UNO coach Derrin Hansen has had a problem with CJ Carter.
It's a good kind of problem.
As a freshman, the talented Omaha Benson product started at the off guard (or 2) position, averaging 10.4 points. Hansen wanted the Mavericks to push the pace a little bit more last season, both offensively and defensively, and so he slid Carter over to point guard — where he had played a little bit early in his freshman season. Carter was good again, averaging 9.7 points and 3.1 assists, but the Mavs had so much depth on the perimeter that it made more sense to have Carter play on the wing again in some combinations.
This year Carter is back at the 2.
And, considering his 18-point performance with some clutch play down the stretch in Friday's season-opening 68-66 victory over Northern Illinois, the latest switch looks promising.
“I think my natural position is the 2, so I'm pretty excited about it,” Carter said. “At the 1 (point), I felt like I really had to get the whole team involved. On the wing, I still do that, but I look for my shot and then for others — at the (point) I basically looked for everybody else's shot first and mine second.”
UNO takes a step up in competition Sunday, when it faces Iowa in a 3:30 p.m. game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Athletically, Carter is one of the Mavs who won't be too far out of place against the Hawkeyes.
Hansen compares the dilemma of finding the perfect spot for Carter to what the Mavs went through during the senior year of Tyler Bullock (currently the team's director of basketball operations). Bullock moved to the point as a senior after starring on the wing previously. But, at crunch time in certain sets, Bullock would initiate the offense and then move off the ball as UNO would run plays for him.
While Carter will likely score more, he'll still be able to take advantage of his playmaking ability.
“We had to invent ways for Tyler to give it up and then get it back on the wing,” Hansen said. “So now CJ is starting on the wing and we don't have to be as creative.”
Carter had 18 points, six rebounds and four assists in Friday's win, an effort that included 12 points, four rebounds and two assists in the second half. He scored five points in the final minute — including a go-ahead three-point play with 14 seconds left — after previously hitting a clutch 3-pointer that tied the game 60-60 with 3:04 to play.
“CJ took a little bit of a back seat to Justin (Simmons) last year,” Hansen said. “But when you take what he's done in strength and conditioning, take what he's done in skill development, and then put him back at a more natural position, I think he's going to be a little different. I think his production may go up. He's a team player first, but I think getting him off the ball will help him.”
Carter is a solid outside shooter and, despite standing 6-foot-1, can also finish drives at the rim — or under it, with a collection of double-clutch offerings. He was slowed for most of last season by a back injury, cutting down some of his explosiveness.
“It affected me,” Carter said. “I didn't feel like myself most of last year.”
Teammates have noticed a more assertive Carter, too.
“He's not afraid to speak up any more,” senior center John Karhoff said. “If he sees something on the floor that's happening, or in the huddle, he'll call a play for us. He gets better every year. He's the kind of guy who makes players better when he's out there.”
On Sunday, Carter and UNO will face an Iowa team that cruised to an 82-39 victory over North Carolina-Wilmington on Friday. Former South Sioux City (Neb.) guard Mike Gesell starts at the point, and 7-1 Adam Woodbury of Sioux City East is the starting center.
UNO is making some recruiting inroads into Iowa, having plucked 6-7 freshman forward Rylan Murry from West Branch and getting a recent commitment from 6-5 wing Jalen Jones of Clinton.
“We're going to see a team that's playing at a very high level and is expected to do very well in what most people think is the toughest league in the nation,” Hansen said. “We'll play in a great environment in a state we're going to continue to recruit. It's good to keep our name over there and try to stay visible — so it's a good game for us on a lot of levels.”