Not all basketball fans are familiar with the CBI and the CIT, the less-than-glamorous third and fourth options for college teams seeking a postseason experience.
But at UNO, halfway through its transition to Division I, the College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com Tournament represent the Promised Land.
“That would be a big thing for us, because it's the only thing we can reach right now,” guard CJ Carter said. “It's like the NCAA tournament for us. We want to have a good record so we can be eligible.”
As a transitioning team, UNO is ineligible to play in the NCAA and NIT tournaments until 2016. The Mavericks aren't allowed to play in the Summit League postseason tournament either. But the CBI and CIT aren't directly administered by the NCAA, so transitioning teams can qualify.
If they can get there, count the Mavs in.
“That's definitely a goal right now, because it's the highest we can go,” senior center John Karhoff said. “I don't know why we wouldn't have that as a goal.”
Now, even the consolation tournaments might seem like lofty goals for a program that went 11-20 last season. But UNO surged down the stretch, finishing sixth in the Summit at 6-10.
And, with four starters and all of their key reserves back, the Mavs were picked fifth in the league's preseason poll.
The fifth-place prediction is significant because contending for that alone bodes well for UNO's postseason chances.
“History says that if we can get to fourth we could play in the postseason,” coach Derrin Hansen said.
Four Summit League teams have qualified for postseason play each of the past two seasons.
South Dakota State has played in the past two NCAAs, North Dakota State and Western Illinois played in the past two CBIs, and since-departed Oakland made the past two CITs. League newcomer Denver played in the NIT last season.
“We've talked about them a little, but not a lot,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said of the CBI and CIT. “I think our guys internally have talked about it a lot more than I've talked with them about it.”
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Karhoff confirmed that.
“It gets brought up in the locker room,” he said. “We talked about the CBI and CIT this summer in workouts. We want to get to play in the postseason. It isn't brought up every day, but it's definitely in everybody's mind.”
The Mavs had quietly made the postseason a goal in Year 2 of its four-year transition, too, but after a nice season-opening victory against Northern Illinois, they suffered an upset loss to NAIA St. Mary (Kan.), then went seven weeks before playing a Division I home game. Their record was 3-11, and postseason wasn't realistic.
“It was pretty tough (to stay motivated),” Carter said. “But we wanted to finish well in the conference, and we did that.”
The schedule may be more difficult this season.
There are money games at Iowa, UNLV and Minnesota. Road trips to Nevada, Hawaii and Drake. A home-and-home with South Carolina State. Road games at Northern Illinois and Central Arkansas.
And then there's the Summit, with three clear front-runners (North Dakota State, Denver and South Dakota State) and five apparently even teams scrambling for position. That position could be fourth place and a trip to the postseason.
“Last year we could have finished fourth or higher,” Carter said. “We want to finish in the top three this year. If we play as a team and stay focused, we can do that.”
A major question looms with the potential ineligibility of Justin Simmons — an All-Summit player and the league's leading returning scorer — for the final nine league games.
But UNO does have quite a few answers in other areas, particularly offensively.
An up-tempo team that led the country in possessions per game, the Mavs also were among the worst rebounding teams in the nation.
“What we have to do better is defend and rebound the basketball,” Hansen said. “(Lack of) size and (lack of) age had something to do with it, but we have to be better. Our front-line guys have to be better. (Transfer) Mike Rostampour will help us with his rebounding, and (transfer point guard) Devin Patterson should help us defensively out front.
“But we have to be better on defense. We put up our share of points some nights, but it was all for naught.”