Picked to finish eighth in the Summit League, UNO heads to Purdue Fort Wayne and South Dakota State this week with a chance to take the outright lead in the conference.
The Mavericks (11-8) share the top spot with the Jackrabbits (15-6) at 5-1 while the Mastodons (12-9) sit a game behind at 4-2 after dropping two straight. UNO is on a four-game winning streak.
The Mavs have won eight out of nine overall, including their last four outside of Omaha. The last time coach Derrin Hansen’s team lost on the road was Dec. 8 at Oregon.
“Now we go on the road to two of the more difficult places to play in the league,” Hansen said.
The Mavs wrap up the first half of their conference schedule Saturday in Brookings, South Dakota. Before that, they open their week Thursday in Fort Wayne, where they’ve won once in seven tries.
The fact that UNO, coming off a 9-22 season a year ago, is in contention for the league lead nearing the midway point is a surprise to many in the Summit. Senior captain Zach Jackson isn’t among them.
“It’s just coming in every day and focusing on the task at hand, not really worrying about preseason rankings,” Jackson said. “We know all that is going to be decided on the court. Just coming in focused every day — giving our best in practice and in games — has really helped us get to where we’re at right now.”
With five double-digit scorers in its starting lineup, UNO is the most balanced team in the league. And with four key role players contributing off the bench, the Mavs are also one of the deepest.
Hansen’s group has bought into a team-first approach, which could lead to long-term success. Second-year forward Matt Pile said UNO — healthier than a year ago — has players playing for one another.
“The biggest difference between this year and last year is our unselfishness,” he said. “We had a very talented team last year. We just didn’t mesh very well. ... (Now) we’re all sharing the ball, very balanced scoring. We don’t really care who scores or does well on any given night because it could be anyone.”
Each of the starters has led the team in scoring at some point this season. UNO has had four players pace the team in points its past five games (with Jackson having done it twice).
“It makes us a lot more difficult to guard knowing anyone on our team can really go and get you 15 to 20 points a night,” said Jackson, the team’s leading scorer. “That’s a lot different than last year. Knowing we have different guys that can put up points really takes the pressure off each and every one of us.”
UNO’s balance and depth should benefit it this week as it faces the Summit’s top two players. Purdue Fort Wayne guard John Konchar and South Dakota State forward Mike Daum should wrap up their careers as four-time first-team all-conference selections this season.
The 6-foot-9 Daum, the two-time Summit player of the year, is a matchup nightmare. The Kimball graduate is nearly impossible to guard in the post and has seemingly unlimited range.
Konchar, meanwhile, can do almost anything on the floor. The 6-5 guard from the Chicago area is 15 points shy of become the all-time leading scorer for the Mastodons and ranks among the national leaders in rebounds and minutes.
“They’re both every-game players. They come to play every day,” said Jackson, who has played both for four years. “I’ve seen them both put up great performances against our team. I know they’re great players. We’re going to have to neutralize them as much as possible and try to come out with the win.”
That won’t be easy. Konchar has averaged 21.7 points, 11 rebounds and 5.1 assists in seven games against UNO. Daum’s averages are 28 points and 10.1 boards with three 30-point outings. The Mavs have 2-5 records against each of them.
“They’re both tremendous,” Hansen said. “Both have made winning plays and have won a lot of games.”
UNO is ready for the challenge. This is an exciting time for Maverick basketball, Jackson said, stating that UNO will be all business this week.
“I think we’re all just pretty focused,” he said. “We’re more determined than really excited. We’re trying to come out of this weekend with (two) wins. I think that’s just really the mood on the team right now.”
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