LINCOLN, Neb. — When Casey Behrends was a freshman at Nebraska, the atmosphere at basketball games was more library during finals week than intimidating college basketball environment.
When Doc Sadler was the coach and the Huskers were struggling in the Big 12, student involvement was minimal. A new arena and a new coach has changed all that. Second-year coach Tim Miles has brought a new energy into the program and with that has come student support that matches the best in the Big Ten.
“We get about 1,500 students here now for every game,” said Behrends, the president of the Red Zone student section. “Each year, it’s gotten progressively better. It wasn’t great under Coach Sadler and that’s kind of why the athletic department found the few of us who were at most of the games and were really excited when we were here. They reached out to us to help build the student experience. We meet with them every week to go through ideas, find things to do. Whatever can help.”
Prior to Wednesday’s game, Behrends, dressed in red-and-white-striped overalls and an oversized red cowboy hat, distributed fliers featuring Illinois’ roster, including the coaching staff and their Twitter handles. It also spotlighted a Nebraska player and had some made-up funny lines about the Illinois players. One item on Rayvonte Rice read “mom dressed him up as a girl and put him in beauty contests as a kid.”
Miles has been active in getting the students involved at Nebraska, recording a Harlem Shake video with them last year and taking selfies on the court with some fans after the upset win against Ohio State that led to a court-storming.
“It’s really good. He’s been really good with the fans,” Behrends said. “He’s really into the fan experience. He wants the fans to be into the game, making noise, bringing that atmosphere and giving the team energy.”
It’s helped. Entering Wednesday’s game Nebraska was 10-1 at home. The lone loss was a one-point setback to Michigan when the students were on break.
“It was only one point. We’d like to think had we been here, that last-second shot would have gone in and we’d be perfect here,” Behrends said.
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Behrends and his friends noticed what Illinois’ student section did Sunday, invading Penn State to cheer on the Illini at Bryce Jordan Center. They empathized with the Nittany Lion faithful — it happened in Lincoln two years ago.
“Our first year in the Big Ten, they actually came here and it was kind of cool. We were looking and wondering why there was a big, huge group of students up in the 300 section,” Behrends said. “It was sneaky. They had the red shirts on and we kind of thought it was them because of how organized they were. It was cool. We’ve tried to get something going like that, but we haven’t found the funds to get that working yet.”
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Entering Wednesday, Illinois had won its first game in four other Big Ten arenas. The Illini won in their first tries at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena, Minnesota’s Williams Arena, Michigan’s Crisler Arena and Wisconsin’s Kohl Center.
Illinois radio analyst Jerry Hester was on the Illinois team in 1998 that won in Madison at the Kohl Center.
“You really don’t even think about it. It’s something I didn’t realize or take a lot of pride in until after the fact,” Hester said. “I got out of school and Wisconsin went on to have so much success in that building and I can say I’m undefeated in that arena.”
Hester had visited Nebraska’s state-of-the-art practice facility in years past, so he had high expectations for the new Pinnacle Bank Arena when he visited Wednesday for the shootaround.
“After sitting around and really looking at this place, it’s really nice,” Hester said.
The former Illini guard is looking forward to the State Farm Center renovation.
“I think ours will be better; that’s me being biased,” Hester said. “Everything I’ve seen with what Mike Thomas and his staff have put together and all the gracious people who have given to that cause, I think we’ll be one of the best in the country.”
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With regard to the renovation of Illinois’ home arena, the athletic department announced this week that it has secured more than $9 million for the project from 40 different contributors.
In addition to the major gifts announced in recent weeks, Phillip and Heidi Sarnecki donated $500,000 for the men’s locker room. The H.D. Smith Foundation donated $500,000 for the sports medicine facility. Jeff Kautz donated $250,000 for the Kautz Family Dining Room, while a majority of the other donors requested to remain anonymous.
Thomas and associate athletic director of development Howard Milton have headlined the effort to secure the donations for the renovation project.
“These 40 donors are made up of families, privately owned companies and private foundations,” Thomas said. “When asked to be involved, each accepted a leadership role within our campaign and each gift will make a tremendous impact. In my time here I’ve been impressed with overall willingness of our supporters to help us reach our philanthropic goals.”
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In his first game off the bench in an Illinois uniform, Jon Ekey scored nine points, burying a couple of three-pointers. In being replaced in the starting lineup by a freshman, Ekey hasn’t spent his time sulking.
“It’s just about doing anything to help the team. Malcolm (Hill) and Kendrick (Nunn) have been doing well and it’s really good to see them doing so well,” Ekey said of the UI freshman starters. “Anything I can do to help the team. I wasn’t putting my head down or anything. I just want to win, that’s why I came here in the first place was to win games. There was never a moment of being bummed out, as long as we win games.”