For the opening act in its first full trip through the Summit League, the UNO men’s basketball team hits the road for games Thursday at North Dakota State and Saturday at South Dakota State.
“We’re getting thrown into the fire right away, with a tough road trip, but it’ll be two good games to measure where we’re at,” said junior John Karhoff. “We’re not going up there just to show up.
“but we definitely know what North Dakota State and South Dakota State are capable of doing.”
UNO, in its second season of Division I and its first playing a full Summit League schedule, faces the teams picked to finish second (North Dakota State) and first (South Dakota State).
North Dakota State is 5-2, with one of its losses to No. 1 Indiana. South Dakota State is led by preseason league player of the year and potential NBA draft pick Nate Wolters.
The Mavs are 2-5.
Not long ago, a trip through Fargo and Brookings wasn’t always as daunting as this visit may appear. UNO, North Dakota State and South Dakota State are old rivals from the days of the Division II North Central Conference.
The Bison and Jackrabbits, however, have had several more seasons in Division I than UNO.
“In the old days we were all on more equal footing,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “But these are two places we’re looking forward to going and competing and getting a chance to see what we have to do as a program.
“These are two teams that have won a Division I league and have been in an NCAA tournament.”
That’s the place UNO would like to get shortly after it becomes eligible to do so during the 2015-16 season. Meanwhile, the Mavs are seeing signs of progress.
They’re coming off their second win of the season, Saturday’s 68-66 victory over Chicago State — thereby doubling the number of Division I wins they had last season. The Mavs thought they played well, too, during most of a 93-81 loss to Bethune-Cookman the night before.
“I think we’re starting to get to where we’re stringing better possessions together more,” Karhoff said. “We thought that would come by playing together and getting more comfortable with each other. We like where we’re headed, and it was good to play well and get a win out of playing well — because we’ve felt there were times in the games we’ve lost that we played well and didn’t end up with a win.”
UNO was able to beat Chicago State despite playing without starting point guard CJ Carter, who played only 16 minutes against Bethune-Cookman because of a back injury and was unavailable the following night. Carter, a sophomore from Omaha Benson, practiced some this week and is expected to play.
Caleb Steffensmeier from Omaha Creighton Prep, who started alongside Carter last year, moved back into the starting lineup against Chicago State and had 11 points and five rebounds.
Meanwhile, junior college transfer Alex Phillips moved into the starting lineup last weekend and scored 28 points in the two games to raise his average for the season to 11.3. The 6-3 junior, who replaced Koang Doluony in the starting five, was expected to provide a burst of energy off the bench.
“He’s given us a little punch,” Hansen said. “But he can do it from the start, too.”
North Dakota State punched UNO last year, winning 98-65 in Fargo. The Bison feature all-league candidates in Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund as well as league freshman of the year Lawrence Alexander. Mike Felt provides long-range shooting off the bench.
“They look young on paper, but they’re a really experienced team,” Hansen said. “This year and next year, they’re going to be as good as most in the league and have a chance to get to the (NCAA) tournament.”
UNO is still working its way through 10 straight games away from home and takes a three-week break from league play after this weekend.
After a year as an independent at the Division I level, the Mavs welcome the opportunity to start playing league games again.
“I know we have a few more games until we’re in the league basically full time,” Hansen said. “But it’s good to see some normalcy now. … We have a chance to compete and find out where we have to go as a program.”
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