from nearby Omaha.
Miles estimated that nearly 50 prospects have visited Lincoln since his arrival. Pitchford hopes they’ll realize the same thing he did last spring.
“Everything is in place for Nebraska to succeed,” Pitchford said. “With what they’ve done here lately, there won’t be any excuse for not winning games.”