It’s time to hang a banner: “1993-94 Big Eight Champions.” No, not for football, but for Nebraska men’s basketball.
On the shoulders of two-time all-Big Eight selection Eric Piatkowski, Nebraska defeated AP No. 23 Oklahoma State 77-68 in the 1993-94 conference title game after it upset No. 3 Missouri in the semifinals less than 24-hours earlier.
On the floor of Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, standing next to Piatkowski was a future Husker Hall of Famer, Erick Strickland.
Before the Big Eight championship and the NBA contracts, Strickland decided to stay home and play for the Huskers. Although he was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 31st round of the 1992 MLB Draft, Strickland felt himself gravitating back to basketball. Despite graduating from Nebraska 28 years ago and retiring from the NBA in 2005, Strickland still keeps tabs on the Nebraska program.
“I was more so looking at the bigger picture,” Strickland said. “Some (schools) wanted me to do one sport. Some were looking at me for basketball. Some for football, some schools didn’t want me to play baseball. I knew that Nebraska was a state that there would be an opportunity to do something beyond the game.”
Reminiscing on his early days in college, Strickland admits that it was difficult balancing both Major League Baseball in the summer and Big Eight Basketball during the academic year.
“It was hard, you go straight into playing professionally, you’re on your own,” Strickland said. “You come straight out of that into basketball, into another season, into another.”
Despite not winning another conference title, Stricklandand his teammates added another piece of hardware and nickname: “1996 NIT Tournament Champions.” In addition, Strickland was selected as the most valuable player in the 1996 NIT Tournament. However, the success did not come easy that season. Interestingly enough, Strickland recalls adversity after approximately 12 games.
“There was some nitpicking…I think some of it was done by some of the staff,” Strickland said. “There were some things done that caused the players to kind of look at each other and fractions began to break off. It bred selfish play and a lack of trust.”
Danny Nee was the man in charge of Nebraska during its impressive run. In 10 seasons with the Huskers, Nee compiled a 254-190 record but was relieved of his duties following the 1999-00 season.
The Huskers went on a double-digit losing streak in 1996, which forced Strickland to rethink his purpose.
“That was the closest I have ever come to quitting basketball,” he said. “Not because I was giving up on the team but because the first team that I was playing with, gave up. They had no heart and no will, and I didn’t want to play with nobody that had no will to win.”
However, there was one person Strickland gives credit to for keeping him motivated, coach Jeff Smith.
“We had a heart-to-heart meeting,” Strickland said. “He told me, ‘whatever beef I got with you; you better say it now.’ We went to the NIT and he said, we’re not playing for coaches, we’re playing for us.”
Strickland, a 6-foot-3-inch guard who grew up just 60 miles away from Nebraska’s campus, became a key piece in multiple organizations during his nine-year NBA career. Since his Husker career ended in 1996, Strickland has watched from both near and afar as the program he repped in college has struggled immensely.
It’s been 28 years since Strickland graduated and Nebraska has made the NCAA Tournament just two times, in 1998 and 2014. In those 28 years, the Huskers suffered 418 losses.
What Nebraska fans originally saw as a home-run hire in Fred Hoiberg, have now seen the first three-and-a-half years result in a 38-81 overall record. The Huskers, in year four of Hoiberg, have finally won more than 11 games in a single season. To dig deeper and throw more salt in the wound, former Nebraska Head Coach Tim Miles was fired in 2019 following a career record of 116-114 with the Huskers and an NIT appearance in his final season.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Nebraska, and it never has been in the Big Ten Conference, a league that sent nine teams to March Madness in 2022. The Huskers lost two starters for the remainder of the season, Juwan Gary and Emmanuel Bandoumel to shoulder and knee injuries.
Despite those injuries, Nebraska is in a unique position. The Huskers have won their last three games, most recently in a thrilling overtime win at home vs Maryland, 70-66.
In a do-or-die season for Hoiberg, Nebraska has seen the combination of young players like Jamarcus Lawrence and Blaise Keita blend smoother than expected with the veteran leadership of Sam Griesel and Derrick Walker.
“Nebraska is playing the caliber of an NCAA Tournament team right now,” HuskerOnline columnist Steve Sipple said. “They’re dangerous. They’re not a cute little story anymore – they’re dangerous.”
If you take a step back and view this program from a 50,000-foot view, you see a team that has added nine players from the transfer portal under Hoiberg and have had very few constant variables since the coaching change in 2019.
“I think it hurt them grow as a program,” Inside Nebraska writer Steve Marik said. “I think Fred would say that to grow a program, you need to focus on high school recruits. You need them to stay in the program. It creates continuity. It provides guys you can depend on because you know they’re going to be there for more than one year. It’s really difficult to build a culture you’re proud of with transfer portal guys.”
As the team nears the end of the regular season, and the Big Ten Conference Tournament takes place the second weekend of March in Chicago, Nebraska may find itself not playing postseason basketball for the seventh time in the last nine seasons, with the two appearances coming in the NIT.
To make matters worse, it will have been nine seasons in a row that the Huskers haven’t reached the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Oh, and don’t forget, Nebraska is the only team from the Power-6 conferences to never win an NCAA Tournament game.
Last February, Director of Athletics Trev Alberts restructured Hoiberg’s initial contract and reduced the buyout from $18.5 million to $11 million.
However, the addition of name, image and likeness can add some value to the Nebraska landscape. The Huskers signed a five-star recruit, Bryce McGowens, before the 2021 season, but due to the lack of talent and shot-making ability around him, they finished the season 10-22 overall (4-16 Big Ten) in 2021.
Hoiberg still carries around the perception and narrative of a guy who can get players to the NBA. To back that up, he has done it at a place like Nebraska, with players like Dalano Banton and McGowens. Unfortunately for Hoiberg and Co., they may find themselves replacing a large group of players for the fourth-straight offseason.
“I believe that Fred has made a huge leap,” Strickland said. “He’s done a great job of keeping a good group around him, while bringing in a new staff that can help change the culture quick.”