Upstart Huskers, Creighton fuel state hoops pride
The state of Nebraska is basking in basketball glory.
The Creighton Bluejays (21-4, 11-2) lead the Big East, they're in line for their highest NCAA tournament seed, and Doug McDermott is the nation's leading scorer and a candidate for national player of the year.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers (14-10, 6-6) upset then-No. 9 Michigan State on the road Sunday for their fifth win in six games. That pushed them to .500 in the Big Ten and has them bidding to make the NCAA field for the first time since 1998.
Alas, the state might have two teams to cheer in the NCAA tournament for only the second time, and first since 1991.
Conditions are ripe for the hype. Creighton, in Omaha, left the mid-major Missouri Valley for the reconstituted Big East this season and is fifth nationally in attendance at 17,766 fans a game.
Nebraska, in Lincoln, has capitalized on the opening of the Pinnacle Bank Arena and is 13th in attendance at 15,253.
No one could have imagined such excitement for basketball in a state of 1.8 million that develops little major-college talent. Neither Creighton nor Nebraska roster lists a scholarship player from the state.
College basketball enthusiast Dave Heineman, also the state's governor, is relishing the moment.
''This is some of the best basketball I've seen this state play at the collegiate level,'' Heineman said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. He pointed out that in addition to the Creighton and Nebraska men's success, the 17th-ranked Huskers women's team also is excelling.
Heineman said he attends about five Nebraska men's games a season and about the same number of women's games. He said he also makes the 50-mile drive for Creighton games four or five times a year.
One of those occasions was Sunday, when he swapped his signature red polo for a blue one for the Bluejays' 101-80 win over then-No. 6 Villanova. That victory moved the Bluejays from No. 18 to a tie for No. 11 in this week's Top 25 poll.
As Creighton's game was about to tip off, Nebraska was finishing a 60-51 upset of the Spartans. It was the Huskers' first road win against a ranked opponent since 2008.
All this has created buzz about the possibility of second-year coach Tim Miles leading the Huskers to the program's first winning conference record since 1998-99 and an NCAA bid.
Miles' advice for his players?
''Basically, avoid the noise,'' he said. ''None of it exists until it exists. What I mean by that, all we can control is winning games. So anything outside of that, looking beyond the finish line ... the finish line is how well we practice today. The finish line is how we prepare ourselves for Penn State. Nothing more, nothing less.''
Creighton, which leads Villanova by a half-game in the Big East, plays at Marquette on Wednesday and is poised to land its highest NCAA seed, bettering the No. 6 it earned in 2003.
For Nebraska, which was picked last in the Big Ten, just getting into the NCAA tournament would exceed all expectations.
Heineman, who fell in love with college basketball when he was studying at West Point and Bobby Knight was Army's coach, said he logs onto his computer to check RPI rankings whenever he gets some down time. He was home for Presidents Day on Monday, and he was mulling the possibilities.
''It's fair to say the way Creighton is playing, they're going to be a No. 2 or 3 seed. I don't think there's any question about that,'' Heineman said.
''Nebraska continues to move up. I have to check their RPI. I think it's 52. They're getting close to being on the bubble. They have a real shot - something no one would have dreamed of early in the year.''
There is tension between the fan bases. Nebraska fans sneer at Bluejays' basketball fans who turn around and root for the Big Red football team in the fall, calling them ''Jay-skers.'' (Creighton quit fielding a football team in 1942.)
Creighton fans, meanwhile, never pass up an opportunity to remind Nebraska fans about the Bluejays' recent dominance in their basketball series - Creighton won 82-67 this season - and the Huskers' 0-6 record in NCAA tournament games.
Heineman said he supports both teams equally.
''And when they play each other,'' he said, ''I don't go to that game because all I'm going to do is get in trouble no matter who I root for.''