Everyone’s playing for their lives.
That’s how Head Coach Derrin Hansen described the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, played in early March of every year.
For a league like this, this tournament means everything. In NCAA college basketball, the winner of each conference’s tournament is guaranteed one bid to March Madness (the playoffs of college basketball). In leagues of large repute, such as Creighton’s Big East conference or Nebraska’s Big Ten conference, some additional teams can earn an ‘at-large’ bid.
Teams in the Summit aren’t as lucky. The goal is to win three games in Sioux Falls–or go home.
“Nothing in the regular season really matters at that point,” senior guard Zach Jackson said during a March 5 interview.
Not the last-second buzzer beaters. Not the two seed they earned during league play. Not even that incredible last-second victory over South Dakota State on Valentine’s Day.
But there is one thing Omaha has going for them this weekend. If they win their opening game on Saturday against North Dakota, they get Sunday off as a result of earning a top-two seed.
“If you can win the game Saturday night, I hope we can make [the day off] work in our favor,” Hansen said. “We’ll do two days of prep Wednesday and Thursday, we’ll back off Friday, walk through some things in Sioux Falls and try to be ready Saturday.”
Omaha has a little bit of history in the Summit tournament, even though the Mavericks have only played in three. The one fans remember most ended in heartbreak when Omaha’s buzzer-beating three-point shot missed the mark in March of 2017, handing South Dakota State their second Summit League title in a row. Since then, the Jackrabbits gathered another, and they are the one seed this season. Some might even say that team veterans want a chance at revenge–not according to Hansen.
Omaha isn’t focused on any part of the past this year, says the coach. The example he used to illustrate the team’s mental toughness was their loss at Oral Roberts on Feb. 28.
On that Thursday, Omaha’s loss was the deciding factor that put the regular season title and the tournament’s one seed out of reach.
“We had a disappointed locker room Thursday night,” Hansen said. “(But) we rebounded well on a quick turnaround.”
Omaha beat Denver just two days later to finish the regular season on a strong note.
The Mavs are only focused on one game at a time. “Don’t let three games get in the way of winning one game, because you don’t get game two without (winning) game one,” Hansen said. “We know who we are, so let’s go up there and play like champions.”
UNO will definitely have some advantages. The team’s starters all average more than 10 points per game in scoring. In addition, the balanced team ranks fourth in the nation for fewest turnovers.
With the location of the tournament set right in the Dakota area, many would think that’s an extra challenge for the Mavericks. Not according to them – that’s an advantage too.
“You want there to be people there,” said Jackson on Tuesday.
“It doesn’t really matter if they’re there for you or not.” said Mitch Hahn (who is the reason Omaha ranks in the top 25 nationally in the “luck” statistic). “Once the ball’s tipped, I don’t think it matters who’s in the crowd.”
The team will take all of their talents and toughness to Sioux Falls this weekend, where they hope that they can come away with Omaha’s first NCAA March Madness bid.
Game one against North Dakota will tip off at 8:30 PM on Saturday, March 9 on ESPN+ and 1290 KOIL AM. If Omaha wins, they will play their next opponent at the same time on Monday, March 11 on ESPN+ and 1180 AM Zone 2. The Summit League championship will be played at 8 PM on Tuesday, March 12 on ESPN2 and 1180 AM Zone 2.