Three years ago, after about a century spent not even pretending to care about the sport, Nebraska finally decided to get serious about its hoops.
The Cornhuskers' move to the Big Ten -- where Big Ten Network revenue (even NU's reduced introductory share) -- coincided with both the hiring of smart young coach Tim Miles and the construction of Nebraska's new, top-of-the-line basketball practice facility, which will be followed by the grand opening of the Lincoln Haymarket Arena, a glittering new $344 million downtown economic centerpiece that will put Huskers basketball at the forefront of the local area's revitalization efforts.
Even if that larger challenge isn't met, the fact remains that the Huskers, for the first time in program history, have the kind of facilities top-level recruits demand. For the first time, Nebraska can offer basketball stars a value proposition. For the first time, there are reasons to be bullish about Cornhuskers hoops. For the first time, fans have reason to care.
The next step -- besides opening the new arena in the coming year, that is -- is translating the program's investment into wins. This will be a long process; Miles' first season, 2012-13's 15-18 run, was a classically forgettable Nebraska campaign. But there are reasons to be bullish on this front, too -- and they start with the eligibility of freshman guard Tai Webster. On Wednesday, Miles indirectly announced the NCAA's decision that Webster was eligible in Twitter form, after which ESPN.com and other outlets confirmed the news.
This is a big deal. Wait ... why is this a big deal? Chances are you've never heard of Webster; I'll admit I was unfamiliar. In fact, Webster became very well-regarded by international talent scouts after his breakout 2012 Olympic qualifiers performance, when he was just 17 years old.
I emailed our own Fran Fraschilla, who knows the international scene better than anyone, to help bring us up to speed. His response:
Now that Webster's been cleared to play by the NCAA, he's an excellent piece to add to Coach Miles’ rebuilding project at Nebraska.
Expectations may be a tad high in part because of his performance at the 2012 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Venezuela. He averaged almost 14 points for the Tall Blacks as the youngest player in the field at 17 years old.
But if Webster were playing high school basketball in the United States this past season, he would have been looked at as a top-50 recruit. He is a combo guard who should be able to put up points right away. Not bad for a program in the midst of upgrading its talent level.
When's the last time Nebraska even got close to a top-50 recruit, let alone one that had interest from Pittsburgh, NC State, Wake Forest, LSU, Vanderbilt and Saint Mary's and had a five-year, $800,000 New Zealand league contract on the table? When's the last time Nebraska basketball was attractive enough that a player like Webster would choose it over a plethora of other good options?
Whatever the expectations are -- and expectations for international players of any level always surge based on disconcertingly small sample sizes -- they will be higher for Webster than for any Nebraska prospect in a long, long time. Besides, the Cornhuskers don't need to win right now. They just need to get better, to climb that previously unclimable ladder toward yearly relevancy. Perhaps the next stop would mean landing a highly touted American player through the traditional channels; maybe that's when we'll know things have really changed. But the signs in Lincoln all point positive, a trend without precedent in the history of Nebraska basketball. It's all uphill from here.