As a men’s basketball fanbase, University of Nebraska at Omaha fans have had a tough year. After losing all 6 feet and 7 inches of Tre’Shawn Thurman (and let’s not forget Tra-Deon Hollins), facing a testy road schedule and fighting injury after injury, the Mavericks finished with only nine wins on the season. Rebounds, assists, points, steals, blocks and nearly every other non-shooting statistical category was significantly lower than last season’s. After a season like that, it’s easy to lower your expectations.
But not to worry! There is still plenty of reason to hope. In fact, there are ample pieces of evidence to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Omaha could – no, will – win the conference championship in the spring of 2019, and take the program to its first NCAA March Madness tournament. Here are three.
1) Evan Tricker. Matt Pile. Wanjang Tut. These three players have one thing in common: they are 6′ 8″ or taller. Height was at the center of every issue that the 2017-18 Mavs had on defense. Steals came few and far between. Contested shots were left unblocked. Opponents drove to the post with little to no resistance as they scored on the inside. This was, in part, due to height. For example, the starting five for the Summit League quarterfinal this month averaged at 6 feet and 5 inches. But after you remove Mitch Hahn (absent for most of the season with a shoulder injury) and Matt Pile (who was only promoted to starter upon Lamar Wofford-Humphrey’s injury), the average falls to 6 feet and 3 inches. As Tricker (6′ 11″), Pile and Tut receive more playing time, the defense will be much more formidable.
2) Experience. It’s not just the quantity of games that next year’s returning players have played, but the quality of those games. Omaha got to play Louisville, Kansas (currently a 1 seed in the NCAA’s), TCU, Oklahoma and Washington over the course of 18 road games this season. That doesn’t happen often for mid-major programs, and that experience will bloom with maturity.
3) Zach Jackson. Scoring in double digits for 28 games this season (and scoring 20 or more for 12 of those games), Jackson was selected as a member of the All-Summit League second team. He built from his success in the previous season, increasing his average points per game by nearly seven. Jackson will return for his senior year at Omaha and will be more motivated than ever to do well.
When the height, the experience and the Jackson all return, the Mavericks will once again be a force to be reckoned with.