By Max Olson
Myles Holley came to Lincoln with dreams of thriving on the Nebraska basketball team that was coming off an 18-13 season and had missed the NCAA Tournament for the 10th straight year.
Now he’s trying to restart his college basketball career in a 3,600-seat gym at a Division II school in Aiken, S.C., after he unhappily opted to transfer from Nebraska at the end of the first season.
He’s certainly not alone. With the December departure of forward Christian Standhardinger, eight of the 24 players Nebraska coach Doc Sadler has signed since he took over the program in 2006 now play elsewhere after brief stints with the Huskers.
The departures of forwards Holley, Standhardinger, Quincy Hankins-Cole, Alonzo Edwards, Shang Ping and Alex Chapman and guards Cookie Miller and Adrien Coleman have taken a toll on team depth and experience, and those eight aren’t the only ones who didn’t pan out for the Huskers.
Four others who signed never made it to Lincoln, and four more ex-Huskers who signed with former coach Barry Collier tried playing for Sadler but eventually chose to transfer.
Add in the Jan. 14 dismissal of Oregon transfer guard Kamyron Brown for unspecified reasons and it’s clear that the roster turnover has left the Huskers in constant rebuilding mode. Sadler’s teams have never finished higher than seventh in the Big 12 and never advanced past the second round of the Big 12 Tournament.
Forty percent of Nebraska’s roster spots during the past four seasons have gone to newcomers. Sadler has added six to nine new players each season, but the fifth-year coach doesn’t think the departures have affected his program’s progress.
To Sadler, transfers are merely an unavoidable trend that has worsened as college basketball players have grown more impatient and unrealistic in their playing time demands.
To his ex-Huskers, transferring was a necessary and career-salvaging decision made to escape a system that didn’t appreciate their value.
And to Nebraska’s current players, it’s all becoming a frustrating problem to which they’ve had to grow accustomed — a revolving door of teammates that refuses to slow down.
It’s about minutes
Sadler doesn’t apologize for how many players have quit on him and his program.
He says his job is to play the Huskers who give him the best shot at winning, not to massage egos and keep players happy by letting them all play or just handing out 35 minutes per game to his biggest talents.
“I tell every kid I’ve ever recruited that the one thing that won’t be promised is any playing time,” he said. “It’s going to be earned on the court. There’s 200 minutes in a ballgame. I’d like to play everybody, but I can’t.”
And when it comes down to it, Sadler said unhappiness with playing time has explained the eight scholarship players’ defections “99 percent of the time.”
The only exception has been Cookie Miller. The 5-foot-7 fan favorite and two-year starting point guard left in the summer of 2009 to play at West Virginia State, a Division II school located 15 minutes west of his hometown of Charleston. Sadler said he left to spend more time with his two daughters.
An analysis of the Huskers’ playing time distribution suggests Sadler has spread the minutes around more than most Big 12 coaches this season.
Point guard Lance Jeter leads the Huskers in minutes per game this season, but his 28.4 per night is tied for 27th most in the Big 12. Prior to Standhardinger’s departure, NU was divvying up its minutes more than any other Big 12 team, with 11 players averaging at least 10 minutes a game.
Nebraska is one of three teams that doesn’t have any player averaging 30 minutes per game. The other two? Kansas and Texas A&M, two of the league’s best once again this season.
But these days, Sadler said, some college basketball players aren’t even happy with getting 20 minutes a night. And in the Big 12, where nearly every school only gives that much time to five or six guys, coaches are going to have unhappy benches.
The seven scholarship players, excluding Miller, who left Lincoln averaged a combined 10.9 minutes and 4 points per game in their careers. They appeared in a total of 113 games but only cracked the starting lineup six times. None of them stuck around for more than one full season of playing time.
But the way Sadler sees it, player transfers haven’t hurt his program any more than they have others around the country — and in college hoops, they’re becoming a national epidemic.
“If you look at the number of transfers throughout college basketball, it’s off the charts,” Sadler said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
Sadler guessed player transfers have “quadrupled” during the past 10 to 15 years, and he might be close. According to a November study by the Quad-City Times in Iowa, a total of 367 players made the once-rare decision to transfer from a high-major Division I program following the 2009-2010 season.
The trend is hurting powerhouse programs and cellar-dwellers alike. Marc Boehm, NU’s executive associate athletic director, said he’s talked to coaches from schools currently ranked in the top 10 that have similar transfer problems.
Sadler heard the same thing when he chatted with North Carolina coach Roy Williams earlier this season.
“He’s had more kids transfer in the last three years than he did in his first 16 years as a head coach,” Sadler said.
Bottom line, freshmen now expect to come in and play right away. If they don’t, they know they can find that time on the court someplace else, and in the Husker exodus, that someplace else has mostly been at smaller schools at lower levels of competition.
“Very few kids are patient. Very few kids’ parents are patient,” Sadler said. “They want immediate playing time, and it’s just difficult to get.”
Sadler says he and his assistant coaches have helped each departing player find a new school, and he said he’s tried to keep in touch with nearly all of them.
“You want everybody to be happy,” he said, “but when you’re sitting in the shoes that I’m sitting in and sitting in the chair I’m sitting in … I understand when you’re only dealing with 200 minutes, you’re going to have more guys unhappy than you are happy. That’s just the way it is.”
‘I could have helped’
Ten months have passed since Holley announced he was leaving the Nebraska basketball program, and he’s now more than 1,100 miles away at the University of South Carolina Aiken.
He’s had plenty of time to think about why his Husker career didn’t pan out, and he insists he holds no grudges against Sadler or his coaching staff.
He liked them — off the court.
“I liked Doc as a head coach and as a friend. He was a father figure off the court,” Holley said in a phone interview. “Me and Doc, we had no hard feelings or bad words or anything. He was like a best friend off the court.”
But he still doesn’t understand why he only played 9.2 minutes per game last season for the Huskers.
The 6-foot-4 wing with a 47-inch vertical jump was recruited to fill the vacancy left by senior All-Big 12 guard Ade Dagunduro. Holley’s game — particularly his affinity for powerful dunks — was heavily hyped by his teammates.
“He’s high energy and a high-flyer that’s brought another dimension to our team,” senior guard Ryan Anderson said during preseason practices in October 2009. “That’s going to help our basketball team reach our goals.”
Back in 2004, Holley’s goal of playing big-time college basketball couldn’t have seemed more impossible. During a summer league game, he went up for a dunk and slipped on some water on the court.
Holley tore his ACL, his MCL and his LCL in his left leg. And he broke his tibia, dislocated his kneecap and fractured a bone underneath it.
Doctors told him he’d never play basketball again, and he spent two months in a wheelchair. But six months into what was supposed to be an 18-month rehab process, Holley was already back on the court.
He came to Lincoln after averaging 20 points and eight rebounds per game for a club team in Martinsville, Va. He expected a shot at a starting job when he got to the Devaney Center.
When Holley did get a chance to play, like when he got a season-best 21 minutes against No. 24 Baylor last February, he made a difference.
Holley threw down two dunks and drained three mid-range jumpers for a team-high 11 points off the bench that night.
“They said my level of play wasn’t good enough, yet when I did get into games it showed up,” Holley said. “Like when I played against Baylor, I had a great game.”
But he didn’t play a single minute in 11 of NU’s other 32 games. Tendonitis in his left knee from the 2004 injury was at times an issue, but he says he went to class and stayed out of trouble.
Though he felt NU coaches never gave him a clear explanation for why he didn’t play much, he tried to put aside his frustration, be a good teammate and hope his chance would come.
Holley’s breakout performance against Baylor earned him a start three days later in Nebraska’s road game against 14th-ranked Texas. Holley played 13 minutes and scored two points in that 40-point Husker loss.
He didn’t play in NU’s next game at Kansas State and returned to seldom-used status.
“I could have helped the team,” Holley said. “I wasn’t asking to start or to be the star player. I just asked for a chance to come in and show I could play on the same level as everybody else.”
A matter of commitment
Sadler knows he’ll always have players who aren’t happy with how often they get on the court. He’d rather have guys who are mad about being benched than guys who don’t care.
But there is one thing Sadler has no sympathy for: players who don’t take care of business off the court.
“That’s one thing I’m not willing to compromise,” Sadler said. “If they’re not going to take advantage of the academic situation, they’re not going to be here.”
Though Sadler didn’t discuss which of the Husker student-athletes who left the program didn’t take their role as students seriously, Christian Standhardinger and Quincy Hankins-Cole were both disciplined for academic problems during their time in Lincoln.
And though Holley told the Daily Nebraskan grades were never an issue during his time at UNL, USC Aiken coaches suspended him in mid-December for the remainder of the season due to academic problems. He averaged 12.9 points and 5.6 rebounds in the seven games he did play for the Pacers.
Standhardinger, an energetic 6-foot-8 forward from Munich, Germany, was NU’s most efficient scorer and rebounder per minutes played last year, with season averages of 8.1 points and 3.8 rebounds in only 15.4 minutes a game. He averaged 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the six games he appeared in this season.
But he also earned more suspensions than any other Husker during his time in the program. He was benched for all or parts of games four times due to disciplinary reasons.
This season, he was suspended for his final four games in the program and wasn’t allowed to practice with the team while he worked to bring up his grades.
His next destination remains to be seen after plans to transfer to La Salle University in Philadelphia were derailed earlier this month when police ticketed him for public indecency in a Lincoln park.
An underwhelming work ethic in practices and in his classwork also cost Hankins-Cole the shot at starting playing time he expected.
The 6-foot-8 forward was suspended for a road game against Iowa State, and his practice performances frustrated Sadler.
“Quincy is a guy who ought to be on the floor,” Sadler said last January. “But he’s the guy who’s got to make the commitment it takes to play here. Some days, he’s very, very good. But it’s on him.”
Unhappy with the 9.6 minutes per game he was getting, Hankins-Cole left Lincoln and found the playing time he was looking for at Pikeville College, an NAIA school in a Kentucky town of 6,000. He’s averaging 11.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per game for the 17-4 Bears.
“He kind of tanked it academically (at Nebraska) and really had a long way to go to catch up,” Pikeville coach Kelly Wells said in a phone interview. “I don’t think it was a matter of his ability — it was a matter of his commitment at the time.
“He had a really good summer and he was very well-behaved and did a lot of good things. We decided to take a chance with him and he’s responded, for the most part, very well.”
Wells said there are still times when he has to kick Hankins-Cole out of a practice to get his attention, but he’s been impressed by the forward’s dedication to both his game and his classes.
“This is a smaller environment, so I know everything that’s going on,” Wells said with a laugh. “I know when he’s not in class or not doing good on his papers. There’s nothing he slips by with here.”
Starting all over again
For Nebraska guard Brandon Richardson, seeing teammates leave is never easy.
The fourth-year junior still remembers the time he and Eshaunte Jones took Holley to Buffalo Wild Wings during a recruiting visit. He liked Holley’s on-court athleticism and his outgoing demeanor off of it.
But Richardson is used to this by now. He and forward Toney McCray are the only guys left from Sadler’s eight-man 2007 recruiting class, and he’s had to get to know more than 20 new teammates during his time in Lincoln.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You see all these new faces and it’s basically like starting all over again. But I’ve been doing that since I’ve been here.”
Richardson, McCray and ex-Husker Alonzo Edwards all redshirted as freshmen during the 2007-2008 season. They practiced nearly every day and sat out every game, but they got through it together.
“We were always hanging out off the court,” Richardson said. “I mean, if I wasn’t in my room, I was in their room.”
Things changed on the court in their second year together. While Richardson and McCray each played more than 14 minutes a game, mostly off the bench, Edwards averaged 4.4 minutes a night.
He left in search of more playing time and attended Lon Morris Junior College for a year. He’s now getting 9.1 minutes per game off the bench for North Texas.
“I was surprised,” Richardson said. “I thought we would all stay together when I got here. But I wish Alonzo the best. I know it’s nothing personal.”
Jeter had a difficult time dealing with Hankins-Cole’s departure. The two friends agreed to come to Lincoln together after playing two seasons at Polk Community College in Florida.
But the friends went in different directions once the 2009-10 season began. While Hankins-Cole struggled, Jeter blossomed as the starting point guard and started every game.
“It’s tough because he’s my close friend and you want the best for him,” Jeter said, “but at the same time, you’ve got to put in the work. You’ve got to have a mental toughness that you want to work hard and play, and I feel like our mindsets were totally different.”
Hankins-Cole didn’t respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, but Jeter said he still keeps up with him at least once a week and plays online games of “Call of Duty” and “NBA 2K11” with him on their Xbox 360s.
Still, he misses him. They came here together and had planned to become stars here together.
“But it all goes to what you do on the practice court and what you do off the court in school. That all plays a part,” Jeter said. “Coach Doc is going to make the best decisions for the team.”
‘You do your best’
Off the court, Nebraska’s basketball program has huge upgrades on the horizon.
A new $168 million downtown arena that’s expected to hold 16,000 fans is coming for the 2013-2014 season, and an $18.7 million practice facility attached to the Bob Devaney Sports Center is currently under construction and will open in September.
By then, Sadler will be busy preparing for Nebraska’s first season in the Big Ten, a conference that features the No. 1 team in the nation, Ohio State, and five other programs ranked in the top 25.
But how can the Huskers’ on-court performance keep up with these upgrades when its roster is constantly changing?
“You do your best to recruit the right student-athlete for your program. That’s what it boils down to,” Boehm said. “Sometimes that just doesn’t work, but you have to do your best to try and find that one person that’s going to fit your program.”
And Nebraska has certainly tried to do that — 31 newcomers have joined the program in the past four years. Both of NU’s scholarship seniors this year transferred in from other schools, and Richardson and McCray are the only players who have been in the program for more than three seasons.
Yet Sadler remains adamant that frequent player departures haven’t hindered the long-term progress of the program. The Huskers are off to a 14-5 start with two Big 12 wins, and Boehm gave Sadler a vote of confidence on Wednesday.
“Right now I think we are making progress,” Boehm said. “This team is gaining a lot of confidence right now, and we’ve got a lot of basketball left.”
All Sadler can do is try to win games, and he isn’t changing his style anytime soon. The players who show in practice that they deserve to play will be on the court.
If the bench players aren’t happy, they can work harder. Or they can leave.
“In a perfect world you would want consistency,” Boehm said. “You want to have those individuals all the way through those four years.
“But you’re going to have a couple people transfer for whatever reason. That’s just the day and age we live in now.”