Justin Simmons and the rest of the UNO men’s basketball team starts practice Friday preparing for a full season of 30 games.
Whether Simmons, the Mavericks’ potential All-Summit League star, gets to play to the end is still up in the air.
Earlier this month, the NCAA ruled Simmons can play only through the Mavs’ Jan. 25 game with South Dakota, completing the five-year clock from when he first enrolled at Division III Concordia (Wis.) as a track athlete. UNO is appealing, but if the decision stands, Simmons would miss the final nine games of the season.
“We’re still very interested in how this plays out and we’re looking at other appeal opportunities,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “But I told Justin he has a life expectancy of about 77 years and he can still accomplish all he wants in life without playing those nine games, if it comes to that.”
UNO, of course, may struggle to accomplish all it would like without the high-flying, 6-foot-3 senior from Milwaukee for the final nine games — all of which are Summit League contests.
Last year, the junior college transfer averaged 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals, shooting 47.3 percent despite often taking acrobatic shots in the lane or long-range jumpers. He was even better in league games, averaging 18.8 points while shooting 49.4 percent, and earned second-team All-Summit honors.
He’s an expected Summit first-team selection and player of the year candidate this season — but if he isn’t allowed to play the final nine games, he’ll have played less than half the team’s league games and wouldn’t be eligible for postseason awards.
Since Simmons had enrolled at UNO, Hansen had been confident that an extension on Simmons’ five-year clock would be granted.
“I thought our administration and compliance people did a fantastic job, but it hasn’t gone in that direction yet,” Hansen said.
Simmons said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the NCAA’s ruling.
“I feel like (UNO) is doing what they can to help me out,” Simmons said. “But I’m not thinking right now about whether or not I’m going to miss the last nine games. I’m thinking about playing basketball right now, and if that’s the final conclusion, I can still support the team — it’s not like I’m going to walk out. I can always be the extra eyes, and if I see something (on the court), I can help them out and let them know.”
Simmons played little high school basketball and wasn’t recruited to play that sport in college.
He didn’t attend college during the fall of 2008 and then joined friends on the Concordia track team in late January 2009 — when basketball season was nearing its end. He wasn’t introduced to Concordia’s basketball coach until that April, UNO says, and thus didn’t have a chance to play basketball in the 2008-09 season. By demonstrating that he didn’t have the opportunity to play basketball in 2008-09, UNO believes there are precedents where that year wouldn’t have counted against Simmons on his five-year clock.
Simmons played basketball and ran track in 2009-10, though he played sparingly in basketball. He then didn’t attend school during the spring of 2011 — in part because he needed to earn money working after the birth of a son, Kastin. He surfaced at Butler (Kan.) Community College the next fall and became a Division I basketball recruit after averaging 16.8 points per game.
“It was a disappointment,” Simmons said of not getting an extension. “I didn’t know how they (the NCAA) would look at it, but I get updates all the time about how somebody got a sixth year. … My situation is different, but I guess I didn’t know what to expect.”
Simmons said that he trained more seriously than ever over the summer, working out and playing with a number of high-major college players as well as some professional or pro-bound players such as Marcus Landry, Korie Luscious, Charlie Westbrook and others.
“They played so much faster, and it got me to think at the same speed — because these dudes know what they’re doing,” Simmons said. “I feel like I’m a much smarter player now.”
Simmons, too, has shown the potential to play professionally.
“I hope so,” he said. “But I’m just trying to make sure I do what I have to do here first.”
How many opportunities he gets remains to be seen. In the meantime, UNO will keep trying.
As for potentially playing without Simmons, the Mavs will deal with that challenge when it happens.
“If it all holds up, at least he plays a position (wing) where we have some depth,” Hansen said. “We’d have to grow up down the stretch if it doesn’t happen, but we aren’t going to cry about it. We’ll put someone in there and try to be successful.”
MAV NOTES: UNO has added guard Kyler Erickson of Millard South as a walk-on. Erickson played last season at Division II Northwest Missouri State.