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With Big Al Gone, Who Will Be Nebraska's Next Big Man?
Chuck Jura: ‘The best opportunity for a big man in the United States is at Nebraska’
When Aleks Maric played his last game at Nebraska, he said, in effect, that he wished he could climb into a time tunnel, so he could re-emerge and play the next few years with his Husker teammates.
Maric, who developed his game so productively under Doc Sadler that he earned first-team All-Big 12 status this season, reiterated his wish last week at Nebraska’s postseason basketball banquet.
He said he’d like to stay around because he knows the Huskers are going places bigger and better than the NIT. They’re going to the NCAA and when they get there, who knows? Maybe, just maybe, his trusted teammates will win the Huskers’ first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
Nebraska’s 6-foot-11, 275-pound big man was the marquee attraction last week at Lincoln Station, but he spent most of the evening applauding his teammates and nodding affirmatively at everything good that was said about them. He was even the first in the room to spring to his feet so two Husker senior managers could get the same kind of standing ovation he would receive minutes later.
Aleks Maric was a fan favorite in his four seasons in Lincoln, largely because of his thunderous dunks.
There is no place like Nebraska, where a low post player from Down Under leads the high fives in a packed room. After he thanked his coaches, his teammates, Big Red fans and everyone else, Maric stepped off the podium. He smiled that big Aussie smile of his, and said "Thanks, mate!" to people he met on his way back to the table. Then he went out the door and into the night.
Once outside, he waved goodbye and jumped into an, old, beat-up pick-up he borrowed from a Western Nebraska friend because Maric already had sold his own four-door sedan and most of everything else he owned. The next day, he made a whirlwind sprint to his bank and the post office. Then he packed up his duds, so he could move quickly out of Lincoln and into his next orbit.
Big Al’s world now revolves around everything and anything that will help him play professional basketball. That’s why he was in such a rush to fly to Las Vegas where he continues to hone his skills until that big circle on his calendar in late May when he moves on to Orlando for the NBA Draft Camp, which will continue into June.
While he’s gone, who’s going to fill the big hole he’s leaving? Maybe the bigger question is this: What kind of opportunity is it for a big man to follow Maric?
Remember now that Aleks’ successor likely will join four returning starters who helped Nebraska beat nationally-ranked teams Kansas State and Texas A&M in back-to-back weeks, blew the socks off Oklahoma and, at least for a half, scared the daylights out of Kansas in the Big 12 Conference Championship Tournament.
Big questions deserve big answers, so we went to three of Nebraska’s all-time best big men for feedback – All-Big Eight center Chuck Jura, who played for Joe Cipriano in the early 1970s; three-time All Big Eight center Dave Hoppen, who played for Moe Iba in the mid-1980s; and Academic All-Big Eight center (and Seattle’s first-round NBA draft choice) Rich King, who played for Danny Nee in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Jura, 6-10, played professionally in Europe for 14 seasons and still holds Nebraska’s single-season record with 11.7 rebounds per game in 1972.
Hoppen, 6-11, is Nebraska’s all-time leading scorer with 2,167 points, even though his collegiate career was cut short by a knee injury on Feb. 1, 1986.
King, 7-2, is the tallest player in Nebraska history and led the Huskers’ 1991 team (26-8 record) in both scoring (15.5-point average) and rebounding (8.1 per game).
Here, in a nutshell, are pivotal views from a trio of record-setting pivots:
Jura: "I’ve never seen a team play with more heart than this latest Nebraska team, and they return just about everybody except Aleks. A big man is the only thing that’s missing right now. If I were a 6-foot-10 or bigger high school player or junior college kid, I would give Nebraska every look in the world. You couldn’t find a better fit for a big-time, big man. In my opinion, the best opportunity for a big man in the United States is at Nebraska. I am dead serious when I say that.
"Anyone who understands basketball knows this Nebraska program is going places. Everything is on the upswing. They have really good perimeter players, who play as hard as anybody in the country. They have a phenomenal coach who gets everybody to play above and beyond themselves. Look how far Aleks came in just a year-and-a-half. Doc Sadler is a proven winner, and he will recruit a big man or two who want to prove they can compete against the best players in the country."
Hoppen: "I thought Aleks Maric improved tremendously over his four years at Nebraska, but he really accelerated his ability under Doc. He worked so hard on defense, gave such great effort on the boards and was so unselfish and such a great leader by example. But as one big man to another, I wish he cared more about scoring. I know Doc wanted him to shoot more, but Aleks always put his focus on what he thought was best for the team.
"I will always be impressed with Aleks and what he’s meant to this program. It’s a tough mantle to put so much on one guy. We all knew Aleks was the man, and every team he played against knew it, too. It’s a battle every night when your opponent game-plans and sets its whole defense against you. If I was a juco guy or a young big man and wondered if Nebraska was the right place for me, I’d love to be Doc. All he has to say is: ‘The proof is in the film. If you want to watch, I have two years of tape for you. Want to see how we won in College Station? Want to see us take Texas down to the last second in Austin? Want to envision yourself in that situation? Come to Nebraska and play center. It’s worked out for a lot of players before you, and it can work out for you, too.’"
King: "I’ve spent 17 years here in Seattle, and I still follow Nebraska. I have it all there on my homepage. I talk to Beau Reid and others, and they’re all enthused about what Doc is bringing to the program. I hear nothing but rave reviews, and considering how productive he helped make Aleks, who wouldn’t want to follow him? We all know how important a big man is to any program. Your big man enables your perimeter players to get out and play more aggressively on defense because they know they still have you in the middle if they get beat.
"There’s not a coach in the country, at any level, who wouldn’t take a skilled big man. College ball is a slower game than the NBA. For the most part, it’s a half-court game, and Nebraska has a philosophy and a style to develop a big man into a big-time player. Whoever replaces Maric has a great opportunity to contribute immediately to a program that’s definitely on the rise and can compete, game-in and game-out, with the best in the country."
Nebraska was a great school for Maric, Jura, Hoppen and King, and it’s been a great school for a couple of other former Nebraska centers still playing professionally.
Venson Hamilton, the Huskers’ 6-9 1/2 Big 12 Player of the Year in 1999, had two of Nebraska’s best rebounding seasons ever, grabbing 335 in ’99 and 315 in ’98. He’s also the Huskers’ career leader in blocked shots with 241.
Hamilton, from Forest City, N.C., plays for a Madrid, Spain, team that competes in Europe’s most competitive league.
Mikki Moore is the Huskers’ other center still playing professionally. A 7-footer who came to Nebraska from Gaffney, S.C., Moore has made an interesting journey from Lincoln to the NBA after playing for the Huskers from 1994-97. Undrafted, he has played in the Continental Basketball League and the NBDL, a developmental league with close ties to the NBA.
Because he’s played for eight different NBA teams in his nine-year pro career, Moore is considered a journeyman, but his experience and perseverance have paid off. Three years after being named the 2003 NBLD Defensive Player of the Year, he led the NBA in field goal percentage (.609).
Last July, Moore agreed to a 3-year, $18 million contract with Sacramento. The Kings didn’t make the NBA Playoffs, but Moore started 78 of 81 games this season and averaged 8.6 points and 6.0 rebounds a game.
Jura wonders who the Huskers’ next Mikki Moore might be. "Nebraska is one, maybe two quality big men away from being a serious national contender," he said. "Look what Aleks did against Michael Beasley this year. That’s coaching. Even Bill Self, who won the national championship, gives Nebraska credit for the way we competed. The last half of the season, I don’t think any Big 12 team wanted to play Nebraska."
That’s because, in large part, Sadler successfully re-recruited Maric a year-and-a-half earlier, immediately after he was named head coach. At the postseason banquet, Sadler talked about the long flight to Sydney, Australia, to meet Aleks, dad Stevan, mom Draginja and his three "overprotective" sisters – Branka, Milijana and Aleksandra. (His parents are originally from Serbia, but all four children were born in Australia).
The Maric family challenged Doc after his grueling flight. They insisted that Nebraska play hard, compete well and get the most out of their son and brother. Doc gave them his personal guarantee, and in all his years of coaching, he knows he never closed a more important deal.
"They made me sweat," he said. "The decision came down to one very important thing – trust."
Doc came through on his end of the bargain. So did Aleks, who became only the third player in Big 12 history to record more than 1,600 points and 1,000 rebounds (Kansas’ Nick Collison and Missouri’s Arthur Johnson are the other two).
Doc knows this is prime-time for Maric’s No. 1 career choice, but he also knows the importance of a college degree, however things work out in professional basketball. So now he’s asking Big Al, a communication studies major who needs only four classes for his diploma, for his own guarantee: Get your degree as soon as possible, not for everyone else – for you. It’s the Nebraska Way.
Aleks said he would follow through and graduate. But for now, it’s time for him to move on to his own professional career, and it’s time for Nebraska to find the right man to be its next big man.
"Whoever the next big man is better like to work," Hoppen said. "I’ve watched a lot of practice. I thought Moe Iba was tough, but Doc’s in a league of his own. I mean that in a good way. He makes sure you pay the price that every player – and every team – has to pay to get to that next level. When we get the right people in here, I know one thing for sure. We won’t have that big goose-egg for NCAA Tournament wins much longer."
In other words, Nebraska’s next big man has a chance to do what no other Husker big man has ever done – make history.
Respond to Randy
"Outstanding article! Another husker big man that was not listed was andre smith. He was mvp of the Big Eight for a reason, and a loaded field of other great players during his four years that he was chosen over was impressive." - Dale Kunert, Des Moines, Iowa