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Seconds from history, up-tempo Omaha must retool without its stars

The Mavericks were just a shot away. Are they back at square one?

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska Omaha at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Things didn’t go Omaha’s way in the Summit League Tournament final.

Pick a cliche — a shot away, a bounce away — and the Mavericks lived it. Tra-Deon Hollins’ three-point attempt as time expired rattled out, ending a historic Mavericks run and sending South Dakota State to the NCAA Tournament.

“We were one play from being in the tournament we wanted to be in and didn’t quite get there,” longtime coach Derrin Hansen said. “But at the end of the day we had a special season with a special group of kids. Now it’s our job to replicate that again, but one more step.”

It was indeed a special season. The Mavericks finished third in the Summit League for the second consecutive year, and had an impressive non-conference win at Iowa. And in just their second year of NCAA Tournament eligibility, they were 8.6 seconds from the ultimate dream.

The problem — or for the optimist, challenge — is that the players most responsible for the success won’t be around to take that last step.

UNO loses starting guards Hollins and Marcus Tyus to graduation. That’s a big blow. Hollins went on an incredible personal journey before becoming a two-way star and winning back-to-back league defensive player of the year awards. For his part, Tyus led the team in scoring (17.1 PPG) after missing the entire 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

And in a surprise, rising senior Tre’Shawn Thurman transferred to Nevada. The mobile forward would’ve likely been the centerpiece of next year’s team after averaging 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

Does that put the oh-so-close Mavericks back at square one?

“We lost good guys and I get that, but I like our foundation,” Hansen said. “Our culture is good, our guys coming back have improved and I like the guys coming into our program. I’m very happy with where program is at right now.”

Laying a foundation

Foundation is the important word. The next step for UNO, just six years into its Div. I life, is to retool after a wave of talent leaves campus.

Tyus puts that in perspective. The fifth-year guard was one of Hansen’s first Div. I recruits and nearly missed his one shot at the Summit League tournament when he was injured in 2015-16.

“The coaches told me on my recruiting visit, straight up, that I wasn’t going to make the tournament my first three years and that my senior year would be our year,” he said. “Then I got hurt, so getting me one more year was nice. The coaches helped me through a lot. It’s been great here. Omaha has been great.”

Justice was served when Tyus eventually got his chance to play in the league tournament. But there were plenty of players that never got that chance while UNO was in eligibility limbo. Players like C.J. Carter, John Karhoff and Justin Simmons played big, productive minutes never with the ultimate stakes on the line. For what it’s worth, the Mavericks never won fewer than five league games during that time.

To Hansen, that’s where last year’s success began.

“We owe those guys the world. They set the foundation for future guys to make that run last year,” he said. “Some guys moved in from far away and still live here. They’re involved in one way or another and you can see them take ownership of our program, because it’s their program, not my program. I happen to sit in the chair but when someone else sits in the chair it’s still their program.”

Finding an identity

It was during that era that the Mavericks picked up something else: an identity. With other coaches using UNO’s postseason ineligibility against him, Hansen had to have something.

So he decided to play fast.

“I needed something to recruit to because I couldn’t recruit to the possibility of the tournament. Everyone is using that against you,” he said. “It was a great counterpoint: we’re going to play fast, we’re going to play in big arenas against good opponents and get you on film. It’s paid off for us.”

He hasn’t taken any half measures with the pace. Omaha has been in the top-11 in the country in adjusted tempo (per KenPom) in each of its six Div. I seasons. That’s led to a respectable 19-13 league record over the past two seasons.

Hollins said it wasn’t necessarily the up-tempo style that appealed to him when he committed two years ago, but rather the culture within the program.

“I felt like I would’ve been able to adapt wherever I went. I had a couple of other opportunities but I liked the culture and how organized it was, and I felt like their coaching style, and the themes and philosophies really helped me become a better person, athlete and student.”

The next wave

On the basketball court, he developed to point that he — as well as Tyus — will join a handful of former Mavericks playing professionally. Hollins heads to Poland and leaves it up to the next wave of Mavericks.

Rising junior Mitch Hahn could be a focal point. The athletic stretch four averaged 14.6 points per game over the three games in Sioux Falls, and should be one of the Summit League’s most efficient scorers. Zach Jackson could also help offset the personnel losses. The rising junior guard shot 46.7 percent from three last season, and scored in double figures in seven of the last nine games.

They’ll be joined by a recruiting class that includes local prep guard Ayo Akinwole, Kansas prep forward Matt Pile and Kansas prep guard Zach Thornhill. Washington State transfer Renard Suggs will also be eligible.

Hollins, an Omaha native, wasn’t offered a scholarship by UNO coming out of high school. He said that the Mavericks’ backyard is full of talent that just needs a chance but wherever future recruits come from, Hansen and his staff have a good pitch to work with.

“From the year before I got there to now it’s been nothing but progression. Just by kids seeing the team is winning and in our city, that will help in the recruitment. If they were recruiting me and told me, ‘we just went to the championship and we’re in Omaha,’ that would be a selling pitch that I would use. I know they’re going to use it.”

It’s now up to Hahn, Jackson and the rest to finish those 8.6 seconds and keep that progression moving.