Asked about playing Minnesota, UNO coach Derrin Hansen’s short list of benefits included the opportunity to put the program’s brand on cable television, the chance to have four players on the Maverick roster return to their home state, and another on-court test for the team to continue its improvement with the start of Summit League play just around the corner.
Left unsaid was the potential shot to spring an elusive major upset, which the Mavs flirted with in earlier road games this season at Iowa and UNLV.
“I wish we would’ve gotten a (high-major program) win,” said UNO forward Mike Rostampour, a native of West St. Paul, Minn. “I know it’s coming. I know we’re going to get one or two, if not this year then next year. We have high expectations for ourselves. We just have to keep our heads on straight.”
Another, usually unsaid, benefit of a program like UNO’s playing at a program like Minnesota’s is the financial windfall. The Mavs get an $85,000 guarantee for the game, similar to what they received for scaring Iowa (an 83-75 loss after leading for most of the game) and UNLV (a 73-70 loss in which the Mavs were off target on a tying 3-pointer at the buzzer).
Those games netted $85,000 and $95,000, respectively. Drake paid nearly as much for a game UNO lost only 88-80.
Unlike many low- to mid-major programs who seemingly tend to settle for the payday, UNO isn’t planning on being a cooperative opponent and scrimmage partner for the Gophers, either. The 8 p.m. game at Williams Arena will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
“We go into every game with a lot of confidence,” said guard Marcus Tyus of Ramsey, Minn. “When you’re playing a big team like this, they’ve just got a bigger target on their backs. We’re going to bring everything we’ve got.”
UNO knows that what Minnesota brings, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is a lot.
“They have the best combination of three guards (Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu) that we’ve played against to this point,” Hansen said. “And (Chadron, Neb., native) Elliott Eliason has great size (6-foot-11 and 240 pounds) in the middle and can gobble up a lot of rebounds.
“We’re going to have to handle their pressure defensively and get back in transition. They really, really push it — more so than anybody we’ve played.”
UNO (8-3) is coming off one of its best wins since beginning its transition to Division I in 2011-12, Saturday’s buzzer-beater at Nevada. Unlike the Iowa, UNLV and Minnesota games, that was simply a regular road game — Nevada comes back to play at UNO next season.
The Mavs’ RPI rating has risen, as of Thursday afternoon, to No. 94, according to realtimerpi.com. That was 11 spots behind Nebraska, three spots behind Indiana, and ahead of the likes of Marquette, Tennessee, North Carolina State, UNLV, Notre Dame and Michigan — among others.
Minnesota (9-2) was ranked No. 50. The Gophers’ last game was a 75-59 win over the Summit League’s South Dakota State on Dec. 10.
Minnesota has changed styles under Pitino, but the fact that the Gophers look a little different now doesn’t much affect the four Mavs from Minnesota.
Tyus, a 6-2 sophomore, said he didn’t watch much college basketball growing up anyway, preferring the NBA.
Rostampour, a 6-8 junior who has become the Mavs’ on-floor enforcer, has a bigger cause.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life to get them back,” he said. “A lot of kids growing up in Minnesota are underrated. So when you’re a Minnesota kid you want to come back and beat the Gophers for not recruiting you hard enough.”
UNO’s other players from Minnesota are 6-8 sophomore forward Simon Krych of St. Cloud and 6-10 junior center Jake White of Chaska. White is sitting out this season after transferring from Wichita State, where he played regularly for the Shockers’ Final Four team.
Hansen said the Mavs’ trip to Minnesota, while a reward for those native players in the program, wasn’t necessarily designed as one.
“We’re trying to schedule where we recruit — and that’s (primarily) Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota,” Hansen said. “We’re just trying to get exposure for our program.”
Last season, UNO guarantee games included blowout losses at Texas Tech, Wisconsin and Iowa State, and there was also a 13-point loss at Nebraska in an in-season tournament. But the Mavs found their stride in Summit League play and have kept improving.
“I’m not that surprised,” Tyus said. “I felt like we were a lot better team. We’re competing better, we’re running better. We’re hard to stop in transition. It’s a good achievement so far, but I’m not surprised.”
The Mavs, 11-18 overall last season, return virtually every key player from last season and added point guard Devin Patterson, whose outstanding play has added a new dimension to the team while also allowing a healthy CJ Carter to play on a wing rather than the point.
UNO’s two best perimeter players last season, preseason All-Summit senior Justin Simmons and 6-3 running mate Alex Phillips, were slowed early by injuries and still haven’t gotten completely untracked — a positive sign for the rest of the season.
Rostampour has given starter John Karhoff and backup Matt Hagerbaumer one more big body to withstand at least some of the physical play that high-major foes produce.
So, no, maybe an upset isn’t in the offing. But Hansen is sure of something.
“I think how we’ve played bodes well,” he said. “We’re playing with confidence. We’ll play hard. You’re never guaranteed an outcome, but you want to show up and play hard every night. And I like where we’ve been from a mental and physical standpoint each night.”