By Max Garvey, Contributor
When the college basketball season tipped off last weekend, the UNO men’s basketball team stepped into the big time. Like the rest of the university’s athletic programs, men’s basketball is entering its first season in Division I competition.
The Mavs ended Division II play going 19-9 in 2010/11, losing to Missouri Western in the MIAA conference tournament. Though UNO will be ineligible for any postseason play for a few years, the Mavs aren’t shying away from stiff competition.
Of the 29 games on the schedule, UNO will play 16 of them against Division I opponents, seven of those coming against members of the Summit League.
“It’s like learning a whole new game,” said Mav Head Coach Derrin Hansen. “The basketball part of it is the same…the players are bigger and stronger. Everything else that goes along with it from an administrative standpoint has changed.”
The administrative headaches have mostly been in putting a schedule together. Hansen said that he used to be able to fill the team’s schedule in just three days. This year it has taken close to five months.
When the 29-game schedule concludes, that will be it. UNO is ineligible to participate in the Summit League Conference Tournament for four years.
The reclassification to Division I means a wait to play in both the conference tournament and March Madness.
The Mavs can qualify for the big dance beginning in March 2016. UNO becomes a full-time member of the Summit League next season.
“It’s going to be a real learning experience. I think we have an idea of the type of athletes we’re going to need to have, but seeing them up close and personal will be an eye-opener for all of us”, Hansen said. “We can’t play in the post-season tournament. We get that. We know that.”
“The best thing about our guys is that they’ve put our program this year, and our program in the future, in front of their own personal goals and themselves in order to make that happen.”
The Mavs return six players from last season, one redshirt and six newcomers. Three of the new players are junior college transfers, and three are high school recruits.
Mitch Albers and John Ring are the lone seniors on this year’s squad. Albers, who is currently ninth on the school’s all-time scoring list, has compiled 1,303 points in just over three seasons. Both Albers and Ring are redshirt seniors in their fifth year at UNO.
Hansen says that the even mix of returning players and newcomers means there is much room for improvement. A majority of the points, minutes and experience left with the graduation of five seniors from last season.
Perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the year is the Dec. 4 meeting with perennial powerhouse Michigan State, and Coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans breezed by UNO in an exhibition game last year, 102-72. For a second year in a row, the Mavs will travel to East Lansing, Mich. for the game against the Spartans.
“We play a game in DeKalb, Ill. against Northern Illinois the day before, so that might be a good thing,” Hansen said. “We will prepare for them (Michigan St.) one day, and then turn our focus back to Northern Illinois for two or three days before we come back to Michigan State.”
“We played there last year. It’s a great atmosphere for college basketball. There were 500 students waiting outside to get in the doors 90 minutes before tip, as we pulled up in the bus. So, I’m excited for our guys to get to experience that again.”
Outside of playing a team the caliber of Michigan St., Hansen said that the seven Summit League games will be the best gauge of where his team is at. Division I contests at Nevada and Northern Illinois will be difficult as well, but Hansen feels the best measuring stick is against future league opponents.
UNO tipped off 2011/12 against a future league opponent last Saturday in Fort Wayne, Ind. Four Mavs scored in double figures, but UNO fell 83-72 to IPFW (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne).
Freshman guard C.J. Carter led the Mavericks in scoring, and was the first true freshman to start for UNO since Andrew Bridger in 2006. Carter shot 7-for-12 (3-for-4 from three-point range) scored 18 points and had two steals.
Albers added 15 points of his own, junior Bill Freeman had 14, and junior Alex Welhouse had 13. IPFW guard, and preseason All-Summit League pick, Frank Gaines scored a career-high 29 points for the Mastodons.
The Mavs redeemed themselves and recorded their first win Monday night against Concordia (NE). Albers led an offensive attack that routed the Bulldogs 100-68.
The senior out of Papillion had 30 points on 12-of-13 shooting, and 7 assists. As a team, UNO shot 61 percent from the field, including 11-of-22 from the three-point range.
Alex Welhouse, Caleb Steffensmeier and John Karhoff were all in double figures, and the Mavs had 24 assists on 38 field goals.
UNO spends the next three games on the road before returning to the Sapp Field House for a Nov. 26 game with Chadron St.