Shatel: UNO is the hottest ticket in town

“There’s definitely more of a buzz, walking around UNO and the city,” said senior guard Zach Jackson. “People talk to you about how you’re doing, how they’ve watched the games. It’s always nice to have the support of the community and it’s been amped up more this year.”

It’s the last week of February and UNO basketball is a half-game out of first place and it’s a beautiful thing. But that is not a beautiful smell.

We’re at Baxter Arena to talk to the Mavericks before they embark for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Baxter is not an old barn, but it looked like one.

In the arena, where Mitch Hahn hit the epic jumper to beat South Dakota State, sit the remnants of the circus that is in town. The main ring. The trapeze. And over against one wall are five horses.

Don’t forget the camel. Right. A camel.

“I’m going to get a picture of that and post it on Twitter,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said.

UNO basketball has more followers than ever. Why not? The Mavs are the biggest show in town.

As we head into March, which team has the best chance at postseason play?

Not Nebraska. Not Creighton. Not UNO hockey.

It’s Hansen’s club, 18-9 overall and 12-2 in the Summit League. And here’s something you probably didn’t know about UNO basketball, other than they occasionally hang out with camels and horses:

The Mavs are two wins away from locking in a spot in the NIT.

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The goal, of course, is to win the Summit tournament in two weeks and snare the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Think UNO as a No. 15 seed against No. 2 Duke or North Carolina. Let that sink in.

But the NIT would be an amazing feat, too. Here’s how it works: the Summit regular-season champ is guaranteed a spot in the NIT if it doesn’t win the league tournament.

If UNO wins at Oral Roberts and Denver this week and SDSU wins its final game, the teams would tie for the title at 14-2. But the Mavs would win the tiebreaker, have the No. 1 seed in the tourney and, with that, get the NIT bid if they don’t cut down nets in Sioux Falls.

UNO going to the NCAA tournament would be the biggest accomplishment in the school’s athletic history. But going to the NIT would be right up there, too.

“I’ll let other people judge that,” Hansen said. “The NIT is big. Eight years ago, if people had said you’d have a chance to go to the NIT in seven years, nobody would have believed it.”

Exactly.

This was supposed to be the big waste of time, according to the critics of the infamous move of all sports to Division I. Creighton rules the city, they said. You can’t compete with the Bluejay Machine. Why bother?

It’s not necessary. UNO has created its own niche in the market. And it’s a perfect fit.

There’s room for more than one college hoops team in town, room for more excitement and buzz.

“There’s definitely more of a buzz, walking around UNO and the city,” senior guard Zach Jackson said. “People talk to you about how you’re doing, how they’ve watched the games. It’s always nice to have the support of the community, and it’s been amped up more this year.”

It’s apples and oranges, of course. Talking about the NIT isn’t going to get much buzz around Creighton or NU.

And UNO basketball comes with a bit of a ceiling. Making the NCAA tournament would blow this city’s mind, though the chances of winning would be so slim that it would be an iconic win in NCAA tournament history if it happened.

That’s the beauty of UNO basketball in this market. It’s not exactly an underdog; the Mavs want to be considered a top team in the Summit. It’s college hoops on a smaller — but no less fun — scale.

You won’t see Bill Raftery at Baxter, but the Mavs have a loyal fan base and they’re loud. UNO averages 2,232, and that includes crowds of 4,200 for SDSU and 3,600 for Purdue Fort Wayne in the past two weeks.

UNO plays an up-tempo style designed to score a bunch. There’s beer, a club lounge, a crowd that sits closer to the action and feels like it’s close to the team and coach. I’ve said it before: UNO games remind me of the old Omaha Racers games, and those were a hoot.

There’s an underdog element to the roster, though these guys can play. It’s not hard to imagine the 6-foot-8 Hahn or 6-5 Jackson playing in the Big Ten or Big East. That is, now. They had to grow into it.

Jackson, from Wichita, Kansas, got interest from hometown Wichita State. But Jackson said because he had just turned 17, Shocker coach Gregg Marshall wanted him to attend a prep school and mature. Jackson declined and loved UNO.

Hahn has a similar tale. He was 6-6 at Fremont High, more of a shooter. He said Nebraska coach Tim Miles wanted him to walk on, but Hahn craved a scholarship and wanted to play. He went to Holy Cross, then came back to UNO.

That’s UNO basketball: a place for area kids who may not project to the big time, but can still play Division I basketball. Then they develop into a player the big-time schools wished they had.

Basketball in Omaha and Nebraska is a different animal in 2019, with more Division I-level kids than ever. UNO can be an outlet for many of them. In that way, the jump to Division I hoops was right on time.

“When you come out of high school, you want to play at the highest level,” Hahn said. “But then you come here and you start playing these guys and it’s like, OK this talent level is still good. The Summit League has had some good teams that were 13 and 14 seeds. North Dakota State won a first-round game.”

UNO got tantalizingly close to that two years ago, losing to SDSU in the Summit tourney championship by two. Not long after, Hansen’s program took a surprise hit when Omaha Central product Tre’Shawn Thurman transferred to Nevada.

Thurman now starts for the 12th-ranked team in the country, a Wolfpack team that is projected to be a high seed in the NCAA tourney. Another example of talent at UNO that can move up a level.

The Mavs moved on, too. After a down year last season, the team showed a resiliency this year. Thurman left. But others stepped up. They aren’t going away.

“If someone doesn’t want to be in your program, there’s no reason to beg them to stay,” Hansen said. “There’s a lot of people who are going to want to be in our program.

“When we got together as a staff eight years ago, we had to decide who we wanted to be and how we wanted to play. We had to attract people. We think it’s exciting and this is who we are. We’re in a good spot geographically to attract players from Minneapolis to St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver. I really like who we are.”

In a couple of weeks, he might really like it.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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