The tournament season has started for Justin Simmons, and the high-flying UNO senior could be playing all the way to the Final Four.
Simmons, a 6-foot-3 wing with a 35 1/2-inch vertical jump, is one of 16 candidates for the 2014 “Dark Horse Dunker” competition, with the winner earning a berth in the College Slam Dunk contest April 3 in Dallas.
“I'm pretty excited about it,” Simmons said. “It's basically another opportunity to let everybody know about Omaha.”
The Dark Horse Dunker identifies under-the-radar players who “possess the power, creativity and hops to compete against college basketball's stars in the 2014 Slam Dunk Championship.”
It is a bracket-style elimination competition. Voting for round one, which features eight head-to-head matchups, started Monday and is open for two weeks. Simmons is paired against Deonte Jones of Texas Wesleyan. Winners will be announced Feb. 24 when round two opens.
Fans can view a video of each dunker and cast their vote through the College Slam Facebook page.
Voting for round two, the semifinals and the finals will be open one week each. The champion will be announced March 17 and compete at the 26th annual College Slam Dunk Championship at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The Final Four will be at Dallas' AT&T Stadium on April 5 and 7.
Simmons said he was leading his matchup Monday afternoon, but isn't taking anything for granted.
“He's shorter than me, and he has a 42-inch vertical,” Simmons said. “I'm up today and I hope it stays like that, but that's not to say it's a cakewalk.”
Simmons said he doesn't spend too much time working on his arsenal of dunks — the Mavericks' regular season is his first priority. The school helped him put together his video a couple of weeks ago. But, Simmons said, he didn't put his best dunks on it.
“If I had done that, and I made it, then I wouldn't be able to show the judges anything — they would have said they've already seen it,” Simmons said. “If I make it, I can show everyone what I can really do.”
The other first-round matchups are: Jordan Adams of Western State (Colo.), vs. Chris Udofia of Denver; Kevin Anthony of Lycoming (Pa.) vs. Jonathan Ouegnin of Mercyhurst (Pa.); Glenn Bryant of Eastern Michigan vs. Mike Kaufman of Lesley (Mass.); Will Giddings of Southwest Minnesota State vs. Brison White of Northwestern State (La.); Manny Hernandez of Lynchburg (Va.) vs. Kenny Williams of Angelo State (Texas); Marcus Lewis of Eastern Kentucky vs. Sam Johnson of Minot State (N.D.); and Khobi Williamson of Hampton-Sydney (Va.) vs. Jerran Young of Wright State (Ohio).
In support of Simmons as a Dark Horse Dunker candidate, fans can vote daily on the College Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championships Facebook page. When posting on social media, fans are also encouraged to use the hashtag #Socks4SlamDunk, a nod to Simmons' nickname, “Socks.”
“I moved from California to Wisconsin when I was a kid, and that was pretty cold for my legs,” Simmons said. “So I wore super long socks when I played basketball.”
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Video: Simmons' Dark Horse Dunker video: