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Andy Katz | Correspondent | June 22, 2018

Don't think Nebraska is a college basketball state? Think again.

From March Madness to the NBA Draft

Omaha, Neb. — The College World Series.

Husker football.

Omaha and Lincoln have been synonymous with these two yearly events — one in June, the other all fall.

But the best kept-secret in this state is the passion for college basketball.

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Just think about this: Nebraska and Creighton averaged over a combined 32,000 fans for 35 total home games last season.

That’s an average of 17,000 for Creighton at CenturyLink Center in 18 home games, good for fifth nationally, the seventh-straight season the Bluejays have been in the top 10 in attendance nationally. Oh, and that attendance, according to Creighton, would put it 17th best in the NBA. Nebraska, at Pinnacle Bank Arena, averaged 15,492 fans over 17 home games.

“People think Nebraska is a football state and they do dominate the front page more times than not. But you’ve got two programs that average over 17,000 and 15,000 fans a game,’’ said Creighton coach Greg McDermott.

McDermott stressed that basketball is extremely important to this state.

Spend a day here in Omaha and then Lincoln — even in June — and it’s screamingly clear.

Creighton has been in the NCAA tournament five of the last seven seasons and is expected to have its third first-round NBA draft pick in four seasons when Khryi Thomas likely goes in the first round Thursday night.

Nebraska finished fourth in the Big Ten last season, winning 13 league games. While the Huskers missed out on the NCAA tournament, the Huskers return key players James Palmer Jr., and Isaac Copeland and should be one of the contenders for the Big Ten regular-season title.

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The facilities are off the charts. Creighton’s arena is as much a destination in Omaha as the CWS home at TD Ameritrade Park. It’s an NBA-type arena. The best game of the NCAA tournament last March -- between Duke and Kansas in the Elite Eight -- was held at CenturyLink. The Bluejays also have an outstanding practice facility that keeps Creighton competitive.

If Creighton gets players on its campus, there’s no reason to believe they shouldn’t have a legit shot to land them. Creighton has consistently been a winner in the Missouri Valley under Dana Altman and now in the Big East with McDermott. All three of their first-round picks — Doug McDermott, Justin Patton and now Thomas — developed under their care. None, as in zero, were considered players who would be NBA players when they arrived.

McDermott continued a winning culture at Creighton. The staff has made sure that development is key.

“We get them to understand what they need to do when they are in the gym by themselves,’’ said McDermott.

Thomas wasn’t sure, according to McDermott, that he could even play at Creighton when he arrived three years ago.

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“He asked me on multiple occasions ‘are you sure I’m good enough to play at Creighton?’ He is humble to a fault but he worked hard and saw how it paid off.’’

Think about this on Creighton: The Bluejays have been able to withstand losing NBA picks and are still in contention for NCAA bids. The Bluejays moved up from the Valley to the Big East, and still compete for in the upper half of the conference chase. The Bluejays consistently are one of the toughest places to win.

The Bluejays may go through another retooling, but it won’t be for long if at all. McDermott will get Martin Krampelj back from a torn ACL, suffered on Jan. 17. He was averaging 11.9 points a game and shooting 61 percent when he went down. McDermott said Krampelj is around 80 percent and should be 100 by late September or mid-October when practice starts.

He said Krampelj will be the go-to guy, replacing Marcus Foster, who finished his eligibility and Thomas. And with guards Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander, Damien Jefferson and center Jacob Epperson as well as the addition of Rice transfer wing Connor Cashaw, the Bluejays have plenty of pieces to be in the mix again.

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Creighton will get tested mightily early with non-conference games against Ohio State in the Gavitt Games, a return in the series with Gonzaga, which could come in to Omaha in the top five, the Cayman Islands Classic with an opener against Boise State (St. Bonaventure/Georgia State in the same side of the bracket, Georgia-Illinois State/Akron-Clemson in the other) and of course the rivalry game at Nebraska.

That’s all before the wide-open Big East.

“Our league is up fro grabs as much as it’s ever been,’’ said McDermott.

The Big East will still go through Villanova, but the Wildcats and essentially every team other than St. John’s and Georgetown took some hit through exhausted eligibility or early-entry NBA draft defections.

The Big Ten had a windfall of returnees from the early-entry in the NBA, notably the two aforementioned at Nebraska, who flirted with the draft but returned.

McDermott is an imposting physical presence and substantive head coach who oozes confidence when he steps on the floor.

Nebraska's head coach Tim Miles is more of an extrovert, a bit more frenetic and his passion for his job, coaching and love of life is just a bit more on display.

The two coaches compliment each other quite well to create a healthy rivalry in a state where basketball is clearly loved and supported.

Drive an hour to Lincoln and you go from the pro-style arena and hidden gem of a private Jesuit school in Creighton to the unbelievable amenities of the state university.

Miles gave me a tour that was simply jaw dropping.

Nebraska players have a great situation at their disposal.

Of course, like most high-major stops now, the food plans, academic tutoring facilities are all top notch. But the practice facility and locker room are littered with amenities, highlighted by a key pad at each locker, allowing the players to program their favorite music to listen to in the shower or on the practice court while getting shots up. There are more flat screens than you can count, even in the toilet. Each player is given an extensive baseline when they arrive medically, including measuring their spleen so if they were to get mono they would know the size of the spleen before the illness.

“It’s things like that, that sets us apart,’’ said Miles.

These players don’t have to buy a new laptop when they arrive on campus. They get one. The whole facility/program is wired for success.

The returning talent, the 13 Big Ten wins last season, and the overall good vibes flowing are why I had Nebraska No. 16 in my post-early entry deadline Power 36.

“It puts pressure on me but I can handle it,’’ said Miles in jest. “We’ve got a good group coming back. We had a great Big Ten season. We matured later in the season. Our team is set and ready.’’

The Huskers, who whiffed on getting the necessary non-conference wins needed last season, will have plenty of chances again with a road game at Clemson in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, S.D., some combination of USC, Texas Tech and Missouri State in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City and of course, hosting Creighton. Nebraska, which didn’t get Michigan State, Purdue or Ohio State at home last season in the Big Ten, but did get Michigan (win), has a better Big Ten schedule next season in the 20-game format. Guessing who will be in the top five is still difficult, but getting Wisconsin, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State all at home should help tremendously. The Huskers have to go to Indiana and Michigan without a return.

Nebraska has been to one NCAA tournament during since Miles arrived in 2012 but the fourth-place finish last season in the Big Ten proved the progress and he was given an extension to 2020-21 under new AD Bill Moos.


“It’s a very solid Big Ten schedule and it’s one we can be a winning team in the league and be in the NCAA tournament with,’’ said Miles. “I’m confident if we have a winning league schedule and do our business, and we don’t have to be perfect, but just have to be good, then we’ll be in the NCAA tournament.’’

And if that happens then the state of Nebraska can continue to show how much basketball means.

There is no way not to be impressed if you spend time here with these two programs.

Continue to produce draft picks, compete in the top half of the Big East and Big Ten, respectively, and shower the players with impressive facilities and amenities and these two programs in a state not nationally known for basketball will continue to be healthy.

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