Arizona guard Nico Mannion (1) moves the ball up the court against Baylor during the first half of a mens NCAA basketball game in Waco, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

The Star's Bruce Pascoe previews all of the game day essentials, from projected starting lineups to storylines and series history, ahead of the Arizona Wildcats' Wednesday night game against the Omaha Mavericks


Game info

Who: Omaha (5-6) at No. 15 Arizona (9-1)

Where: McKale Center

When: Wednesday,?6 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM

Follow:?@TheWildcaster?on Twitter /?TheWildcaster?on Facebook


Probable starters: Arizona

G Nico Mannion (6-3 freshman)

G Dylan Smith (6-5 senior)

F Josh Green (6-6 freshman)

F Zeke Nnaji (6-11 freshman)

C Chase Jeter (6-10 senior)


Probable starters: Omaha

G Ayo Akinwole (6-0 junior)

G Zach Thornhill (6-4 sophomore)

F JT Gibson (6-3 senior)

F Wanjang Tut (6-8 sophomore)

C Matt Pile (6-8 junior)


How they match up

Arizona forward Zeke Nnaji (22) and center Chase Jeter (4) embrace in the closing seconds in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor in Waco, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

The series: Arizona has never played Omaha, which began transitioning into Division I during the 2011-12 season.

Game contract: Omaha is making a one-time appearance at McKale Center, for which UA is paying it $90,000.

Omaha overview: On a mostly steady climb after transitioning to Division I in 2011-12, the Mavericks hit a new high last season with 21 wins and a second-place finish in the Summit League. But they lost their two leading scorers from last season and are playing their customary road-heavy nonconference schedule, having lost at Wichita State, Colorado State, Dayton and Saint Mary’s, and they also lost to NAU on Sunday in Prescott Valley. However, Omaha beat Washington State at Pullman and played well at Saint Mary’s, driven by several good-shooting guards and tough-minded big man Matt Pile.

The Mavericks work their offense mostly through Pile, who uses every ounce of his 240 pounds inside to create space and get to the basket, and Wanjang Tut is a secondary scoring option inside.

On the wing, JT Gibson is the Mavericks’ top go-to force, taking half his shots from 3-point range. Gibson dropped below 40% from 3 with a 1-for-5 3-point effort against NAU but Omaha has two shooters over 40% from long range: Point guard Ayo Akinwole and wing KJ Robinson, who was suspended for three games earlier this season but is now the Mavericks’ second leading scorer.

Defensively, the Mavericks don’t gamble and don’t foul often but they give up 35.4% 3-point shooting and let NAU hit 47.5% overall in a 73-65 loss to the Lumberjacks on Sunday.


He said it

Arizona assistant coaches Justin Gainey, left, and Danny Peters, center, watch the second half action against Washington with head coach Sean Miller at McKale Arena, Thursday, February 7, 2019, Tucson, Ariz.

“They do a really good job of feeding (Pile) the basketball. Of their bigs, Tut is averaging 7.5 shots a game and Pile’s getting almost 10 shots. For big men, that’s a lot of touches for them to be getting. When Pile gets touches, we have to make them tough, pushing him out, pushing him off the box, making him work for everything that he gets down there. Their guards are aggressive and looking to score on ball screens. Their guards will play out of ball screens and make decisions out of that.

“(Defensively) they keep it tight. They don’t really overextend. They’re in gaps more so than in the passing lanes. They’re not jumping out in a hard hedge or anything. They want to keep their defense compact. It’s straight man-to-man.”

— UA assistant coach Justin Gainey, who scouted the Mavericks


Key player (Omaha): Matt Pile

The former Kansas Mr. Basketball is a third-team academic All-American who is majoring in medicinal chemistry at Omaha. That might help explain why he always seems to know where to be inside, being the nation’s fourth-leading rebounder this season and a 59.3% shooter for his career.


Key player (Arizona): Chase Jeter

Arizona center Chase Jeter (4) is fouled by Baylor guard Davion Mitchell (45) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Waco, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

The Wildcats’ frontcourt veteran has taken advantage of increasing defensive attention on freshman Zeke Nnaji but he was only 1 for 5 from the field against Baylor’s physical big men late Saturday. It won’t get easier this week with Pile on Wednesday and Gonzaga’s formidable bigs on Saturday.


Sidelines

Arizona Wildcats guard Nico Mannion (1) celebrates with teammates after a made three-point shot during Arizona's 83-53 win over New Mexico State at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., on November 17th, 2019.

Climbing the mountain

Darrin Hansen has been Omaha’s head coach for over 14 years now, but in one sense, it has been really only four.

The Mavericks were a Division II team over his first six seasons, going a collective 110-68, and then began transitioning to Division I in 2011-12. They spent their first year in transition as an independent team, then joined the Summit League in 2012-13 but struggled while they still weren’t eligible to play in the Summit League or NCAA Tournaments until 2015-16.

“Everyone’s recruiting against you on that,” Hansen says, “and they’re not lying.”

But once 2015-16 finally came around, the Mavericks finished third and won 18 games overall. They did the same thing in 2016-17 and, after a nine-win season in 2017-18, won 21 games and finished second behind South Dakota State with a 13-3 conference record last season.

In other words, now they’re eligible for the NCAA Tournament … and they just might get in before long.

Although that does create a problem of sorts, with higher expectations.

“I think those first four years (with postseason eligibility) were a relative success, maybe more so than a lot of people thought,” Hansen said. “But now we’ve come so close, people want the next thing. So that’s what we’re striving to do.”

Paying the bills

Even though the Mavericks still have yet to make that first NCAA Tournament appearance, they’re already winners in finance.

Omaha routinely plays a brutal nonconference schedule full of road “guarantee” games — those in which they are paid to appear in lieu of a share of gate or television revenue — and Arizona will be the eighth road game they have played this season.

The Mavericks will get $90,000 for Wednesday’s game alone, so it’s not difficult to see why they’re a big reason Omaha’s athletic department showed a $1.05 million surplus in 2017-18, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s athletic database.

“It is what it is,” Hansen says of his schedule. “It’s a financial thing, but we all know that. We’re trying to help the department there. It puts a strain on our guys, but we’ll never use that as an excuse.

“Hopefully if we can slowly get better over this first semester and be playing our best basketball by the first of the year, then this will help us in conference play.”

Maybe so. While picking up five-figure checks for showing up at Wichita State, Colorado State, Dayton, Washington State and Saint Mary’s, the Mavericks beat WSU and led Saint Mary’s at halftime before losing 75-66. They are expected to challenge for the Summit League title again.

While doing all this running around, the Mavericks at least try to travel efficiently. Scheduled to Arizona already for a game with NAU on Sunday in Prescott Valley — in a return of NAU’s visit to Omaha last season — Omaha managed to add on a game at McKale Center on the same trip.

“We have to play so many of these ‘buy’ games so whenever we have to return a game (for a home-and-home) we always look in the area for games we can add,” Hansen said. “We’re trying to save days on the road.”

The Sunday-Wednesday swing was an extra day more than the Mavericks would have preferred, Hansen said, but they spent the extra time in Phoenix on Monday and Tuesday, working out, studying and even taking in a Suns game before arriving in Tucson.

Senior year, interrupted

UA signee Dalen Terry and his Hillcrest Prep teammates received a major interruption Monday when the coaching staff led by former UA guard Mike Bibby left, but UA coach Sean Miller expressed confidence that Terry will be OK.

Among other potential issues, Bibby wore Nike “Jumpman” gear during the Hoophall West despite the fact that Hillcrest has been sponsored by Adidas.

“I don’t have the inside track” on Hillcrest’s situation, Miller said. “But for Dalen, we’re making sure that he’s doing a great job academically, and he lives in Phoenix, and I think he’s in a comfortable situation.

“He has a great family, mom, dad, people that care about him. So he’s fine, and we’re in regular contact with him.”

Not the card game, either

When its teams began moving to Division I in 2011, the University of Nebraska Omaha began a rebranding effort it. The school refers to itself now as “UNO,” “Omaha” or the “University of Nebraska Omaha” and says that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Nebraska-Omaha” are no longer acceptable references.

Over the years, the school’s nicknames have changed, too. Its teams were known as the Cardinals until 1939 and Indians until 1971, when student and university leaders replaced the name — and a stereotypical caricature of a mascot known as “Ouampi” – in favor of Mavericks.

According to “The Native Peoples of North America: A History,” the change was popular because the visual depiction of Ouampi was “so tacky that, by comparison, he made the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo look like a real gentleman.”


Numbers game

7,643

Miles Omaha will have traveled between Nov. 31 and Dec. 12.

15

Arizona’s rank in overall offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom, even after shooting 26.9% at Baylor last Saturday.

59

Nico Mannion’s rank in Kenpom’s assist rate, having delivered the assist 33.4% of the time when the Wildcats score and he’s on the floor.

Contact sports reporter Bruce Pascoe at 573-4146 or bpascoe@www.oakparkart.com. On Twitter @brucepascoe

Reporter

Bruce is a veteran Star sports reporter who has also worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He graduated from Northwestern University and has an MBA from Thunderbird.