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.