Photo by Nate Olsen/Nebraska Communications

Gates Sees Huskers as Hungry 'Sharks'

By Brian Rosenthal

Among the first questions Armon Gates had for Tim Miles during the interview process centered on the upcoming season, and the Nebraska basketball team’s feeling of unfinished business.

What’s the team motto? What’s the chip on the shoulder like?

Gates, you see, kept tabs on Nebraska’s run through the Big Ten Conference last season while an assistant at Northwestern. He saw the Huskers, picked to finish near the bottom of the league, set a school record with 13 conference victories and secure a surprising fourth-place finish.

Sans NCAA Tournament, it reminded Gates of Northwestern’s storybook, meteoric rise in 2016-17, when the Wildcats earned the first NCAA at-large bid in school history, and even a win in their first-round game.

Gates also witnessed firsthand Northwestern’s perplexing problems to continue that momentum last season, when the experienced Wildcats fought both injuries and high expectations en route to a 15-17 finish.

“It was such a roller coaster,” Gates said. “Hopefully I can relay things that happened last year and just kind of nip things in the bud.”

Gates was referring to his new team, of course, and Nebraska’s aspirations of proving how last season wasn’t a fluke, that Miles has set the table for something bigger.

“Nebraska fell short,” Gates said, “but I already know, I can already tell with a couple of meetings I’ve had so far with coach Miles and coach (Michael) Lewis and coach Mo (Jim Molinari) and some of the guys I’ve been with – those guys are sharks right now. They’re hungry. It really brought me to this place.”

Gates and Miles met Monday afternoon with news media at the Devaney Sports Center to introduce Gates as assistant coach. He replaces Kenya Hunter, who left after five seasons to become an assistant at Connecticut.

“Armon is an exciting addition for us,” Miles said. “I know he thinks he can build himself into a better version of himself, and help us build on what we’ve been doing.”

Gates, a native of Chicago who played at Hillcrest High School, Brewster Academy and Kent State, actually comes to Lincoln from Florida, where he briefly joined coach Mike White’s staff as assistant coach.

But during a recent recruiting evaluation period, Gates ran into Lewis on the road and heard of Nebraska’s opening, and what Miles was searching for in an assistant.

“I thought it was an important time for me to evaluate and reassess the situation,” Gates said.

He then asked White if he could visit with Miles about Nebraska's opening, and White said OK.

“Coach Miles, he rubbed off on me in a very positive way,” Gates said. “He reminds me of myself, energy-wise. He loves to laugh and have fun, and I just feel that’s very important when it comes to family life and work life.”

Miles and Gates had previously met and discussed job opportunities when Miles first came to Nebraska, once meeting in an airport, but nothing came to fruition. Gates served as assistant coach at Loyola Chicago under Porter Moser, a good friend of Miles', from 2011-13 before going to Northwestern, where he helped the Wildcats' breakthrough to the NCAA Tournament.

So, what did Gates learn about the difficulty the following season?

“Just staying levelheaded throughout the year,” Gates said. “Maybe it’s not even the best player. Maybe it’s one of the guys thinking they should be playing more minutes or contributing more, and I’ve seen those different things – our leading scorer, we kind of have to bring them back down, because he spent all summer walking on that red carpet. Even as a coach, I was walking on that red carpet, and we lost sight of a couple things. That’s what I want to instill in the program, is just not losing sight of the goal.”

Nebraska’s roster isn’t set in stone, especially with underclassmen James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. working with NBA teams and having until May 30 to either withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to Nebraska, or sign with an agent and forfeit their remaining eligibility.

Miles said Monday Palmer and Copeland are more likely to return than leave. Palmer has recently worked out with the Celtics and Thunder and has a workout scheduled Tuesday with the Clippers, while Copeland, who graduated on Saturday, will have workouts with the Bucks and Celtics next week.

Gates and Miles both gave a courtesy call to Northwestern coach Chris Collins to explain Gates' usual and quick route to another Big Ten school.

“Coach signed off on everything. He knows I’m with good people,” Gates said of Collins. “He loves Coach Miles and his staff.”

And apparently, too, what’s happening in Lincoln, in general.

“I can tell you right now, if you brought in our Northwestern staff, they will all tell you Nebraska, and just the environment, the fan experience, the game day experience, is top three in the league,” Gates said.

“It’s a tough place to play. I just love the energy and passion that’s around this area. I just feel like the ceiling is ready to blow off. I really do.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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