UNO starts Summit League play riding high at 10-5 with an RPI of 74.
But that doesn’t mean things are all that different.
“We all knew that we were going to be able to make a little more noise in the league this year,” senior center John Karhoff said. “The way we have played in the nonconference games gives us a little more confidence, but the expectation has always been the same.”
The Mavericks, picked to finish fifth in the Summit’s preseason poll, open league play at 7 p.m. Saturday at Western Illinois, picked to place fourth after finishing in a tie for second last year.
“We definitely know what to expect,” said Karhoff, noting this is UNO’s second season playing a full Summit League schedule. “Last year we went into it kind of blind, except for a few places where we’d played the year before. We know the grind it is in conference play, and that you have to bring it every night because teams in this league are really capable. It’s a tough game each night.”
According to kenpom.com, UNO is projected to go 10-4 in league play, tied with Denver for second behind North Dakota State. The Summit is ranked an all-time best 13th among all conferences by realtimerpi.com, just behind the Missouri Valley (10th), Mid-American (11th) and Horizon (12th).
Where could the Mavs wind up? Wait and see.
“The only thing we’ve really talked about is finishing above .500 (overall) and getting into one of those two postseason tournaments (the CBI or CIT),” said Mav coach Derrin Hansen, whose team is still ineligible for the Summit League, NCAA or NIT tournaments since it is in its third year of reclassifying to Division I.
“I think our guys to this point have understood how much we’ve put into each individual game and I don’t expect that to change. We haven’t talked about moving up in the standings, about where we were picked and where we could be.”
Meanwhile, the Leathernecks (6-9) have thus far been unable to overcome the loss of two all-league seniors (center Terell Parks and guard Ceola Clark) plus another solid frontcourt veteran (Jack Houpt). WIU has only three Division I wins this season and carries an RPI ranking north of 300.
While UNO loves to push the pace, Western Illinois has been its ideological opposite.
The Mavs are sixth nationally in adjusted tempo (a metric that demonstrates how quickly a team plays), while Western Illinois is No. 326 of 351 teams, according to kenpom. UNO is 12th (fastest) in average possession length, WIU is No. 299.
It could be a battle of wills.
“It’s just a matter of not getting frustrated, and I’m sure it’s the same for them,” Karhoff said. “They’re going to try to play their style and we’re going to try to play ours.”
There’s another stark contrast between UNO and Western Illinois, and it comes at the foul line. UNO, led by Karhoff (15th nationally at 90.3 percent, just behind Creighton’s Doug McDermott) is third in the country with 78.4-percent accuracy at the line. Western Illinois is No. 337 at 60.5 percent.
The Leathernecks do have one of the league’s top freshmen in 6-foot-5 guard Garret Covington, the league’s reigning player of the week who averages 13.0 points, and they’ve shown a tendency to look to score in transition a bit more than last season.
Their methodical offensive style under veteran coach Jim Molinari contributes to their ranking as the 11th-best defensive team in the country, allowing 59.1 points per game. The Leathernecks are also No. 64 in holding opponents to 40.2-percent field goal shooting and rank 81st in 3-point field goal defense at 31.3 percent.
“It’s hard to get quick isos and drives against them, and it’s hard to fast break against them because they keep so many guys back,” Hansen said. “It’s their style, and they’re really good at it. They cover gaps, make it hard to get to the rim and force you to take jump shots. You have to work to get good shots, and that takes time off the shot clock and makes it even harder to get good shots.”
The Mavs said they’ve recovered from losing a late nine-point lead at Hawaii — always a difficult place to pick up road wins — last Saturday, as well as from carryover travel fatigue.
“That was definitely one of our more frustrating games,” Karhoff said. “We felt like we were in the driver’s seat the whole game and it got away from us late. But Coach got us a couple of days off to get our sleep cycles back and we’ve done a good job in practice. We’ve got our legs back under us. Everyone is ready to go.”
The game at Western Illinois is the first of three straight road games to open league play — against the teams that finished first through third last year. Getting a road win or two could be a huge step toward the Mavs reaching their postseason goals.
“If you can steal one or two, you’re in great shape,” Hansen said. “If you don’t, then seven of the last 11 are at home, where we’ve been successful all year.”