Omaha basketball fans who paid close attention to the 2017-18 season remember the Denver Pioneers.
On a cold January night, there were 2.4 seconds left in overtime, and Omaha was down by three points. The ball was heaved all the way from the opposite baseline to the inside of the arc, where it was kicked out to Daniel Norl. Norl then made the buzzer-beating shot that tied the game, sending it to a second overtime. Omaha would win that game, 86 to 80.
Now, Denver’s lineup will improve greatly. Creighton forward Ronnie Harrell Jr. will be playing his final year of college basketball at the University of Denver, where his cousin Rodney Billups coaches.
“It was a tough decision, but I do feel that it’ll work out for the best for me,” said Harrell Jr. The Omaha World-Herald reported that he wants to contribute more as a ball-dominant wing player, “…where he can maneuver off ball screens and create for others.”
This decision means that the Mavericks will have to face Harrell Jr. at least twice in the 2018-19 season. Omaha has faced him once already. During the Creighton exhibition game for charity last fall, Harrell Jr. scored 9 points with 13 boards, only missing one shot all night. Over the 2017-18 season for the Bluejays, Harrell Jr. averaged 7 points per game in 30 games played and 14 starts. He played the third-most minutes on average of any Bluejay, and shot 46.5 percent from the field.
After redshirting his freshman year, Harrell Jr. left himself with one year of eligibility and chose to pursue playing in front of family and friends, transferring as a graduate student. The Bluejays spent the season bouncing in and out of the top 25, losing in the first round of both the Big East Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
While the transfer doesn’t involve Maverick personnel, it is expected to create a ripple effect that will go through the league. The Denver Pioneers (under coach Billups’ second year) went 15-15 last year, losing to South Dakota in the semifinals of the Summit League tournament. Denver has yet to comment on the transfer.
Other figures to watch for in the Summit League include Mike Daum (South Dakota State), who has won two-time Summit League Player of the Year, and recently won the Associated Press’ All-American honors for his efforts in the 2017-18 season; another is new South Dakota Coach Todd Lee.