No one doubted that there were teams that UNO just wouldn't be able to beat in its first season in the Summit League.
But probably no one thought that number would be only four.
Picked last in the nine-team conference, UNO might have gone 0-8 against the Summit's top four teams, but was a strong 6-2 against other teams in the bottom five.
Only a late-season winning streak by Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne pushed the Mavericks down to sixth place at 6-10 in league games. IPFW, which split with UNO, went 7-9.
“I give our players and staff a lot of credit, because we made significant strides this year moving toward being even more competitive in the Summit,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said.
UNO still won't be eligible to play in the Summit's postseason tournament until 2016. Only then could it potentially have the chance, like South Dakota State and North Dakota State did Tuesday night, to play for a berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Mavs didn't really play either of the league's tournament finalists close in any of their meetings this year, though they mildly scared South Dakota State with big second-half comebacks.
But you don't have to go too far down the list to see how close the Mavs were in a league that, as of Tuesday afternoon, was ranked No. 19 in realtimerpi.com.
Western Illinois, which shared the conference title with South Dakota State, led UNO just 32-29 at halftime when the teams met at the Ralston Arena in January.
The Leathernecks, who played in the league tournament without All-Summit center Terell Parks, the league's defensive player of the year, nearly lost in the quarterfinals to a South Dakota team that split with UNO.
And Oakland, which finished fourth in the regular-season race, trailed UNO at halftime in a February meeting on the Mavs' home floor. The Golden Grizzlies lost to IPFW in the Summit quarters — and IPFW had lost in Ralston to a UNO team that shot 78.3 percent from the field in the second half and 62.7 percent for the game.
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Missouri-Kansas City, a team UNO swept, threw a scare into North Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
“As you see a team you've beaten at home (IPFW) in one semifinal, and teams you've beaten on the road (UMKC and South Dakota) nearly make it to the other semifinal ... you know that once you're in the semifinal you're 80 minutes (two games) away from making it to the (NCAA) tournament you want to play in,” Hansen said. “As far away as some might think it is, it might be closer than you think if we keep making the strides we've made.”
Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari pointed to the athleticism of UNO's Justin Simmons and Alex Phillips, juniors who will return next season, as something his team just doesn't have. South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy noted UNO's three conference road wins — his program didn't get its first Summit road win until its third season in the league.
UNO, which finished 11-20 overall, had talked about having a chance at making one of the two lower-tier postseason tournaments for which it is eligible — the College Basketball Invitational or the Collegeinsider.com Tournament.
Those goals were out of reach early — as Hansen expected with a 10-game, 37-day stretch away from home — but aside from an early loss to NAIA St. Mary (Kan.), the Mavs might have lost no more than a couple of other winnable games.
Next year, maybe there could be postseason play.
The schedule is nearly complete, with guarantee games against Iowa, Minnesota and UNLV. A home-and-home series with Nevada also kicks in.
Hansen may look to add another guarantee game or play in a multi-team tournament that would include a strong road opponent as well as neutral-site games.
He may not schedule any NAIA teams to increase UNO's chances of finishing above .500 against Division I foes and make postseason play possible.
“That's going to be one of our goals,” Hansen said. “As of right now, it looks like we still have a few more road games than we want, and that will probably be the case until all the contracts we had to sign our first year when we were scrambling to find games play out.”
In Simmons, UNO will have the Summit's second-leading returning scorer. The 6-foot-3 junior averaged 16.7 points overall, 18.8 in league games.
Center John Karhoff averaged 12.0 points per game, ninth best among returning players. Guard CJ Carter averaged 11.2 in league games after being slowed early in the season by a back injury. Phillips gives the Mavs four returning starters.
Senior Alex Welhouse was UNO's leading rebounder and an excellent 3-point shooter, but the rest of UNO's top eight scorers return — including guards Caleb Steffensmeier and Marcus Tyus and forward Matt Hagerbaumer.
Guard Jalen Bradley and forward Mike Rostampour, a walk-on, redshirted last season, and forward Simon Krych figures to get another shot at cracking the playing rotation after getting bumped when the Mavs started leaning on more four-guard alignments.
Rylan Murry, a 6-8 forward with all-around skills, and 6-4 wing Nick Billingsley of Omaha Central have already signed with the Mavs for next year, and Hansen plans to use at least one of the two remaining scholarships he has available.
Several contributors UNO signed since moving to Division I — Simmons, Phillips and Tyus (who averaged 6.0 points per game as a freshman) — have been strong building blocks. And many of the players the Mavs signed when they were still Division II have shown that maybe they were Division I-caliber all along.
“We were competitive against two of those (top four) teams at home, at least early in the game,” Hansen said. “We can see the differences, and we want to shore those up in our player and skill development and in recruiting. We struggled this year with not only size, but the depth of our roster. ... Hopefully those things are built over time and those are the hardest things to attain in the part of the transition that we're in.”
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