The next phase of UNO's men's basketball season starts Thursday.
After opening with three straight Summit League road games, the Mavericks play seven of their final 11 conference contests at home, starting with Thursday's 7:07 p.m. matchup with Denver at the Ralston Arena.
“In a balanced league, you've got to win your home games,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “That's what's in front of us.”
Coming off a key Saturday night road win at South Dakota State, UNO (11-7 overall) is 1-2 in league play — after three road games against last season's top three conference teams. Western Illinois, which rallied from a 12-point deficit to beat the Mavs in overtime in the league opener, may have fallen off a bit, but getting a win out of the road trip to North Dakota State and South Dakota State is something Hansen hopes is a rarity for the rest of the league.
UNO, which will play at home for the first time since Dec. 22 and only the second time since Dec. 10, also snapped a three-game losing streak with its win over the Jackrabbits.
Hansen said the team's confidence — built during November and December in near-miss losses at Iowa, UNLV, Drake and Minnesota — never wavered from losses at Hawaii, Western Illinois and North Dakota State. Last Thursday's 91-69 loss at North Dakota State was the Mavs' worst of the year — Minnesota beat UNO by 13 for the Mavs' other double-figures loss.
“For some reason we didn't play well at North Dakota State,” Hansen said. “But we'd played well at Western Illinois for 37 minutes and played really well at Hawaii, but we just had a couple of things go against us late in those games — of our own doing at Western Illinois, but out of our control at Hawaii. We came back and played really well at South Dakota State.”
The last time UNO met Denver, on the road last season, things didn't turn out well for the Mavericks.
Playing their 10th consecutive game away from home in 31 days — a stretch that included losses at Texas Tech (by 28 points), Nebraska (13), North Dakota State (44), South Dakota State (15), Wisconsin (46) and Iowa State (28) — the Mavs saw Denver go on a 22-0 run for a 32-10 lead. UNO trailed 45-15 at halftime and lost 82-47.
That was a nonconference game. Since then the Pioneers have joined the Summit League, where they were picked to finish second in their first season.
They boast one of the league's most athletic players in 6-foot-6 senior Chris Udofia and one of its top offensive players in 6-5 senior Brett Olson.
Udofia averages 12.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.5 steals while Olson scores 14.5 points per game and is among the national leaders in free throw percentage at .917.
“Olson is really skilled — he scores in a variety of ways,” Hansen said. “And Udofia is very athletic. He can slash, post up, rebound.”
They'd potentially be even better, but Royce O'Neale, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds against the Mavs last season, transferred to Baylor — where he's a part-time starter averaging 6.2 points and 3.8 rebounds.
Though just 8-10 overall and 1-2 in the Summit, Denver has lost to nine teams in the top 131 in RPI, including its first four opponents — California (No. 34), Harvard (36), Stanford (54) and Pepperdine (118). The Pioneers' best wins have come over Belmont (76), Wyoming (101) and Colorado State (160).
Denver brings its patient, Princeton-style offense to the league. Like Western Illinois, Denver plays a slower style that is the opposite of the Mavs' preferred pace. According to kenpom.com, UNO is fifth nationally in adjusted tempo (the number of possessions per game it would have against a team attempting to play at an average pace), while Denver is No. 349 of 351 teams.
“They've played some really good teams well,” Hansen said. “They're very methodical on offense and they are very good at what they do — very efficient.”
Notes: Fans are encouraged to arrive early, as $1 beers, sodas and hot dogs will be available from 6 to 7 p.m. ... UNO is ranked second in the country in free throw percentage at .780. ... UNO's Alex Phillips is seventh in the country in 3-point percentage at .471 (24 of 51). ... Kenpom has UNO backup forward Matt Hagerbaumer, a 76.6-percent shooter from the field, with the fourth-best offensive rating among all players in the country, although he's in the “nearly invisible” category for players involved in less than 12 percent of a team's possessions. Creighton's Doug McDermott ranks fourth among those who are used in at least 28 percent of a team's possessions (the major contributors category).