We’re approaching a weird slate here with Almost Glory, a stretch run of programs that haven’t historically commanded even regular season respect. Three of the next four weeks will feature schools that have won a combined total of two NCAA tournament games since the early 90s. First up: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Coach: Danny Nee
Record: 20-10 (7-7 in the Big 8)
Big 8 Conference Tournament Champions
- G Eric Piatkowski, Senior, 21.5 PPG, 6. 3 REB
- G Jaron Boone, Sophomore, 12.2 PPG, 3.6 AST
- G Jamar Johnson, Senior, 11.0 PPG, 4.4 AST
- G Erick Strickland, Sophomore, 10.7 PPG, 3.4 REB, 3.2 AST
In the late 80s, South Dakota’s Mr. Basketball, Eric Piatkowski journeyed southeast to the cornfields of Lincoln, where Coach Danny Nee was looking to build a program to rival his colleague Tom Osborne, then beginning to run up the score on the gridiron.
From The News Gazette:
“We found him up in South Dakota, a skinny kid. We redshirted him his first year and got him in the weight room. He always practiced hard. Each year he got better. He was the first one at practice and the last to leave. A tremendous work ethic. He was very athletic. Once he got some muscle on him, he just kept getting better and better. A great offensive player, a tremendous shooter and a great teammate.”
“The Polish Rifle” (yes, that was his actual nickname) made an immediate impact on a team that finished just outside the Top 10 nationally, only to lose in the first round to 14-seeded Xavier.
He’d save the best for last. In his senior season, he played 32 minutes a night and spearheaded a Nebraska offense that zoomed around the court, to the tune of 87 points per game, 10th nationally. By contrast, the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten last year, Indiana, averaged 82 points a game.
Looking at the results is eye-popping: 106 points against Colorado, 102 in a win against Iowa State, 111 in a single overtime loss at Oklahoma.
They shined in the Big 8 Tournament. With a 17-9 record, they were probably in the Big Dance anyway but Piatkowski helped make sure it was never in doubt. He exploded for 42 points against Oklahoma in a 105-88 victory. After that, they outpaced conference champ Missouri, handing the Tigers their only loss to a Big 8 opponent all season. They finished by beating a very good Oklahoma State Cowboys team, one year prior to a Final Four slot with bruising center Bryant “Big Country” Reeves.
They entered the tourney a 6-seed with a date against the Pennsylvania Quakers, who owned the nation’s best win-loss record. We see this happen every year: a good, experienced, deep, unfazed, under-seeded mid-major team comes out scorching against an exhausted, depleted one-tricky pony of a high-major squad (ya know, like Michigan State last year).
The Quakers fired on all cylinders, went up by twelve at the break, and won going away. They also happened to be playing, unfairly, to a largely partisan crowd at Nassau Coliseum a few hours from home.
For the fourth straight year, Danny Nee’s Cornhuskers lost a first round game (three times as a higher seed). Nee would lead Nebraska to one more first round exit, a ‘98 team with none other than Troy Piatkowski, Eric’s younger brother (oh, and some dude named Tyronn Lue).
Eric Piatkowski was picked #15 a year later by the Indiana Pacers, who immediately dealt him to mid-90s basketball Antartica, the Los Angeles Clippers. Incidentally, that trade sent Mark Jackson to the Pacers, who would eventually help guide them to their only NBA Finals appearance.
Piatkowksi played nine seasons with the Clips, and ended his career earning the distinction as #1 in franchise history. . .in games played.