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Tuesday, February 28, 2012
How does Nebraska move forward?

By Eamonn Brennan

Nebraska basketball has never been very good. The Cornhuskers won a regular-season conference title in 1950, back when they were playing in something called the Big Seven. (Say this for the Big Seven: Unlike our modern conferences, its name was accurate.) The last conference tournament title came in 1994. The school has visited six NCAA tournaments in its history, and it has yet to win a game. This 0-6 record gives Nebraska the unique distinction — alongside South Florida (which is 0-2 all time) and Northwestern (which has never gone to the tournament) — of being one of just three teams in a BCS conference to have never won a game in the NCAA tournament.

If you're into sports with oblong balls, Nebraska is historical heaven. But if you want roundball success, I don't know what to tell you. Cheer for Creighton, maybe?

Nebraska coach Doc Sadler
Can Doc Sadler and the Cornhuskers field a competitive team in the Big Ten?
Lately, though, Nebraska has shown signs it means basketball business. This year, the school opened the Hendricks Training Complex, an $18.7 million practice facility designed to compete with the nation's best and, in time, help lure recruits to the long-dormant program. But that's just the start: In the fall of 2013, builders will complete work on the $150 million Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.'s West Haymarket Area. The project was voted on and approved (and will be funded in large part) by Lincoln-area taxpayers, with the promise of surrounding restaurants, shops and bars -- in other words: economic revitalization — of the type that typically accompanies publicly funded arena projects. Such promises often fall flat, but whatever the end result for the taxpayer, it's good news for Nebraska basketball: When you have a glimmering new downtown stadium to show recruits, it's much easier to get them to consider a program they would have otherwise ignored.

But will Nebraska coach Doc Sadler ever get to try?

That's the question facing Nebraska's brass right now. Does the program need to move on and start fresh? Or does Sadler, who has toiled under the status-quo conditions since 2007, deserve a chance to ply his trade in the brand new facilities?

At least one Nebraska booster thinks so, and he's not afraid to share his opinion — and pay full-page newspaper-ad rates in doing so. In "An open letter to Tom Shatel, Lee Barfknecht, Steve Sipple, and Nebraska Basketball Fans Everywhere.." [PDF] alumni Neal Hawks says he has heard the anti-Sadler noise grow louder in recent weeks, but thinks Sadler is unfairly being held responsible for Nebraska's long-standing lack of commitment to men's basketball. Citing figures from the Office of Postsecondary Education, Hawks writes that Nebraska lags far behind its Big Ten conference foes in basketball spending, and even behind putative "little brother" Creighton:
"I'm not great at math but that looks like we spent almost 25% less on Men's Basketball than Creighton did. Our supposed "little brother" athletically, at least in some of our minds. And we wonder why men's basketball is floundering at UNL."
As The Dagger's Jeff Eisenberg sharply points out, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Hawks's exact figures, which list Northwestern as the Big Ten's men's hoops spending leader and the nation's fourth-highest spender on the sport in the country. That doesn't sound right. Because schools categorize expenditures so diffusely, these numbers aren't exactly ironclad, let's say. But as Jeff writes, numerical quibbles aside, Hawks's point is nonetheless valid:
According to the World-Herald, Sadler's $900,000 per year salary ranks him 11th in the Big Ten, ahead of only first-year Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. The World-Herald reports that Sadler's three assistants made a combined $379,000 two years ago, which was less than the annual salary of Kansas State lead assistant Dalonte Hill at the time. Additionally, if Hawks is correct that the Nebraska staff doesn't have access to a charter plane for recruiting purposes, that's another significant disadvantage compared to other major conference programs.

The question now facing Nebraska is two-fold: Do the Huskers want to increase spending in basketball in an effort to be more competitive? And if so, does that mean seeing what Sadler can do with a greater budget or starting fresh with a new coaching staff?

Alas, those are the key questions facing Nebraska basketball as it moves forward. The first is the most important: Does Nebraska really want to be competitive? Does it realize a new arena and new practice facility, while an excellent start, are merely that — a start? And, if it does want to be competitive in basketball (in a new conference with Big Ten Network money rolling in, and so on) can it separate Sadler's record from the program's tradition? Or is it time to move on?

Frankly, you can argue for either option. Rest assured, whether in bars or on message boards or in full-page newspaper ads, Cornhuskers fans are already very much engaged in the debate.