Thursday, March 26, 2015

Could Missouri Valley Expansion Affect UNO? "Frank the Tank" Thinks It Could

Back when college realignment first started churning, one of the best sources of information was Chicago-based lawyer/blogger "Frank the Tank".  He was the guy who called Nebraska to the Big Ten long before anybody else did - even when guys like Chip Brown didn't believe it.  He's always been a good read, and this week was no exception.

One of the topics was Missouri Valley expansion.  Contrary to some speculation, Wichita State isn't leaving the Valley; while they play basketball at a major level, the school and it's other athletic programs aren't a good match with other conferences.  So no, Creighton fans... the Shockers aren't going to be invited to join the Big East.
But with Alabama-Birmingham looking like a candidate to join the Valley (due to dropping football), the Valley may be looking to add a twelfth school to maintain an even number of teams in competition.  Frank speculates that Loyola, UIC, and Valparaiso may be candidates to join the Valley.  That, in turn, creates openings in the Horizon League membership...and that's where UNO comes in.

Quote Frank:
This prospect of MVC expansion might be why the Horizon League commissioner has already said that it’s in the “active phase” of expansion and the league would likely expand in the near future. The Horizon League has already been interested in schools like Northern Kentucky (currently in the Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (an Ohio Valley Conference member) and the conference may need to also backfill in the event that it gets raided by the MVC (which could put Summit League schools such as Nebraska-Omaha into play).
Hmmm...  Who's in the Horizon League today? Cleveland State, Detroit, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Oakland (the school in Detroit, not across the Bay from San Francisco), Illinois-Chicago, Valparaiso, Wright State, and Youngstown State. (Yes, the home of the Fightin' Pelini's and Tressel's...)

Not exactly a great fit for UNO over the Summit League, which features schools in the Dakotas and Denver along with Western Illinois, IUPUI, and Indiana-Fort Wayne, in terms of regional play. But it could be an upgrade in prestige.

(And in case the football and wrestling guys ask, the Horizon League doesn't sponsor those sports either...)

Monday, March 16, 2015

The End of a Dream for UNO Hockey?

St. Cloud State's first round sweep of UNO was, in many respects, more of the same for UNO.  It's been ten years since UNO has advanced to the final weekend of their conference tournament. Dean Blais, the legendary coach who won championships at North Dakota has a losing record in the last month of the season at UNO.

Yes, the deck was stacked against UNO this weekend. Senior captain Dominic Zombo is still out with an injury that looks like it might be season-ending. Senior goalie Ryan Massa re-injured his knee early in Friday night's game. The NCHC sent Maverick fans' favorite referee, Brian Aaron, to Omaha as an emergency replacement for Saturday night's game. Aaron ejected defenseman Brian Cooper from the game with one of his first calls of the night, which shortened up an already exhausted UNO bench from Friday night's double overtime loss.  And while the Huskies finished sixth in the NCHC, the resume of UNO's conference is so strong that six of the eight teams could get into the sixteen team NCAA tournament.

I get that. And if UNO had advanced to the conference final weekend last season, I'd accept it more. But it's been ten years since that happened. And based on past history, you have to wonder when it will. Prognosticators hardly considered the results of this past weekend an upset; they've seen it all before and most actually predicted it.

I've long had a dream for UNO hockey that it would explode into something special. Playing in one of the premier conferences in college hockey at a school where hockey is supposed to be the number one sport. In a market with a storied history of embracing college sports and elevating them to ridiculous levels, whether it's the College World Series, Nebraska baseball and volleyball, or Creighton basketball.

All it takes is that first championship to catch the attention of the casual sports fan, and the bandwagon starts to fill up.  That bandwagon made Lincoln's Haymarket Park a reality. It's what keeps the College World Series in Omaha year after year, now that the city made sure the NCAA had what they needed. It's why it only took one day for the Big Ten baseball tournament to set an all-time attendance record last year.

UNO and most of my fellow Maverick fans have given up on that dream. They're all excited about UNO's new arena, which caps attendance at current levels. They make a good point; UNO isn't going to fill a 16,000 seat arena, so why not build something more intimate to make the best of the crowds UNO does attract.  Go to a building UNO does control so that Creighton isn't playing basketball 3 hours before faceoff and games don't have to be moved to accommodate a Yanni concert. (Yes, that happened once.)

What they won't admit is that UNO is stepping back to something even smaller than the Civic; basically saying that UNO hockey is all that it's ever going to be. Just a niche sport, not worthy of anything more.  And after this weekend, I have to admit... maybe they are right.

Any growth of the fanbase is going to be the result of winning something of substance: a conference title, or games in the NCAA tournament.  That gets the attention of the media.  This season, with Nebrasketball and Creighton basketball slipping on the banana peel, the Omaha World-Herald started to give more coverage to UNO hockey. I hoped that would lead to more coverage by local TV, who've developed this habit of leaving in the second period after they get a couple of highlights for the 10 pm newscasts.

My real goal is to have somebody ... anybody ... do what KMTV did for Creighton basketball over ten years ago, and start televising games.  Not so much home games; NET does that, and does a pretty good job.  I'm talking road games. Creighton discovered that televising home games doesn't necessarily hurt attendance, especially when packaged in with away game broadcasts that allow more people to follow the team and get addicted.

I get why it hasn't happened yet. Nobody sees a market there to make these broadcasts work; UNO hockey is still viewed as a niche.  That's why I want to see UNO hockey drawing bigger crowds - it tells television there is enough interest to make a UNO broadcast worth their while. And by capping attendance, the chances of that are disappearing fast.

Thanks to the strength of UNO's schedule, the Mavs look like they are a lock to get an NCAA hockey berth. Some might view it as "backing in", others might consider it getting a bye week.  Either way, an off week has to help get Massa healthy, and you never know about Zombo.  Would Zombo be able to take to the ice and give it one final shot, knowing that it's his last opportunity to wear his college jersey?  And the lethargic UNO offense sure needs some tinkering.

What a difference from six weeks ago, when UNO looked like every bit the equal of the best team in the country. The eternal optimist in me still wants to believe it can and will happen. But more and more, it looks more and more like dreams that will go unfulfilled.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

I Beg To Differ: The CenturyLink Center Was Built for Hockey, But Also Concerts

With this being the last weekend for UNO to play hockey at downtown Omaha's CenturyLink Center, Tom Shatel looked back at the Mavs' hockey home for the past twelve years. Unfortunately, and with all due respect, it turned out backwards.

I think we can agree that the UNO hockey had it's issues with the CenturyLink Center.  Some of it was by design, as it's bigger than necessary for college hockey. The primary motivation for the CenturyLink Center was to bring big events to Omaha such as NCAA tournaments and concerts.  It was a way to keep the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting here.  Events like the Olympic Swim Trials would never be possible in Omaha without an arena this size.  College hockey programs don't really need 16,000 seats.  U2, Springsteen, and Jimmy Buffett need those seats though, and that's why we got it.

But let's walk back 15 years and revisit the contentious debate over building a new arena.  At that time, UNO hockey had sold out every game at the old Civic. It had it's issues, though. Fans in the upper deck had to duck to avoid banging their heads on the rafters. It didn't have some of the modern conveniences like a jumbotron or club seating, let alone suites.

It didn't even have a spot for students.

Over time, some UNO fans grew romantic over the Civic, preferring to remember games like "Tuesday Night" or "Six Seconds with Alex Nikoforuk" over the games where the atmosphere was so dead, it led to the creation of groups like the "Red Army" - dedicated to fighting the "tyranny of silence."

During the design and debate over the CenturyLink Center, hockey was always front and center.  The bowl is set up around a hockey rink, unlike Lincoln's Pinnacle Bank Arena, which is optimized for basketball.  Sure, Creighton plays basketball at the Clink, but they have to extend the seats with a lesser pitch to fill the area around the court.  In Lincoln, some seats in the corners won't be have a view of the ice, should they ever play hockey there.

When the Clink was being debated, all of the illustrations of the inside of the arena showed a hockey rink in place. It was designed first for hockey, and for good reason.  At that time, UNO was selling out every game with 8,314 fans.

Creighton hoops was averaging around 5,000 fans a game. The question wasn't whether UNO was going to play in the new arena, it was whether Creighton was going to make the move.

Well, we all know what happened next.  Dana Altman turned Creighton around and they became a Missouri Valley contender.  Fans love a winner, so attendance increased...and increased.  Nebrasketball tanked, turning some fans into Jayskers.  And with a larger arena, there was room for them at Creighton games, and the Bluejays flourished in the new digs.

Meanwhile, UNO hockey tripped over their feet over and over again. The first season at the new arena, the Mavs finished dead last in the conference, losing three times as many games as they won.  Attendance surged initially, but the product on the ice left a lot to be desired.  People tried the product, and their first impression was negative.  It's a perception that never cleared up.  Even when UNO made the NCAA tournament a few years later, people still thought of UNO hockey as that "last place" loser.

And let's not get into the ineptness of the Nancy Belck/Jim Buck/Bob Danenhauer/David Herbster eras. While UNO hockey straightened itself out fairly quickly on the ice, it really took until Trev Alberts arrived before the administration stopped alienating fans and supporters.

To this day, I believe UNO's issues downtown are more the fault of UNO than an issue with the CenturyLink Center.  I believe that if UNO hockey can make a move in March like I think they are capable this year or next, interest in UNO hockey will far exceed the capacity of the new arena.  It already does; most UNO hockey games after the holidays tend to draw more than the listed 7500 seat capacity of the new barn.  Dean Blais is absolutely right that the new arena should have a capacity of 9000.  Building a 7500 seat arena for UNO is a huge mistake, in my opinion.

In my mind, UNO's decision to build their own arena is like the dog tucking it's tail between it's legs and slinking away.  Building a 7500 seat arena is an inexplicable step backwards - an admittance that this is all UNO hockey will be.

Which is blatantly false. I've seen it over and over again on those nights when UNO would draw 9,000 or so fans with a fairly lively crowd.  When North Dakota came to town in January, the atmosphere was electric...and it wasn't because of all of the green people.

I wanted more of that.  And I'm not going to be able to get that moving forward, because some people simply don't believe enough in UNO hockey to make it happen. 

So next year, when UNO opens up their season in what I call "The Mistake", I'll always wonder how many more fans would have been there if the game were downtown.

Just because others gave up on the promise of UNO hockey doesn't mean I did.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Will This March Be Different For UNO Hockey?

It's hard to believe that UNO's best March of hockey was the first season the Mavs were eligible to play in the post-season. In March 2000, UNO made a bold push in their initial season in the CCHA, winning a best of three first round series on the road against Northern Michigan, setting up an unexpected play-in game two days later.  Unexpected...because the City of Omaha had already melted the ice at the Civic Auditorium for a car show.  So as game three came to a conclusion in Marquette, Michigan, the staff at the Civic fired up the compressors and began a rush job to put down a new ice surface for what is now known as "Tuesday Night."

Tuesday night might be the greatest night of hockey in the city limits of Omaha.  People rearranged their schedules, and there was hardly an empty seat at the Civic that night and the atmosphere was electric, much like it was when North Dakota came to town in January. It was a close defensive battle until Jeff Hoggan scored the game winning goal against Bowling Green late in the third period, sending the Mavs to "the Joe" for the CCHA semifinals.  Three days later, UNO beat the University of Michigan 7-4 in what is remembered as the "St. Patrick's Day Massacre."  Nevermind that UNO lost 6-0 to Michigan State the next night to end the Mavs' Cinderella season.

The future was bright, right?  Just year three, and UNO was right there, on the cusp of national prominence.

But UNO never quite made it back to that same stage.  They played again at Joe Louis Arena a few more times, but never made it past the semifinals.  UNO has even made it to the NCAA tournament twice, losing both times.

Arguably, it's gotten worse under Dean Blais.  UNO moved to the WCHA in 2010 and the NCHC in 2013, and UNO hasn't even made it to Minneapolis for either conference tournament.  The second weekend of March has been awful for UNO hockey historically.

This weekend, it's St. Cloud State up for the Mavs in a best of three series.  The Huskies swept UNO three weeks ago up north, though UNO had their chances up there.  In December, UNO swept St. Cloud State, so the series is tied for the season.  UNO may not need to win this series to advance to the NCAA tournament; they may have done enough to earn a berth at this point.

But if UNO wants to reset the trajectory of the program, this weekend is a must-win.  Post-season wins are too few in number, and this UNO team is by far it's most talented.  It's time to put the past behind and set a new course.

Seniors like goalie Ryan Massa have never played in the conference tournament semifinals, and this is their last chance.  Massa was a late scratch last Saturday night after injuring his knee in warmups, but may be able to go this weekend. A hot goaltender can carry a hockey team far during the postseason, and Massa has been stellar all season long.  No word as to whether senior captain Dominic Zombo will be able to go this weekend either; I suspect he won't, though I imagine that's killing him to not be able to contribute.

I understand the doubts based on the past, but UNO hockey has done things this season nobody expected they would early on.  Will that be enough to get UNO to Minneapolis next weekend?

Monday, March 09, 2015

A Few Thoughts on The Massive Biography on Mike Riley

Yesterday's biographical feature by Dirk Chatelain was very thorough and well researched, though I have one minor issue with it.  And, of course, me being a blogger, I have a couple of opinions on it as well. I throw a lot of criticism towards Chatelain's work when he tries to analyze games or (even worse) play with statistics.  But he does features amazingly well...and this is no exception.

I do have one criticism of Chatelain's article, and it hits home to me.  I also write for CornNation.com, which is part of the SB Nation network of sports blogs.  Jon Johnston, the managing editor for CornNation, points out that Chatelain interviewed Andy Wooldridge, the managing editor for SB Nation's Building the Dam, yet never mentions the site. No link...just a reference to a "fan site."  I get that many of us bloggers do this as a hobby, and for Chatelain, this is a full-time profession. But if you are going to use a blogger as a reference, at least reference his work so that your audience can further evaluate his credibility.  Not doing so was disrespectful of not only his source, but also his readers.

BTW, if you want to read more about Wooldridge's thoughts on Mike Riley, CN's Brian Towle published a Q&A with him back in December.

So what are my takeaways from the Riley biography?  He's a fascinating guy, and no doubt in my mind, he's going to be a fan favorite initially.  He's easy going and genuine.  I can see why a lot of people like him.

But...and here's the concern, and Chatelain points it out.  He left Oregon State because his program was struggling. His offensive scheme seemed to be out of date, and his defenses weren't that great either. Reportedly, the athletic director wasn't happy, and was looking to restructure contracts moving forward to limit Oregon State's financial commitment, should Riley not be able to turn the program around.  Assistant coaches were going on year-to-year contracts, and Riley's automatic rollover was being eliminated.

Yes, Oregon State was preparing to dismiss Mike Riley and his staff. Not this year.  Probably next year or the year after.

Funny thing happened a few hours later.  Shawn Eichorst calls Riley and within hours, offers him the job at Nebraska. What probably started out as one of Riley's worst days rebounded to be one of his best...  you get a really, really bad job review that calls into question your future, and suddenly a new, even better job appears out of the blue.

There shouldn't be any question as to why Mike Riley left Oregon State. His time was up there.  Why are he and his assistants so happy to be in Lincoln? Because the buzzards were circulating, and their job security was on the line.  Suddenly, they all got big raises and a fresh start.  Of course they are extremely happy to be in Lincoln.  They literally won the lottery.

Many people want to point to Oregon State's relative lack of resources as a reason why Mike Riley didn't succeed as much at Oregon State. It's true that the Beavers aren't going to have the resources of a school like the University of Oregon and it's Phil Knight/Nike support.  But they aren't bankrupt.  Oregon State has resources they could have deployed, if warranted.  They marshalled those resources and are paying Gary Anderson nearly a million dollars more than they were paying Riley.

Oregon State's didn't see the value in investing that money in Mike Riley. And that's a big reason why I don't think Nebraska should have invested it's resources in Mike Riley either.  Nebraska has plenty of resources to offer in football, and if Nebraska was going to make a move to contend for championships, resources could have and should have been used to hire the best available coach.

That didn't happen.  And by judging from the speed in which Riley was hired, it was never even considered.

I hope Mike Riley works out. It's a heck of a lot more fun to win than lose.  Mike Riley isn't a bad coach, but he hasn't won enough, especially at the level Nebraska fans are striving for.

Oregon State's best days in football came AFTER Mike Riley left Corvallis the first time. I suspect that Oregon State will be better again, now that he's left a second time.  That conclusion doesn't bode well for my favorite team either, I'm afraid.

And I sure hope I'm dead wrong on that...

Thursday, March 05, 2015

UNO Hockey Tries to Wrap Up Home Ice & NCAA Berth Against Colorado College

The bad news for UNO hockey is that they haven't won a game since Valentines' Day.  The good news is that the strength of their conference schedule has kept them in fairly solid position to host a first round playoff series next weekend and ensure that they'll be playing in the NCAA tournament in three weeks.

The conference regular season title is out of the question, but second place is still very much possible.  Colorado College is in last place, while UNO sits just two points behind second place Miami, who has to host #1 North Dakota this weekend.  If UNO gets two wins, Miami has to win or tie both games. (Two ties would require Miami winning both shootouts, if you want to get particular.)

This weekend is all about setting up seedings and matchups for next weekend.  Two UNO wins means the Mavs will play either Western Michigan or St. Cloud State next weekend in Omaha.  A split probably means a matchup against Minnesota-Duluth...and two losses likely sends the Mavs on the road to Denver or Duluth.

Why is it so important for UNO to try to get to 2nd place?  That would give UNO a home matchup against Western Michigan, currently ranked 27th in the Pairwise...right in the middle of the college hockey rankings.  That's a tough matchup when you consider that the Broncos will finish in second to last place in the conference.  St. Cloud State, on the other hand, is on the NCAA tournament bubble at 17th place in the Pairwise.  They're on the verge of playing themselves into the tournament.

And if that's the sixth place team, you pretty much know the rest of the conference is stacked...and those are teams you don't want to face until you get to Minneapolis.  #1 North Dakota. #3 Minnesota-Duluth. #4 Miami. #5 UNO.  #8 Denver.  Five out of the top eight teams in the country in one conference.

That's why I think that if UNO wins two games this weekend, they should be in good shape for the NCAA tournament.  No matter what happens after that, the resume looks to be good enough to get them in.  But it's better to not chance it either.

BTW, even though UNO only managed two ties last weekend at Duluth, it was a noteworthy on a national basis as Jake Randolph pulled off the hockey highlight of the weekend nationally with this shootout goal Friday night.
He's done it before...two years ago, in Omaha, for the Lancers.
UNO is undefeated in shootouts this season, and goalie Ryan Massa has stopped 11 of 12 shootout attempts this season. The senior goalie has been rock solid all season, which should bode well for UNO's chances in March.

Maybe longer.


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

One Great Thing And One Awful Thing From Mike Riley's Preseason News Conference

Over at CornNation, I blogged a summary of what all was said during Mike Riley's first pre-Spring practice news conference. I took two things away from what was said; one was really good, and the other brought back really bad memories.

Let's start with the good. The idea of splitting the team up and running two separate practices is an extremely innovative idea - and it's one that I really like.  It really makes sense and seems to be a great way to allow the coaches to spend more time with the players without breaking the rules limiting the amount of time players can spend in practice.  It's certainly not something that he'll want to do a lot, because it limits the ability for players to interact with each other. But in this situation where the coaches and players are getting to know each other, it simply seems like a great way to get started.  I could even see doing this for the first week or so of preseason practice as well.

But then there was this:
I can appreciate wanting to work on Armstrong's passing ability, but the idea of turning Tommy Armstrong into a pocket passer reminds me an awful lot of what Bill Callahan did to Joe Dailey. Husker fans remember how that 2004 Southern Miss game ended.  Dailey's instincts were to run, but Callahan's attempt to retrain Dailey to fit his system made him hesitant, and it showed on that horrible final play when he looked completely bamboozled as he couldn't decide what he should do.  Husker fans knew exactly what he should do...run it into the endzone for the touchdown. Bill Callahan criticized him for not throwing the ball.

Is Mike Riley making a Bill Callahan mistake with his quarterbacks? It's too early to make that call, and frankly, it's taking a quote out of context. After all, Riley has also talked about utilizing the quarterback run game as a new weapon in his offense. An offense that Riley admitted didn't work anymore at the end of last season. We really won't have any idea what Riley is going to do until the Huskers line up against BYU, and until then, it's all idle speculation.  Even if Riley knew exactly what his offense will be in September (without one single practice with his players), there's absolutely no reason to tip off opponents in March.

Mike Riley has talked about adapting his offense to the skillset of his players. If he truly does that, this won't be a problem. But Langsdorf's comment causes you to pause and "hmmmm"...and that's not a good "hmmmmm" either.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Maverick Hockey Heads North to Face #6 Minnesota-Duluth

Last weekend's series against St. Cloud State didn't go very well for UNO as the Mavs got swept for the first time this season. Dean Blais didn't feel UNO played all that badly afterwards, and I'm not so sure from a national perspective, the losses weren't that bad.  UNO "only" fell to 8th place in both the polls and the PairWise rankings that seed the NCAA tournament.

How the heck did that happen? Simple, the strength of the conference. Even though St. Cloud State is in sixth place in the conference, they rank 14th in the Pairwise.  Imagine that... if the season were over, the NCHC might have six of eight teams in the 16 team NCAA tournament.  That's kind of like all of the talk of placing four SEC west teams in the College Football Playoff last season...except rather that instead of this coming from a moron on ESPN, it's coming from a tested and accepted statistical formula.  (Well, some hockey-heads would prefer KRACH, but that's another discussion entirely...)
Having lost three of of their last four (and four out of their last five games), UNO needs a big bounceback weekend just for momentum sake.  It would certainly help UNO's case for home ice in the playoffs and NCAA seeding, but it's more to reestablish the team and get them focused heading into the last month of the season.

That'll be tough this weekend against #6 Minnesota-Duluth.  Dean Blais thought they were the "best team in the country" in November. The Bulldogs are one point behind UNO in the standings, so with six points up for grabs, UNO needs a split just to stay in position for home ice.

No stars really on the Bulldogs roster; sophomore center Dominic Toninato is the leading scorer ranking 30th in the nation.  Just a solid roster from top to bottom, and that's going to put pressure on UNO's third and fourth lines this weekend.  UNO looks to be without senior captain Dominic Zombo once again; I suspect that we might not see him again until the playoffs at the soonest.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nebrasketball Is Painful to Watch

I've been a Nebraska basketball fan since the Joe Cipriano era. Carl McPipe, Andre Smith, Brian Banks, the late Jack Moore. Those were the guys I grew up with, though never watching much, except when the Huskers got a TVS game on TV.  More often than not, it was listening to Kent Pavelka on my Soundesign radio.

But this century has really put a damper on my interest. Part of it is my interest in UNO hockey.  But it's also the woeful state of Nebraska basketball for much of the last twenty years. Barry Collier wasn't the answer, and Doc Sadler wasn't either. And frankly, I'm not convinced Tim Miles is the answer either.

In Tuesday's Omaha World-Herald, Lee Barfknecht pointed out some damning statistics about the current state of Nebraska basketball:
Miles has coached 92 games at Nebraska. The rate of his teams scoring less than 50 points in regulation: 15.2 percent. ["Slow" Moe] Iba coached 177 games at NU. His rate: 6.8 percent. And Iba worked just one year with a shot clock and none with the 3-point shot. Two other clod-hopper offenses — those under Doc Sadler and Barry Collier — produced 8.4 percent and 2.8 percent of games with less than 50 points.
Yes, I know that Miles pulled off a six-week miracle last season and got the Huskers into the NCAA tournament. And that was unbelievably awesome.  That's the upside that Miles gave us.  The downside is what we've seen the rest of the time.  How many times has Nebraska embarrassed themselves in the first half under Miles? This year, we've seen a couple of halftime scores of 13...and Sunday's scoring explosion of 16 points.

This isn't to call for Miles' head, or putting him on any sort of hot seat. But by that same reasoning, people simply have to stop saying things like "Nebraska basketball is on an upswing."

Because it's not.

I'm going to be patient with Miles.  It's only year three, and Miles has some interesting players in the wings for next season, starting with Kansas transfer Andrew White.  There's no point in hitting the panic button at this point, just like it was silly to prematurely canonize Miles last season either.

On Sunday, my Twitter feed filled up with lots of references to Bo Pelini, as if that somehow makes the situation better. It doesn't.  Barfknect had a nice quote about the notion, though his pot shot at users of Twitter and Facebook was ill-informed:
Second, the Twitter and Facebook chatter about Miles being on the hot seat supports Charles Barkley’s argument that social media is the best place for people to prove their stupidity. That goes double for those who reference Nebraska football when discussing basketball.
It's rather ironic that Barfknecht would double-down on references to football in basketball discussions proving "stupidity" when he did that very thing last April.
What those officials won't say publicly but is heard behind the scenes is they want the football program to learn something from Miles, and fast.
(Calling Barfknecht out on that one last April earned me a Twitter block from the World-Herald's beat-writer...I guess he showed me that he wasn't as Twitter-inept as I claimed he was.)

I started out skeptical of the Tim Miles hire, and he has set off my "Bill Callahan-BS" detector more than once. I thought last season had proven me wrong, but this season has me walking back to my original concerns.

Is Miles the right coach for Nebraska? I don't know, but frankly, it doesn't really matter at this point. He is the coach, and he deserves much more time to figure out how to turn this thing around.  But let's do us all a favor and turn off the "savior" talk for now...if only to hold off the backlash if Nebraska doesn't return to 2013-14 levels in the next couple of years.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

UNO Hockey Begins Four Week Dash Against Western Michigan

First-place UNO hockey begins the final four weeks of the regular season at #4 nationally in the rankings...and with a relatively favorable schedule down the stretch. I say "relatively" because the NCHC is the toughest conference in college hockey this season.  Of the eight teams, five are ranked in the top nine nationally. (For comparison, #12 Michigan is the highest ranked Big Ten team in college hockey.)

But in these final four weeks, UNO only plays one of those top five teams: #6 Minnesota Duluth on the road in two weeks.  The other three weekends, UNO plays the bottom three teams in the conference: Western Michigan, St. Cloud State, and Colorado College. Normally that would be a good thing, but UNO has found the ability this season to play up - and down - to their competition, as those series against Alabama Huntsville and New Hampshire showed.

The general thought is that UNO is playing more for seeding than to qualify for the NCAA tournament in March; there's probably some truth to that, but it's secondary at this point. The first point of emphasis is to make it to Minneapolis for the conference tournament semi-finals and finals.  I'm not sure which fact is more surprising:  that UNO played for the CCHA championship in 2000 in the first year of membership (and the third season for the program overall)...or that UNO has never made it back to the title game ever again. In recent years, the team has squandered home ice in the playoffs and never made it to the next weekend.

But this year seems to be different, as UNO has found a way to compete with everybody in the nation.  The next two months are shaping up to be the biggest in program history.

The primary concern for this weekend is the status of senior captain Dominic Zombo, who had been centering UNO's top line between super sophomores Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega. Zombo left the North Dakota series with a groin injury and will sit out this weekend.

The question is how long he might be out; hopefully this is more of a preventative measure than anything else.

Speaking of Ortega, the World-Herald's Tom Shatel profiled the San Diego area native (aka "Carolina Hot Sauce") in his Thursday column. If you think Omaha is an unlikely place for hockey to flourish, think Escondido, CA...

After this weekend, UNO hits the road for the next two weeks, so this will be the last chance to catch the Mavs in town this month.  Looking at Ticketmaster seat availability, it looks crowds greater than 8,000 should be on hand each night.  (Preferably more with a good walk-up crowd!)  With all three college basketball programs in the area struggling this year, UNO hockey is the area's hope for March Madness.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

North Dakota Edges UNO 4-3 in Overtime To Earn a Weekend Split

Game two of the weekend hockey series between #1 North Dakota and #5 UNO was every bit the equal of Friday night's 3-2 overtime game that UNO won...except tonight, it was North Dakota who led most of the night. Starting just 37 seconds into the game, to be exact.  Each time North Dakota scored, UNO found an answer at some point, with Brian Cooper getting the final game-tying goal with just 3:44 left in the third period.

As was the case much of the night, North Dakota controlled the play in overtime and buried the game-winner 2:04 into the overtime to give North Dakota the victory and the series split. For the season, UNO won one game, North Dakota won two, and a fourth game was officially a tie, with UNO winning the shootout.  Very much an even series...so much so, that folks can't wait for these two teams to meet up again:

Certainly a rematch is possible in Minneapolis at the NCHC Frozen Final.  But that's for down the line... Tonight, my takeaway from this weekend is that UNO hockey is fully capable of playing with anybody and everybody. When the polls come out next week, UNO shouldn't drop. Not when #6 Bowling Green lost and tied Bemidji State and #7 Minnesota-Duluth split with #11 Denver.  UNO currently sits in a tie for third in the Pairwise rankings with Boston University, trailing Mankato and North Dakota.

And that's an amazing thing when you realize that this is a team mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.  Tonight's UNO hero was sophomore Jake Guentzel; last night's was sophomore Austin Ortega. Freshmen scored two goals last night.  The only seniors making major contributions are Dominic Zombo and goalie Ryan Massa.  Massa has been magical all season long, and he was outstanding tonight.  Zombo left tonight's game after a very chippy first period.

Simply put...this is only just the beginning. Something very special is happening around UNO hockey.  The snowstorm kept tonight's crowd down, but it still drew 10,674...and only about 1,000 of those were North Dakota fans. A lot of people reintroduced themselves to UNO hockey this weekend, and they have to be impressed with what they saw.

They're probably disappointed by what happened tonight. They should be disappointed by the final score.

They should be excited about what the future holds.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ortega Overtime Goal Gives UNO Hockey a 3-2 Victory Over #1 North Dakota

What. A. Game.

In front of over 11,000 fans, #5 UNO defeated #1 North Dakota 3-2 in overtime.  The game lived up to all of the hype this week.  UNO broke out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period with goals from freshmen Tyler Vesel and Avery Peterson.  But UNO took a series of bad penalties to let North Dakota tie the game. Freshman Joel Messner was ejected from the game late in the second period for boarding, giving North Dakota a five minute major power play.  UNO killed it off, but as it expired, Grant Gallo was penalized for interference and North Dakota scored on the delayed penalty early in the third period.

That one goal lead held until the final minute. After Brian Cooper was called for tripping with 2:30 left in regulation, North Dakota pulled their goalie to give them a 6-on-4 power play.  UNO's Jake Guentzel nearly scored an empty net goal with just over a minute left, but a North Dakota defensemen knocked the shot down at center ice.  But with 47 seconds left, North Dakota's Drake Caggiula buried a rebound to tie the game.  UNO coach Dean Blais' reaction says it all:

The demoralized Mavericks then had to scramble to get the game to overtime as North Dakota put on quite a rush to finish the game in the third period.

The brief intermission before overtime allowed UNO to regain their edge, and when North Dakota took two stupid penalties of their own, UNO had a 5-on-3 advantage.  UNO played the two man advantage extremely conservatively, not attempting a shot until just as the first penalty expired.  And what a shot:  Austin Ortega redirected Ian Brady's shot for the wing into the net for his NCAA-leading ninth game winning goal

The victory moves UNO to 2nd place in the Pairwise rankings that seed the NCAA tournament, and also ensures that no matter what happens Saturday night, UNO will remain in first place in the conference standings.

That Saturday night game should be epic, if tonight's game is any indication.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Nobody Likes Robocalls. So Why Did Mike Riley Robocall Me?

You know the routine. You are eating dinner and the phone rings...or you go to check your phone messages, and you are greeted by yet another annoying robocall:
  • Hello. This is the Disabled Veterans and we will have a truck in your area...
  • This is your final notice. We have been trying to contact you to help refinance your credit card debt...
  • Hey Husker fans, this Nebraska football coach Mike Riley...
  • Hello, this is Congressman Hal Daub inviting you...
Wait...what was that third one again?

Yep, somebody in the Nebraska athletic department thought it would be a good idea to have Mike Riley record a message and then call every football season ticket holder to interrupt dinner time.  (OK, mine arrived a little earlier than my meal time:  5:37 pm Wednesday evening.  But I know many people are eating dinner at that time.)

It started with a noble idea: send a message from the new coaching staff to the fans to introduce themselves. The problem wasn't the message, it was selecting the most annoying way to deliver the message.  There's no way that Mike Riley could make 30,000 phone calls - especially during recruiting season. But they could have sent a mass e-mail or post a YouTube video to Facebook and Twitter.

Instead, they chose the delivery method most despised by people: the robocall, joining the ranks of illegitimate charities, credit card scammers, and politicians desperately seeking reelection. Sometimes robocalls are simply a necessary evil; it's the most efficient way to deliver urgent messages to a large audience. (Think school closings.)  But this wasn't quite the same situation; it wasn't an urgent message.

So hey, Mike Riley is so appreciative of Husker fans that he spent a whole minute recording a message to ask us to renew our season tickets.

I don't think that was the message that the athletic department really intended to send.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#5 UNO vs. #1 North Dakota: The Biggest Regular Season Weekend in UNO Hockey History?

UNO has played teams ranked #1 before...but never, ever when UNO has also been ranked anywhere near this high.  UNO sits in first place in the NCHC standings, just one point ahead of second place North Dakota.  The difference?  A shootout win by the Mavs when the teams played in Grand Forks on Thanksgiving weekend.

Now the scene shifts to Omaha, and it's not only the biggest regular season series in UNO hockey history, it's also the biggest series in the nation this weekend. CBS Sports Network is televising the Friday night game, and NET is televising the Saturday night game.  (Fox College Sports will be simulcasting the NET coverage nationwide on Saturday night, meaning that's two nationally televised games for the Mavs this weekend.)

Last weekend, North Dakota swept Colorado College at home, but both games were a lot closer than the teams' respective records would indicate.  The Tigers have been playing a lot better as of late, as indicated the week prior, when UNO and CC split the weekend series. At that time, it looked like UNO might have been playing down to their competition, but in hindsight, it's probably more to Colorado College turning their season around.

Looks like there will be big crowds this weekend as well; a quick check of Ticketmaster shows that the lower bowl is just about sold out both nights.  I wouldn't be surprised if both night's crowds approach 9,000 or more fans.  (And hopefully it's not all green Sioux fans, as the local beer distributors hope.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DaiShon Neal Says Something About Husker Fans They Won't Admit

I don't follow recruiting, but an early morning meeting found me in the car at the moment Omaha Central's DaiShon Neal reaffirmed his commitment to play football for Nebraska.  And, of course, I was listening to KOZN-1620 AM radio's "Sharp and Benning in the Morning" as I do pretty much every morning (except probably next week during the Worst Week of the Year. But that's another topic - for next week.)

Most Husker fans hit on the following quote from Abe Hoskins, Neal's father:
“Michigan was a powerhouse, they came in and they stormed us. … They made one bad statement and ruined it,” Hoskins said during the “Sharp and Benning Show” in-studio visit. “They said without football DaiShon wouldn’t be able to go to Michigan, like we couldn’t afford to send him there or we couldn’t get him (in) academically.”
Neal interjected: “They basically tried to call me stupid in front of my face.”
Hoskins continued: “Once he said that, we pretty much escorted him out of the house.”
Make fun of Michigan?  Hey, that's always lots of fun for Husker fans.  It's easy to hate on the Weasels in Maize and Blue.

What I found much more interesting is the following quote, which fans are ignoring.
“The reason everything started is because I had a good relationship with the old coaching staff,” he said. “I really committed to Coach Kaczenski. He was a great coach and I loved what he said to me. Then the fan base got rid of the entire coaching staff. So, I mean, you can’t be mad at me just for looking around.”
Neal said the same thing later in the interview, so it's not like it was a misquote.  I highlighted the entire quote to give you context. And I understand why Husker fans would ignore those statements; it's uncomfortable to admit their own role in the end of the previous coaching regime.  Point the thumb?  That was supposed to be for Bo Pelini, not us.  You heard Bo's blasphemy.  How can he say that the fans were against him, when we have sold out Memorial Stadium for 51 years?

It's not all fans, of course.  But a large group of fans, former players, and media played a definite role in creating the toxic environment that resulted in Bo Pelini's dismissal. That's not to say that Bo Pelini didn't have anything to do with it either.  He did.

Just don't deny the reality that many Husker fans turned on Pelini. Pelini wasn't wrong when he said that in that team meeting.  DaiShon Neal saw it firsthand.

It's too late to do anything about that now. But it's something to think about how we respond when Mike Riley loses a big game.  It doesn't mean we can't be critical.  It just means that we have to be a little more fair and make sure our criticism isn't just venomous anger.

We saw where that got us.