Sunday Special | College basketball

Big Ten basketball coaches welcome Nebraska with open arms

2010-12-12T00:00:00Z 2011-07-22T17:10:07Z Big Ten basketball coaches welcome Nebraska with open armsBy Josh Weinfuss josh.weinfuss@nwi.com, (219) 933-3374 nwitimes.com

It was the first date with the in-laws for Nebraska.

Seven months before their marriage to the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers' women's basketball team visited Assembly Hall in Bloomington for a nonconference game Dec. 5 against Indiana. It was the Huskers' first trip to a Big Ten venue since losing to Ohio State on Dec. 22, 2007.

They wanted to meet their new family, get a glimpse of where they'll spend upcoming winters and holidays.

So, what did IU give Nebraska for a welcoming gift?

An upset loss that knocked the Cornhuskers down a few spots in the coaches poll and kept it from re-entering The Associated Press Top 25.

"Nebraska is a very good team," Indiana women's basketball coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. "They're going to be force to be reckoned with in that Big 12. It's a great team to join our program. It's going to make the Big Ten even stronger. But today belonged to us."

Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska.

Open arms

On July 1, 2011, the Big Ten -- a league with 11 teams -- will add its 12th. It was a decision rooted in football and money, as leagues with 12 teams are allowed a conference championship game, another vehicle to funnel income to one of the wealthiest conferences in the country.

But a season before Nebraska's basketball teams will join the conference, ask around the Big Ten, and you'll be hard pressed to find a basketball coach who isn't open to the idea of the Huskers joining the conference.

Football may be a different story and while it may just be the company line, the Cornhuskers have become a source of excitement for league coaches.

"I think that this is the right conference for Nebraska," Michigan men's basketball coach John Beilein said. "Nebraska will flourish in this conference, from the standpoint that the teams that are going to be coming in here and the type of basketball that we play will very much fit Nebraska's style. It's a great addition."

Compared to its football program, Nebraska's men's basketball team is less threatening to the hierarchy of the Big Ten. The Huskers are 51-108 all time against Big Ten teams, in games that date back to 1902 against Minnesota. They have a winning record against just two Big Ten squads, 10-6 against Wisconsin and 3-1 against Northwestern. But traveling to the upper Midwest won't be unchartered territory for the Cornhuskers. They are 15-48 against the Gophers, who were their most recent Big Ten opponents, topping Nebraska 57-48 in 2004.

Even though the Nebraska men are coming off a last-place finish in the Big 12 and two previous seasons in the bottom half, Purdue coach Matt Painter doesn't think the Huskers will be a perennial bottom feeder in the Big Ten.

"They had a down year," Painter said. "I don't care which conference you're in, three or four teams are going to have down years. You're always going to have a team in last place. You're always going to have a team in second-to-last place, so you have to be careful because things can turn over."

Painter cited Purdue's struggles a few years ago as a comparison to Nebraska's current situation. Five seasons ago the Boilermakers finished last in the Big Ten at 3-13.

By the next season, 2006-07, they were tied for fourth and then, thanks to a few good recruiting classes, including the 2007 class which featured E.C. Central's E'Twaun Moore and Valparaiso's Robbie Hummel, Purdue was among to the cream of the Big Ten crop.

Even though he hasn't spent much time watching Nebraska, Painter warned that a few good recruiting years could change the Huskers' luck.

"It could happen real quick because you don't know their recruits, you don't know about their future so some things can change, the landscape of things can change," Painter said. "I know (Nebraska coach) Doc (Sadler), I know he's a very good coach. I know he's a defensive-minded coach and I think he will come in with that blue collar type of approach."

Fitting the mold

The last time the Big Ten expanded, it brought in a school with a powerful football team, a talented women's basketball program and a strong women's volleyball team, but a struggling men's basketball program.

Since 1992-93, when Penn State became the 11th Big Ten team, the Nittany Lions' women's basketball team has won five conference championships.

Nebraska fits the mold of Penn State of the early 1990s, almost perfectly. Nebraska's women's basketball team is coming off an undefeated regular season, when it was ranked as high as third in the country before losing in the Big 12 Tournament to Texas A&M and then in the NCAA regional to Kentucky. The football team played for the Big 12 championship a week ago and the women's volleyball team is ranked third in the country.

Even though Illinois women's hoops coach Jolette Law has yet to play the Huskers, she believes bringing in a successful program will just heighten the awareness of the Big Ten, especially on the recruiting front.

"It definitely helps because it's just another caliber of team coming to our conference," Law said. "Nebraska has been there, they've been to the NCAAs. It helps the conference. It makes the conference that much stronger to say we have another top-tier, top-notch program coming to our (conference)."

Two league coaches already have seen first-hand how expansion works.

When Beilein was at West Virginia from 2002-07, he watched as DePaul, Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida were added to the Big East -- and he was fascinated by it. But don't get that confused with whether he's in favor of it.

"I don't know if I'm for it or against it," Beilein said. "I have a huge interest in it. I think the dynamics in where this will all play out, if there's any more expansion in other leagues, is really interesting.

"Once the dominoes fall, anything can happen. While a few of them fell, I don't know if they'll ever fall again but when they do fall it just changes the landscape of college athletics."

Indiana's Legette-Jack was an assistant at Boston College in 1991 when the Big East expanded for the first time, adding Miami, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech and West Virginia that same year.

Painter also enjoys listening to the ideas that stem from adding another team, but his concern with Nebraska is how many games will be on the schedule.

"I would hope it stays at 18 games, that's my guess, but I always like to hear the table talk, the pros and cons of it going down or going up in terms of the number of games," Painter said.

Earlier this month, the Big Ten concluded a year-long study into expansion and determined it would not add another school, according to a conference release.

"We have been thoroughly engaged in the process since last December," said Indiana University President Michael McRobbie, the chairman of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors. "My colleagues and I can report that we believe that this process has reached its natural conclusion. We are pleased with the addition of Nebraska and look forward to working with our colleagues there in the years ahead."

As Nebraska enjoys its going-away party throughout the Big 12, its new conference anxiously awaits its arrival.

"That's a great state and everybody in that state during every Nebraska football game, they're watching TV," Beilein said. "Imagine that number in January and February that are going to be following Nebraska basketball."

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