The UNO men’s basketball team could make history Tuesday night, and former Mavs players are stoked.
A win over North Dakota State (17-15, 9-7) in the Summit League Basketball Championship final (8 p.m., ESPN2) would clinch UNO’s first NCAA Division I conference tournament title and its first trip to the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament.
“It’s absolutely a milestone moment for the program,” said Dean Thompson Jr., the program’s all-time leading scorer, who played at UNO from 1980-1984. “Building on the history of the program, this would be a big climax.”
UNO (21-10, 14-3) hasn’t won a conference tournament championship since transitioning to Division I in 2011-2012. During its time in Division II, the team won three conference championships and played in 11 NCAA Division II tournaments.
The team nearly got over the hump two seasons ago, but lost in the Summit League final to South Dakota State by two points after a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer. ESPN gives the Mavericks a 62.1 percent chance of winning tonight.
Thompson, who was traveling Tuesday, said he plans to watch the game from a sports bar in Colorado Springs. He has been texting friends who played at Nebraska and Creighton, rubbing it in a little.
“It’s just a good chance for us to wave the flag,” he said. “Basketball is so different than other things like football. If you get on a good run (in the tournament) and get the right seeds and matchups, anything can happen.”
Thompson’s brother, Tom, who played at UNO from 1984-88, said a tournament bid would mean a lot, not only to UNO but to the basketball landscape across Nebraska.
“The chance to be there, make some big plays, to see Omaha on the jerseys of somebody who does that on wrap-ups and post-game shows, there is no downside to that,” he said.
The younger Thompson pointed to former coach Kevin McKenna and others who laid the groundwork for the growth of UNO’s basketball program.
“There’s been a lot of bricks that have been built over the years,” he said. “It takes time to build a tradition, and once you build a tradition you can recalibrate your expectations. “Nobody wants this to be a one-time fluke, obviously.”
If the team wins Tuesday night and earns a place at the NCAA tournament, Tom Thompson said he plans to try to travel to a game. But he’ll think about that Wednesday morning.
“Let’s really, really soak in that moment, that celebration and that accomplishment, to do something no other UNO team has done before,” he said. “The anticipation of the moment is really the buzz right now.”
Other UNO basketball alumni shared their thoughts heading into Tuesday's game:
» Grant Nieland, who played at UNO in the mid-2000s: “I have gotten more comments, more excitement, more texts saying it’s exciting for Omaha that they’re one win away. Most of these people are Creighton fans or Nebraska fans saying they need somebody to root for if (their teams) don’t make it. It’s good to see that collective excitement for Nebraska basketball as a whole.”
» Glenn Moberg, one of 12 UNO players with 1,000 points and 500 rebounds: "It would mean a lot to us. Not only the state but national recognition I think would go a great ways in terms of what we’re trying to do with basketball and other sports. It’d be fulfilling for a lot of old guys like myself."
» Mitch Albers, UNO’s second-all-time leading scorer, who played during UNO’s transition to Division I: “It couldn’t be a better year for this to be happening to Omaha with Nebraska and Creighton to be down a little bit ... You would think the community of Omaha would really get behind (the Mavs) no matter who your favorite team is and root for the home team.”
» Dan Olsen, who played at UNO in the late 1980s: “I think it’ll put UNO on the map and hopefully get more fans interested in Omaha. It’s not just Creighton and Nebraska, there’s good basketball here at Omaha ... If they make it, Omaha will travel.”
» John Karhoff, 9th-all-time in points and 7th in blocked shots at UNO: “It’s obviously huge. In just the fourth year of (Division I) eligibility, this is already the second championship game they’ve been in, that’s extremely impressive. There’s no one more deserving than Coach Hansen and his staff. I know how hard they work. To see their name pop up on Selection Sunday, it would be crazy.”