The phenomenon has spread from Oklahoma to an even more unlikely venue, Nebraska. No longer is basketball merely a time-filler between the two major sports, football and spring football. And while it's not quite the king of the athletic department in Lincoln, Neb., basketball has reached princely status these days.

"No one's about to cancel their football season tickets yet," Cornhuskers Coach Danny Nee said. "But at least the good folks around here know now that Nebraska has a basketball team. I think we've finally given them something to get excited about in the winter other than the fourth-string cornerback {Nebraska football coach} Tom Osborne is recruiting."

Nebraska is 16-2 and ranked 17th, raising the normally unthinkable possibility that the basketball team could finish with a loftier standing in the polls than the football team (Nebraska was No. 24 in the final Associated Press football rankings). These are unprecedented heights for Nee. He entered this season with a 61-64 record in four years at Nebraska (10-18 last season). And in this season's Big Eight preseason media poll, the Cornhuskers were picked to finish last.

"We were handed that eighth-place prediction because of past history," Nee said. "And it's just that -- history. No one seemed to realize then that we have 10 pretty good basketball players around here."

Nebraska is led by junior forward Carl Hayes, who is averaging 15.4 points per game. Four other players, including 7-foot-2 senior center Rich King, average in double figures.

An 81-79 loss to Murray State Nov. 25 was followed by 14 consecutive victories, giving the Cornhuskers their best start since the 1912-13 team went 17-1. They missed the chance to equal that record Tuesday night when they lost at Colorado, 86-69. A large test looms Saturday, when they visit the 13th-ranked Sooners. Nee is 0-9 against Oklahoma, and Nebraska has won only five Big Eight road games in his four-plus seasons.

"We'll know pretty soon whether we're contenders or pretenders," Nee said. " . . . I think we're contenders, but I still don't think anyone outside of Lincoln believes me."

Snowball Effect

Syracuse's off-court problems continue to mount. Following a Jan. 16 game against Connecticut at the Carrier Dome, forward Billy Owens -- along with Huskies guard Chris Smith and two unidentified men -- reportedly were picked up by police about 2 a.m. after beating up a 19-year-old Syracuse man who had hit Owens's car with a snowball.

Owens has refused to discuss the episode publicly, but he reportedly was quoted in a police report as saying, "He hit my car. What do you think I'm going to do?" Asked whether he had punched the snow thrower, Kevin M. Casabant, Owens reportedly said, "Yeah, and I did more than that."

Casabant told police he was drunk at the time of the incident and refused to press charges for the attack, saying, "If someone had hit my car, I probably would have done the same thing." . . .

Nevada-Las Vegas's 88-71 victory over California-Santa Barbara on Monday night was its first win by fewer than 20 points since a 90-81 victory over Georgia Tech in last season's NCAA tournament semifinals -- a span of 14 games.

Marathon Men

Going into last night's game, Oregon had two players averaging more than 40 minutes per game: sophomore guard Terrell Brandon (40.4) and senior center Richard Lucas (40.1). Both are averaging 41.1 minutes per game in Pacific-10 play, and senior guard Kevin Mixon is averaging 39.4. The Ducks have had two overtime games, both in Pac-10 play. Brandon has played 606 of 610 minutes, Lucas 602. Both have played 207 of 210 minutes in Pac-10 games. . . .

Bryan Williams, a 6-5 senior swingman for Division II Tampa, has made a three-point goal in 67 consecutive games. He is well past the previous Division II record of 57, and closing in on the NCAA record of 73 held by Virginia Tech's Wally Lancaster. Since the beginning of his sophomore season, Williams has made a three-pointer in 78 of 79 games. He went zero for four against Purdue-Calumet on Jan. 7, 1989. . . .

The nod for the most-active game by a player over the past week -- er, two weeks -- has to go to Long Beach State forward Kevin Cutler. On Jan. 17, he forced the postponement of a game against Fullerton State with a backboard-shattering dunk 3:50 into the first half. The teams picked it up at that point on Tuesday, and the 49ers completed a 94-76 victory in which Cutler totaled 18 rebounds and 26 points -- despite missing three dunk attempts Tuesday. The second day also included a face-to-face, expletive-filled shouting and shoving match between coaches Seth Greenberg of Long Beach and John Sneed of Fullerton at the scorer's table.