By: Jack O’Keefe
Spread: Nebraska-Omaha -2
7:00 pm Central – Baxter Arena, Omaha, NE
North Dakota Fighting Hawks (8-15, 7-7)
Founded in 1883, six years before North Dakota would officially be established as a state, the University of North Dakota stands in the middle of beautiful Grand Forks, ND. The University of North Dakota takes pride in two distinctions that set itself apart from other universities: its aerospace program and its hockey program. UND is the first university in the United States to offer a degree in unmanned aircraft systems operations, an up and coming area of interest for artificial intelligence in the world. The hockey program is pretty good at UND too. The Fighting Hawks currently have 20+ alum in the NHL, along with over 100 former players who played in the NHL. The basketball team absolutely ran the NCAA Division-II ranks, holding the title as the fourth winningest program in history. The transition to the NCAA Division-I level for basketball has been a challenge; however, in just their 12 years as a Division-I program, the Fighting Hawks have already made it to the NCAA Tournament once. In the words of former NBA head coach and UND alum, Phil Jackson, “The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.”
Now that I have you feeling a sense of inner peace from the Zen Master, let’s go ahead and take a deep dive at this UND team. The start of the season was brutal for the Fighting Hawks, as they went 1-8 to open the campaign. The Fighting Hawks seem to be playing with a little bit of momentum as of late though, winning three out of their last four games. Two of those games won by North Dakota came against South Dakota, the top team in the Summit League. Filip Rebraca is the main man for the North Dakota offense this season. The junior forward from Serbia is averaging 17.0 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game this season. Tyree Ihenacho has been a nice addition in the lineup for Coach Sather this season. The freshman guard is averaging 8.9 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game and 4.1 assists per game.
The offense for North Dakota is at its best when the Fighting Hawks take care of the basketball. I know how incredibly cliché that sounds, but North Dakota this season is 4-2 when they turn the ball over 9 times or less this season. The offense is clicking for North Dakota when the three-point shot is on point for the Fighting Hawks. As a team, the Fighting Hawks are shooting 34.2% from beyond the arc this season (145th in Division-I). The Fighting Hawks need to make improvements defensively though should they make a deep run in the Summit League Tournament. Currently, the Fighting Hawks are allowing their opponent to shoot 47.5% from the field this season (320th in Division-I). As it currently stands, the Fighting Hawks are slated to be a #5 seed in the Summit League Tournament. They would match-up with Oral Roberts, a team that they have split the regular season games with this season, and the winner would take on #1 seed South Dakota or #8 seed Denver. The Fighting Hawks are an impressive 3-0 this season against the top seed South Dakota, so should they see them in the Semifinals this year, I think UND will be up for the challenge.
Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (2-18, 0-10)
Like the University of North Dakota, the University of Nebraska-Omaha has an impressive hockey program. Only 16 teams make the NCAA Tournament for hockey, but in 2015, the Mavericks made it all the way to the Frozen Four. They lost to Providence, who eventually went on to win the NCAA Tournament, but it was still a monumental feat for the small school out in Nebraska. The Mavericks currently have six players still active playing in the NHL, along with eight former NHL players. On their current Mavericks roster, three of the players have been drafted in the NHL. The players though elected to remain in school and improve their draft stock as a result.
Unfortunately, the basketball program has not been as successful at the Division-I level as the hockey program has been thus far. The Mavericks enjoyed a 21-11 season in 2018-19, but the Mavericks have yet to crack into the NIT or NCAA Tournament yet. This season has been by far the worst season the Mavericks have had in quite some time. The two wins the Mavericks have this season, one against Middle Tennessee State and SIU-Edwardsville, were by a combined three points. With only four games left on the docket for this season, the Mavericks need to win a few games for a chance to compete in this year’s Summit League Tournament. As it stands now, the Mavericks would not make the Summit League Tournament. They are one game back behind the Denver Pioneers for the eighth and final seed in the Summit League Tournament. After their two game stint with North Dakota this weekend, the Mavericks take on the Pioneers for a two-game series next weekend. Who wants the final spot in the Summit League Tournament? We will find out next Sunday.
Two players lead the Mavericks offensively this season: Marlon Ruffin and Ayo Akinwole. Ruffin is averaging 13.1 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game and 1.4 assists per game. Akinwole is averaging 11.0 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game and 2.9 assists per game. Matt Pile, the 2019-20 Summit League Defensive Player of the Year, has once again been a solid player for the Mavericks, averaging 10.0 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game this season. As great as Pile is defensively, the team as a whole has struggled mightily on defense. Opposing teams are averaging 78.5 points per game this season against the Mavericks, and the Mavericks have allowed opposing teams to shoot 47.0% from the field against them this season (294th in Division-I). Should the Mavericks be more competitive in the Summit League next season, Coach Hansen will have to find some valuable pieces to place around Marlon Ruffin once the two seniors, Ayo Akinwole and Matt Pile, graduate this spring.
I get that they are at home, but I really do not see how Nebraska-Omaha can be a favorite in this game. The Mavericks have not won since December 5th, and they have not won a game against a Summit League opponent since February 26, 2020. Pre-COVID-19 times, which feels like ages ago. I believe that with their two wins last weekend against a talented South Dakota team, North Dakota has to be coming into this game with a high degree of confidence. North Dakota has not been great ATS this season, they have covered in only four out of their last ten games, but the Fighting Hawks are not as abysmal as the Mavericks have been ATS. Nebraska-Omaha has only covered once in their last eight contests. Against South Dakota this season, the Mavericks are 0-2 with the average margin of defeat set at 18 points. I am going to take North Dakota +2 as my best bet in this game.
Jack’s 2020-21 CBB picks: (21-18)
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