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Defense is the 'biggest thing' for UNO basketball as preseason practice begins
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Defense is the 'biggest thing' for UNO basketball as preseason practice begins

One of UNO’s focuses this offseason has been to ramp back up its fast-paced scoring attack, which suits its promising sophomore point guard.

But La’Mel Robinson wasn’t too interested in talking about that last week.

His mind is on the other end of the court. Defense.

Same goes for senior Wanjang Tut. He’s been working on expanding his shooting range and building confidence on the perimeter so he can maximize his talents when the Mavericks push the gas pedal offensively.

But Tut’s also been thinking lately about the defensive side — particularly with preseason practice starting this week.

“Our biggest thing is, we’re going to have to defend,” the Omaha Burke graduate said.

The Mavs have been hard at work all offseason trying to ingrain that mentality. In team workouts. In individual drill sessions. In pickup games.

“Everybody’s going to get shots — so for us, it’s going to be a matter of, ‘Are you willing to stop the man in front of you?’” Robinson said. “That shows how bad you want it. That’s where I really want us to lock in this year, hanging our hats on the defensive end.”

If they can do it, Mavs leaders think this squad is in store for a bounce-back campaign.

UNO is coming off a 5-20 season, which included a 14-game losing streak and an eighth-place finish in the Summit League. It struggled in several areas — a midyear COVID-19 pause disrupted rhythm, and multiple injuries kept the team from solidifying roles.

But defense is what stands out the most to the returnees.

The Mavs ranked second to last in defensive efficiency (1.09 points per possession) during Summit play, according to Ken Pomeroy’s data. They allowed opponents to make 51.9% of their 2-point field goals in conference action, which ranked eighth.

If they’re going to improve, Robinson thinks it starts with their approach.

He’s trying to be one of those players who makes an impact with his energy. His goal: Even if the shots aren’t falling, you’ll feel his presence on the court.

“If we get five guys on the court this year who have that same mentality, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with,” Robinson said.

There will be plenty more to sort out over the next month, as well.

The top three scorers from last year’s squad — Marlon Ruffin (transfer), Ayo Akinwole (transfer) and Matt Pile (graduation) — are gone. So new go-to guys must emerge.

The Mavs intend to push the pace more this season. Similar to the way they used to. Their adjusted tempo ranked in the top five nationally from 2013 to 2017 but hasn’t been inside the top 50 the last four years, according to Pomeroy’s data.

Among the newcomers are three with local ties —freshman Frankie Fidler (Bellevue West) and transfers Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler (Omaha Central) and Akol Arop (Omaha Creighton Prep). They all have potential to contribute.

There’s versatility on the roster, Tut said. And a good mix of experience and youth. They’ve worked together without egos disrupting their growth, he said.

But they must stay committed to their defensive plan.

“When we fly around, communicate and attack on defense, good things happen,” Tut said. “We’ve seen it first-hand in these team practices, and even in individuals. We’re going to have to be big on defense.”


Omaha World-Herald: Local Sports

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