When 14th-ranked Nebraska met 13th-ranked Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., last Saturday night, Cornhusker starter Beau Reid chewed on a mouth guard. Nebraska assistant coach Jeff Smith was perched high above the game, wearing a headset and talking to graduate assistant Jeff Reinert on the bench. The victor in this longtime rivalry would become a front-runner in the race for the Big Eight crown. All perfectly ordinary, except for one thing: This game was played not on a football field but on the varnished hardwood floor of Lloyd Noble Center.
When it was over, the Cornhuskers had handed the Sooners one of their worst home defeats in coach Billy Tubbs's 11-year tenure at Oklahoma. The 111-99 win also gave the Cornhuskers their first victory in Norman in 10 years. "The only word I can think of is finally," said Nebraska center Rich King afterward.
The Huskers were picked to finish dead last in the Big Eight, and why not, considering their recent past: three straight seventh-place finishes? Instead, at week's end they had a gaudy 17-2 record and were the only Big Eight team with so much as one road win in conference competition. Nebraska is no longer a joke or a secret but a team possessing such superb balance—five players are scoring in double figures, and eight have at least 20 assists—that on any given night anyone can be a hero. "We got our butts kicked by a better team," said Tubbs.
Nebraska has seized the role of league heavy from Oklahoma by undergoing the most rapid metamorphosis of any team in the country. "The difference?" says Husker coach Danny Nee. "Nebraska is better. Nebraska is just a whole lot better than it's ever been."
Nebraska is also big—it goes 6'8", 7'2" and 6'8" across the front—and sort of meaty-faced. The Cornhuskers aren't particularly elegant—they don't run trick defenses—and, individually, they aren't much to speak of. But as a group.... "Damn respectable," Nee says.
When the Big Eight writers tabbed Nebraska for eighth place in 1990-91 rather than the usual seventh, behind even longtime doormat Colorado, the Cornhuskers seethed. "I told the players," says Nee, " 'Don't even listen to that—.' "
At the same time, three of the team's most influential seniors, Reid, King and guard Clifford Scales, decided that they had had their fill of life on a downtrodden team—Nebraska had gone 13-18, 17-16 and 10-18, respectively, the last three years—so they made a small promise among themselves that 1990-91 would be a winning season. "Basically, it was a case of we were terrible last year, and we didn't want to be terrible again," says Reid.
Nee contends he wasn't bothered by the last-place prediction because he knew that his feverish five-year recruiting effort was about to pay off. "Each one of them was a little war," says Nee of the task of persuading promising basketball prospects to attend a university where the sport was little more than a diversion between football seasons. Athletic director Bob Devaney must have believed the same thing, because Nee got a four-year rollover on his contract last spring.
Some of the recruits were projects, such as King, who has gained 70 pounds and grown two inches since his freshman season. "It's scary to see him eat," says Nee. "I mean, he eats large meals, frequently. His mother is saving $20,000 by sending him to college." King was pulling down a team-high 7.9 rebounds a game at week's end.
Other significant factors in the Corn-huskers' ascendance are junior forward Carl Hayes, whose 15.4 average made him the team's leading scorer; sleepy-eyed junior forward Tony Farmer, an import from Los Angeles; Gumby-like redshirt freshman forward Eric Piatkowski; Scales, whose skills as a guard are as smooth as his cleanly shaved head; and Jose Ramos, who fled Florida's much-investigated program in 1989 and was ineligible for the first 12 games of this season because he had played 12 games for the Gators while he should have been academically ineligible.