Bittersweet is a one-word descriptor from the All-Devaney Team's leading vote-getter when he’s asked to share his thoughts about Wednesday night’s final game in the Bob Devaney Sports Center. For Eric Piatkowski, it’s bitter because after his alma mater tries to upset Minnesota, he’ll say goodbye to Nebraska basketball’s home for the last 37 years ... a place that rocked to sellout crowds and helped all four Husker teams he played on beat Kansas in Lincoln.
That is not a misprint. In 1991, ’92, ’93 and ’94, “Pike” and his teammates averaged more than 82 points in those four remarkable triumphs over Jayhawk teams, two of which were ranked No. 3 nationally at the time (1992 and '93) and the other two ranked No. 10 nationally at the time (1991 and '94).
“It is bittersweet when you look back and think about all the great games we had at the Devaney Center, but I’m excited about the new arena,” Piatkowski said. “I can’t wait for the doors to open at the Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Haymarket Area is going to be a great setup. When you go downtown and have a nice meal at a nice restaurant and then walk right down the street to a state-of-the-art arena and watch the best teams in college basketball, it’s going to be awesome. Obviously, we all have great feelings about the Devaney, but it’s time to move on. At least that’s the way I feel.”
One of the two most decorated players in Nebraska history, Piatkowski is humbled to learn that in a 14-day period on Huskers.com, he was the leading vote-getter on the All-Time All-Devaney Men’s Team. The other four Husker legends on this elite team are Venson Hamilton, Dave Hoppen, Tyronn Lueand Erick Strickland.
“Oh man, that’s amazing, especially when you know how many great players have gone through the doors of the Devaney Center,” Piatkowski said. “People kind of forget how great some players really were. I mean, Dave Hoppen was the all-time leading scorer at Nebraska. He just played eight years before I did.” Hoppen's 2,167 career points are 233 more than No. 2 Piatkowski's 1,934. Strickland is No. 7 with 1,586, Lue No. 8 with 1,577 and Hamilton, the 1999 Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, No. 11 with 1,416.
Miles’ Approval Rating is Off the Charts
Piatkowski is ready to move on because he "can't wait" to see the historical highlights unfold when Nebraska basketball moves downtown. “It’s funny. Everybody had their own strong opinions when Tim Miles was hired as head coach,” he said. “Now that we’re near the end of the regular season and getting ready for the conference tournament, you’d be hard-pressed to find one person that would say: ‘Hey, I don’t like the hire’ now. I mean, every single person I talk to – 100 percent of them and I talk to a lot of people – have just been blown away by everything about Coach Miles. They love the way he’s coached his players. When you talk about the injuries and the amount of talent he inherited compared to the rest of the league, you understand why everybody will tell you that the Big Ten is the best basketball conference in the country.”
Yet somehow, Nebraska has been surprisingly competitive. “Yes, we’ve had a blowout here or there, but most people thought it was going to be a blowout every night," Piatkowski said. "Nobody would have guessed that we could go on the road and compete with a Michigan or a Michigan State and win four games this year when most people thought it would be 1, 2 or 3 wins tops. We could have beaten Illinois last Saturday. We did beat Iowa when they were hot, plus Northwestern. People thought beating Penn State twice was no big deal, but didn't Penn State upset Michigan last week? I see so many positives going into next year. I feel very good about the direction everything is going.”
According to Piatkowski, who went on to play 14 seasons in the NBA, it all starts with Miles. “Tim’s personality is just infectious,” he said. “You keep your fingers crossed with the combination of the practice facility, the state-of-the-art arena and what his coaching and those assets are doing for recruiting. Yes, we still need to get a big man, but there’s help on the way. This program is going to continue to build every single year to the point where someday we will be contending for a Big Ten championship year after year.”
Nebraska Needed Energizing Head Coach
While watching the Huskers compete in their first season under Miles, Piatkowski has reached a conclusion. “The thing I like most is Tim’s energy,” he said. “So many people wanted an older and more established coach, and I just don’t think that would have been the right guy for our program. We had to hire a guy with a ton of energy to get this program turned around, and I just don’t know if a seasoned coach who’s been around a long time would have the energy to do what Tim’s been doing.”
Piatkowski, a.k.a. The Polish Rifle, explains his point. “The head coach and his staff have to work so hard in so many different areas,” he said. “They have to be out on the road all the time, yet still reach out in the community every day to get people excited. They have to do all of that on top of the stuff they have to get done on the basketball court. Tim is the perfect coach to pull all of those things off at the same time.”
What, you ask, qualifies Miles to handle all the external pressure at the same time he’s instilled so much confidence internally? “He’s really honest, and it doesn’t seem like he has any ego whatsoever,” Piatkowksi said. “When this team gets drilled, he reminds them that’s what everybody expected with an inexperienced team. He tells them the truth without ever getting down on his players.”
Piatkowski Digs Huskers’ Positive Vibes
For two seasons before Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Piatkowski served as a Fox Sports television analyst for Nebraska games. Even though he’s now spending more time coaching his son’s sixth-grade basketball team and watching his freshman daughter play junior high school basketball in Elkhorn, we ask Piatkowski to analyze Nebraska’s competitive spirit.
“Players aren’t sulking, and they always take the court thinking they have a chance to win,” he said. “Almost every night, it seems like Tim has them ready to go. He’s built them up to the point where they’re saying: ‘You know what? We can beat these guys!’ That’s how they play. They come out every single night to compete at a high level. If they win, it’s awesome. If they lose, they’re ready to go right back to work. I just like the entire attitude of the team. You don’t ever get the impression that it’s the end of the world. You don’t ever feel like they don’t think they’re good enough. Tim doesn’t make any excuses, and neither do any of his players. It’s all positive, and that spreads to the players. That’s why they’ve had a lot more success than anybody thought they could have up to this point.”
Players saw Miles’ tough mindset from the beginning. “When he asked people if they wanted to be here, and they couldn’t answer, he was more than ready to help them leave,” Pike said. “Most people couldn’t believe how decisive he was, but that was the only way he could get everyone on the same page. They all bought into the same thing, and I’m excited about where we’re going.”
Vision: Get to the Free Throw Line More
That direction is to begin a steady climb from what is currently one of the nation’s worst teams to get to the free throw line to become one of the best teams in that critical category. “Tim wants to attack offensively and have everyone capable of shooting a three when the ball goes inside and then comes back outside,” Piatkowski said, remembering how the teams he played on could put up 96, 85, 81 and 68 points in four consecutive wins over Kansas in Lincoln. When Pike was a sophomore, the Huskers beat No. 2 Oklahoma State, 85-69, at the Devaney Center, and then, 14 days later, upset No. 3 KU, 81-79 in overtime. He also remembers Nebraska upsetting No. 5 Michigan State in the Devaney Center when he was just a freshman.
“I don’t want to say that Nebraska basketball fans are as savvy as, say, Indiana, but this city and this state really enjoys their basketball,” Piatkowski said. “Look at who we are and what we have – a great coach who’s getting us ready to play in the one of the nation’s best arenas. Every time you turn around, we’re playing Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin. These are some of the best teams in the country every year. It doesn’t get any better than that. If you want to see great basketball, get some season tickets and go down and watch these guys play. You’re going to see some of THE best players, THE best coaches and THE best teams in the country, guaranteed. It’s a very cool deal to be in the Big Ten. I love it, and I’m excited about the future we have in it. We’re going to play with a lot of energy and a lot more talent than we have right now, but we have to get the same kind of energy from our fans.”
Hopefully, such energy will surge to a peak when Nebraska hosts Minnesota in the Devaney Center’s grand finale Wednesday night. Seven days ago, the Golden Gophers sent shockwaves across the country, upsetting No. 1-ranked Indiana in Minneapolis.
Nebraska Needs Some Magic of Its Own
Now it’s Nebraska’s turn to manufacture some magic, and if you like nostalgia, this is a must-see game. Nebraska Hall-of-Fame legends Piatkowski, Hoppen and Strickland will sign autographs from 7 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Nebraska will then salute its three seniors – Brandon Ubel, Dylan Talley and Andre Almeida. Tipoff is 8 p.m., and the first 10,000 fans will receive a special commemorative poster honoring the All-Devaney Center Team selected by Big Red fans. A special halftime presentation will honor the Devaney family and introduce the All-Devaney Center Team. Don’t miss a presentation that also will include a video tribute to the Devaney Center. It’s so moving and so nostalgic, you’ll be glad the lights are down, so no one can see you rub your eyes.
Take it straight from Piatkowski, one of the most visionary promoters of what comes next. Help pack the Bob Devaney Center one last time, and then make sure you buy 2013-14 season basketball tickets, so you can return next fall and help launch what promises to be the greatest chapter in the history of Nebraska basketball.