Mavericks’ early climb impresses Summit’s leader

Kyler Erickson and UNO went to the Summit League basketball final, part of the school’s early success in the transition to Division I.

In its first two years of full Division I eligibility, UNO flirted with an NCAA tournament berth three times.

The Mavericks held late leads in the Summit League’s 2015 volleyball final, 2016 men’s soccer championship match and 2017 men’s basketball title game. Each time, they fell short.

But Tom Douple has no doubt that UNO will eventually get over the hump. The Summit League commissioner said he has been impressed by the immediate success the Mavs have had in Division I.

“It’s been outstanding. They have done a great job,” he said. “They knew what the challenges were, but they met them. I can’t be prouder of what they’ve done in all sports. They’ve been a great addition for us.”

Douple said he always thought UNO would make the Summit stronger, and he thinks the Mavs have done that. He said he could tell by the way UNO planned its transition from Division II.

“We do a lot of research on a lot of potential,” he said. “Years ago, I had colleagues saying all we’re doing is bringing in D-II teams. Well, we’ve been winning first-round games in the NCAA tournament. Last year, we had the women’s NIT (champion). This year, Omaha goes into Iowa and knocks them off.

“So my thing is, like Toby Keith, how do you like me now? It’s identifying that potential.”

Douple thinks the Summit has done that again with the recent addition of North Dakota, which will bring the conference’s membership to 10 when it begins competing in the league in the fall of 2018. North Dakota just dropped baseball and men’s golf last April as part of its state-mandated and university-wide budget cuts.

North Dakota did, however, win the Big Sky Conference in men’s and women’s basketball this year.

“They’re going to make us better. It’s all about the fit,” Douple said. “We always felt Omaha was the right fit for our league. And they and North Dakota have a lot of old-time rivalries, which really helped.”

Expanding to 10 teams is a positive for the league, the commissioner said, because it will help teams in multiple sports — basketball, women’s soccer and volleyball — with travel-partner scheduling.

“It’s going to be a savings for all of our institutions for our team sports,” Douple said.

North Dakota will become the seventh school to join the Summit since 2007. And that doesn’t include Oral Roberts, which left for the Southland Conference only to return two years later in 2014. It, IUPUI and Western Illinois are the only current members that were in the conference before 2007.

There are eight former Summit League institutions that compete in the 10-team Horizon League. Oakland (Michigan) University was the last to leave the Summit to go to the Horizon in 2013.

“If it wasn’t for our league, there wouldn’t be a Horizon League,” Douple said. “They’ve purged our members, and that’s been an ongoing process. They’ve never really developed anybody from the Division II level, and that’s what we’ve made a commitment to. They’re good schools. They were Division II, in my humble opinion, in name only. And it’s proven that. Look at Omaha.”

The Horizon League, which added Northern Kentucky in 2015 to bring its membership to 10, has reportedly been looking to expand again, though there appears to be no timetable for it to do so. If it does, other current members could be potential targets. IUPUI and IPFW both sit within the league’s current footprint. UNO and Denver have also been mentioned as possibilities if the league looks West.

Douple said he feels the current membership in the Summit is strong. But he knows there is always talk of schools potentially being interested in his league or other conferences being interested in his schools.

“It is something we look at. It’s constant in our business,” Douple said. “But we’re in our 35th year, and we’re going to be around for another 35. We’re just proud of our history. We get a lot of calls from folks who want to join, but we’ve got to get that right fit. We’ve got to be aware of what’s out there.”

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