For the first time Wednesday, UNO had a chance to hang around for an extended time in its new home for men’s basketball.
The Mavericks went through their annual media day protocol, took a team photo and practiced for the first time at the Ralston Sports and Event Center.
“Not a lot of teams get the opportunity to open up a new arena like this,” junior center John Karhoff said. “It’s going to be exciting for us to come in here. It’s a great arena, and hopefully we’ll be able to turn this into a homecourt advantage.”
The Mavs will have several more practices, as well as a closed-door scrimmage with Northwest Missouri State on Sunday, at the arena before opening their regular season there Nov. 9 against Northern Illinois.
Playing Division I basketball in a new 3,500-seat arena at a relatively accessible location near 72nd and Q Streets is a noticeable change from UNO’s Division II past at historic Sapp Fieldhouse, where games were played before a high percentage of family and friends able to navigate UNO’s on-campus parking snarl.
The new court has been reconditioned with UNO logos after having been used during last year’s NCAA tournament in St. Louis. The hoops were used at the Final Four.
The Mavs are eager to put their product out for inspection to a bigger slice of the city.
“It’s great for our guys, our staff and our players,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “But I think it’s great for our university and our city, too. It’s not just us. It’s a great thing for everybody.
“And I appreciate everything that everybody has done to get us to this point.”
UNO’s second season at the Division I level includes just two non-Division I matchups, a full Summit League schedule and 13 home games.
Karhoff and junior guard Caleb Steffensmeier — former Creighton Prep teammates — are two of the four Omaha players on the Mavs’ roster. The others are senior forward Koang Doluony of Omaha Bryan and sophomore guard CJ Carter of Omaha Benson.
“We’ve got a lot of talented kids on this team,” Karhoff said. “At the same time, we know we have family and friends who have been following us. They talk to people who talk to people who will hopefully get the word out that there’s a lot of local kids trying to play competitive ball here.”
Besides the Omaha guys, junior forward Matt Hagerbaumer is from Lincoln Southeast and freshman guard Jalen Bradley is from Norfolk.
“The biggest thing is getting fans to the games,” Steffensmeier said. “A lot of people will come watch us local guys play here in Ralston because it’s close and convenient — parking isn’t an issue here.”
Players have gotten sneak peeks at the place over the past few months, but all have been stoked since getting their first look at the nearly completed locker room.
“No one had any idea what to expect,” senior guard Tyler Egli said. “We saw it five months ago and it was just concrete. It’s awesome right now. It’s more than anyone expected.”
Said Karhoff: “It kind of makes you feel like you’re part of something special at UNO, part of a place that’s committed to build a good program. Walking in there and seeing it, that’s something you’ll remember for a long time.”
Egli, one of the Mavs’ long-range sharpshooters, likes the court, too. He swished his first attempt ever at the building on Wednesday.
“The backdrops can be a little different, but last year we played in some big arenas and it’s not too much of a difference,” Egli said. “And at the fieldhouse (where UNO will often practice), the ends are pretty far apart. So the biggest difference is probably the height of the ceiling, and that can affect the depth perception sometimes.”
The Mavs say the Ralston arena compares more than favorably to some of the venues they saw last year — including Michigan State’s Breslin Center and Nevada’s Lawlor Events Center.
“Personally, I think this is right up there with them,” senior forward Alex Welhouse said. “This place is amazing. I can’t wait to play here for the fans.”
All of this is still a little hard to believe for the UNO veterans who came to the program when it was in Division II and battling for a Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association title.
“In some ways, I think it’s going to make us play harder, because we take pride in this place because it’s such a nice facility,” Welhouse said. “We don’t want to lose a game here. We’ve got the great facility, so now it’s on us to perform.”
Hansen said the excitement is a lot for his guys to handle.
“There’s a lot of things that are new right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of things going on. We’re just trying to make sure that we keep our players focused on the day-to-day tasks of practice. These things are great, but at the end of the day we still have to perform on the floor.”
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