This season, really, is the start of the rest of the life of the UNO men's basketball program.
Sure, last year was the program's first, technically, anyway, in Division I.
But there was no gradual buildup — the Mavericks were Division II one March evening in 2011 and Division I the next morning. Guys on partial Division II scholarships were suddenly full-ride Division I players. Who the program recruited, and who it played, all changed overnight.
The Mavs did what they could to put together a hodgepodge 2011-12 schedule, a group of strong Division I teams here, and a bunch of undersized NAIA kids there. They beat a Division I team, Northern Illinois. They lost to an NAIA team, Briar Cliff.
But the rhythm of a Division I basketball season will start to take shape in 2012-13. UNO plays only two non-Division I teams. The Mavs have a full Summit League schedule — for better or worse, considering the conference's steady rise up the mid-major ranks. And they move into a new arena, the Ralston Sports and Event Center.
This program has a future. But how the first step into the future goes, no one knows for sure.
“We're going to go in and battle and do everything we can to make it a great year,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “What 'great year' means right now, I don't know. I don't think we'll know what that is until we're all the way through it, because we don't know all the things that are in front of us.”
Once upon a time, UNO competed with South Dakota, South Dakota State and North Dakota State in Division II's North Central Conference. The Mavs are reunited with those schools now in the Summit League.
At South Dakota, Dave Boots is still coaching. He directed the Coyotes to 24 consecutive winning seasons, including their first three after transitioning to Division I.
Last season, their first in the Summit, they slipped to 10-18 overall and 5-13 in league games. Part of that can be attributed to the difficulty in transitioning to Division I — recruiting is difficult when the team is ineligible for the NCAA tournament.
But Boots credits part of it to the Summit League, which South Dakota joined after one year as an independent and two years in the Great West Conference.
“You don't really realize how good the league is until you get in it and start playing those people,” Boots said. “It's a very good league from top to bottom.”
UNO got a taste of it last year, going 11-18 overall, and 1-16 against Division I teams — 0-7 against Summit teams.
|To read more from our 2012-13 college basketball preview, click here.|
UNO lost games in the final minute at UMKC and South Dakota and blew a big lead before losing to IPFW in overtime.
“I feel we can be somewhat competitive in at least a handful, if not more, of our games this year,” Hansen said. “How many we can win, I don't know.”
As time passes, UNO hopes to make recruiting inroads. The Mavs are still playing catch-up in recruiting high school prospects.
They've gotten transfers like Koang Doluony returning to his hometown for his senior season and junior college guys like Justin Simmons and Alex Phillips.
But the Mavs aren't eligible for the Summit, NCAA or NIT tournaments until 2016. It's tough selling dreams when the postseason incentive is making the CBI or CIT fields.
“They have a real chance,” IPFW coach Tony Jasick said. “I haven't seen the new facility, but that's going to be a huge help as Coach continues to build. I think they'll be competitive right away and I think they have a chance to have a nice program in our league over the long term.”
The Ralston Arena instantly becomes one of the best in the league.
“In terms of Omaha having a city to recruit to and having a (new) place to play, and just the emphasis they're going to put on basketball, that's going to be a tremendous job and Derrin is going to do a great job with it,” longtime South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy said.
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