Huskers Have More Than Just One Tough Cookie
Doc Sadler calls it the battle of the mind, and Aleks Maric says it’s the No. 1 characteristic of this year’s Nebraska basketball team – something that’s easy to appreciate, but hard to define.
Toughness was the word Nebraska’s head coach and first-team all-conference player focused on Tuesday before the Huskers left for Kansas City and the Big 12 Conference Tournament.
Toughness has been the theme of this team all season. “Cookie (Miller) was the one who took us on his shoulders and willed us to win,” Maric said. “When he went down at A&M (with a severely sprained right shoulder), we all had to step up and show the same kind of toughness he did.”
Miller, who has been called “One Tough Cookie” by his dad, friends and teammates his whole life, said there’s been triumph through the adversity of his late-season injury. “We’ve learned something about ourselves down the stretch here,” he said. “I’m tough, but this whole team is tough.”
In other words, the Huskers have more than just One Tough Cookie, and that pleases Sadler to no end.
As a coach, it’s Sadler’s job to develop toughness and continuously nurture it. “I have to show an ability to help our players put their bodies in uncomfortable positions and, at the same time, show them how their minds can be trained to make it feel like a normal, everyday sort of thing,” he said before reinforcing the point Maric and Miller made several times Tuesday.
“All of our guys are tough,” Sadler said. “We had a couple last year – Charles Richardson and Marcus Perry – who showed us how to be really tough. We’ve had a couple this year – Sek (Henry) and Aleks – who have pushed themselves to areas where they didn’t think they could go.”
Maric agrees. “Toughness is No. 1 with Coach Sadler – right up there with character,” he said. “I knew that from the moment he walked in the door to visit with me and my parents in Australia. He said he was going to build this program on toughness, concentration and character. And he has. We’ve taken that mindset and gone to another level. We’ve broken limits and set new limits for ourselves. When you start the league 0-4, toughness is the only way you fight through it to finish 7-9.
“We’re not only tough, we’re hungry, and we’re jelling at the right time,” Maric said. “A big part of toughness is coming together and accepting roles – tough roles. We all know you can train your mind and your body not to accept no for an answer. You just keep pushing and pushing. That’s what this whole team is doing, pushing ourselves in every practice and every game, refusing to back down from anyone. We don’t have one weak person on this team. We’ve been through this together and gotten better together.
“We listen to our coach and realize what it takes to win. If you can’t find a groove on the offensive end, you can always find it on the defensive end. Statistically, we know we’re right up there with the best in the Big 12. But we’re not satisfied by any measure. We can work harder and accomplish more. We don’t want the opponent to score in the 50s and 60s; we want them to score in the 30s and 40s. It’s all about mindset and how tough you want to play.”
Henry, a sophomore from Los Angeles, took over the starting guard position when Miller thought his season had ended in College Station. “I learned from Cookie,” he said. “Fatigue is the enemy. Fatigue is the devil. You can’t let it take you out of your game, mentally or physically. You have to keep doing things your teammates know you’re going to do.
“I feel I’m in better shape than ever because Coach works us so hard,” Henry added. “When Cookie went down, he made sure I stayed focused and solid for the team. My mom and dad and Cookie – my whole family and my whole team – told me I had the toughness to get it done. I come from the streets of L.A. People can’t believe it when they see Nebraska on TV. I’m in college, and I’m a role model now. I have to stay focused, so I can follow my dream.”
Miller said his dad was the first to call him a tough cookie when he was just a little guy and that teammates Henry, Maric and Ryan Anderson still call him that. “I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Charleston, West Virginia, so I’ve always had to be tough,” said Miller, 5-7 and 165 pounds. “When people tried to pick on me when I was little, I didn’t back down. I never give up in anything – golf, track, basketball, you name it. My goal is to win every time I compete.”
Miller says there’s another kind of toughness the Huskers have shown this season, and it’s just as important. “The harder we play, the more unselfish we are,” he said. “When you play together, you don’t care who gets the credit. You just want to get the job done. That’s all that counts.”
Sadler said Anderson showed his toughness when he dislocated a finger on his non-shooting hand and came back to play minutes later. “Shoot, Paul Velander is tough,” Sadler said. “He’s sick all night and goes 1-for-5 in the first half at Texas, then comes out and look what he does in the second half. Everyone can play when they’re feeling good and they’re making every shot. It takes toughness to play when you’re not feeling good and the ball’s not going in the hole.”
Sadler patterns his approach to toughness after his three foremost mentors – Eddie Sutton, Don Haskins and Billy Gillespie. “They all believe toughness is one of the biggest parts of coaching,” Doc said. “Toughness is something we’re getting to here at Nebraska, but it’s still not where I want it to be.”
His ultimate benchmark for toughness is Alvin Robertson, a player Sadler helped coach at Arkansas. The 6-3 shooting guard played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic gold-medal team and played 10 years in the NBA with the Spurs, Bucks, Pistons and Raptors. Robertson won the first-ever NBA Most Improved Player Award in 1986. He also won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award and made the NBA All-Star Team four times in a six-year stretch. He led the league in steals twice and still holds the top career steals-per-game average in the NBA, averaging 2.71 steals in 779 games.
Robertson was the kind of multi-dimensional player coaches covet most. He’s one of only four NBA players to record a quadruple-double in a single game, registering 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals for the Spurs against the Phoenix Suns in 1986.
“Alvin knew how to play though pain and how to train his mind to do what no one expected,” Sadler said. “Pain was absolutely no issue to him. He made up his mind he was going to beat you in every situation, even if it’s a pickup game.”
Sadler says his players are learning they’re going to get beat up, elbowed and kicked in the knees every time they step on the court. But they’re also learning how to give back some of the punishment instead of absorbing all of it. “When bodies are crashing and people are running into each other, you’re going to think about setting a better screen the next time down the floor,” he said.
Guard Steve Harley is another who exemplifies toughness. “He doesn’t say much, but he’s very tough,” Sadler said. “You better screen him hard every time because he’s going to be right there the next time. Bobby Knight once said that mental toughness is four times more important than physical toughness, and I agree. It’s what separates the good from the real good players who have it. It’s a factor. You can’t explain it, but it’s there.”