It didn't take long for UNO to earn respect in men's basketball in Summit League circles.
Picked to finish last in their initial trip through the Summit last season, the Mavericks wound up sixth in what was then a nine-team league — and only a late-season run by Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne kept UNO from finishing fifth.
When the Summit's preseason poll was released Wednesday, UNO received a solid middle-of-the-pack ranking of fifth.
“I guess I'm mildly surprised by that,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “I'm glad there are people who feel we are that kind of team. Now we have to go out and not only do it, but also try to exceed it.”
North Dakota State, which finished third in the Summit last year at 12-4, one game behind regular-season co-champions South Dakota State and Western Illinois, is the preseason favorite after earning 25 of the 28 first-place votes of coaches, communications personnel and media.
League newcomer Denver received the other three first-place votes and was second in the poll, with South Dakota State third and Western Illinois fourth.
Hansen said he considers North Dakota State the favorite, with second place a tossup between Denver and South Dakota State.
“I think there's a line of demarcation right now past those three schools,” Hansen said. “We're trying to compete with those three schools the best we can — sneak some (wins) at home so to speak — and we want to get to the top of that other bunch. That's where we're at in our progression through Division I. We're trying to get to the top of the Summit — bad pun.
“We understand those three teams are probably better than everyone else, at least on paper, but that's why you play the games, to see where you stack up at the end.”
Behind UNO in the poll were IPFW, South Dakota and IUPUI.
UNO returns four starters and its top three scorers, including preseason first-team All-Summit selection Justin Simmons.
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“We're really excited about the season,” senior guard Caleb Steffensmeier said. “We're returning four starters and a lot of experience. Our new guys have brought a lot of competitiveness in practice and have really worked hard. We're really quick off the bench. We can get up and pressure more, pressure full court. Coach has the ability to play, eight, nine, 10 guys now instead of six or seven. I think that will transition into fun basketball.”
UNO finished 11-20 overall last season and got off to a 1-5 Summit start before rallying.
“We're more prepared now,” Simmons said. “We were prepared last year, but you can't really be prepared until you've actually gone through it. Now we've been through it and we've seen what teams are capable of. We had to get stronger, and we got stronger. … We're there now.”
One potentially huge stumbling block, of course, is the possible absence of Simmons for the final nine games of the season — all Summit league contests — as his five-year eligibility clock expires. UNO is still appealing to the NCAA to allow his season to continue.
“We're picked fifth having him from start to finish,” Hansen said.
Beyond the 6-foot-3 Simmons, who averaged 16.7 points per game while shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from 3 last season, the Mavs also return 6-8 senior center John Karhoff (12.0 points, 4.1 rebounds), 6-0 junior guard CJ Carter (9.7 points, 2.8 assists) and 6-3 senior guard Alex Phillips (8.2 points).
Also playing extensively last year were 6-2 sophomore Marcus Tyus (6.0 points), 6-1 Steffensmeier (3.5 points) and 6-7 senior forward Matt Hagerbaumer (2.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 79.6 percent field-goal shooting).
If Simmons can't finish the season, UNO will at least have perimeter options in Carter, Phillips, Tyus, Steffensmeier, junior college transfer point guard Devin Patterson and redshirt freshman sharpshooter Jalen Bradley.
“When and if that happens, we'll figure it out and adjust,” Hansen said. “We surely don't want it to happen, but if we have depth anywhere, it's in our guards and wings and we could have a chance to absorb that kind of loss.”
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Video: Coach Derrin Hansen talks to the media
Video: Justin Simmons and Caleb Steffensmeier talk to the media