Nati Harnik/Associated Press file photo
Nati Harnik/Associated Press file photo
It’s the time of year when dozens of college basketball teams start setting their sights on the postseason, with a precious few hoping for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Then there are teams such as Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Kentucky, just playing out the string as they make the often painful move from Division II to Division I. There’s no postseason for them during the NCAA-mandated four years of transition. It’s time spent in an abyss, with everyone involved looking forward to that day when the program gets to enjoy the full benefits of membership in the NCAA’s top level.
Until then, there are the seemingly endless stretches of road games and lots of lopsided losses in front of practically no one.
Nebraska-Omaha played 10 consecutive games on the road in November and December, going 36 days between home games and spending 15 of 21 nights in hotels.
The Mavericks lost nine of those games, starting with a 28-point loss at Texas Tech and ending with a 35-point loss at Denver. In between, there were defeats by 44 points at North Dakota State and 46 points at Wisconsin. They did beat Chicago State (308th out of 347 in RPI).
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t wear on you,” said junior center John Karhoff, a holdover from the Mavericks’ Division II days. “That’s part of the gig, I guess. It’s something you have to fight through.”
Nebraska-Omaha, which is in the second year of its transition, is 8-18 after a 68-50 loss at Western Illinois on Thursday.
Northern Kentucky, in Year 1 of its move, played its first 10 games on the road, going 3-7 and logging more than 10,500 miles before its home opener Jan. 5.
Such a grind can leave coaches struggling to motivate young men who, on top of playing for nothing more than pride during the transition years, often are smarting from beat-downs by bigger, faster and stronger opponents.
“You better have the right kids or it’s going to get miserable,” Northern Kentucky coach Dave Bezold said. “The kids better really be tough-minded and tough-willed. You’re halfway through a season, and none of the games count. They’re human beings. It’s tough.”
The NCAA’s initiation process isn’t meant to be easy. It requires schools to prove they really, really want to be Division I. Transitioning programs must achieve annual benchmarks – most of which have nothing to do with how they fare on the court or field – before they can be certified as full members after the fourth year.
“Brutal” is the word used by longtime South Dakota coach Dave Boots.
“You’ve got to experience the hard times to get to the good times,” he said.
South Dakota and other schools that began their transitions before 2011 usually went into the process with no conference affiliations. The NCAA now requires transitioning programs to have the sponsorship of a conference, which helps immensely with scheduling.
Nebraska-Omaha played six games against Summit League opponents in 2011-12. This season the Mavericks are playing a full complement of 16 and appear in the standings, though they are ineligible for a championship. They’ll play 18 of their 31 games on the road. When they’re at home, they average about 1,100 fans, or about one-third of their arena capacity.
Northern Kentucky draws about 3,000 to its few home games. The Norse play 18 of their 27 on the road, and that’s with the Atlantic Sun giving them a full slate of 18 conference games.
“If they hadn’t done that, I don’t know what we would have done,” Bezold said. “The (Atlantic Sun) knew how difficult it was going to be. We’re just lucky they were considerate and kind, really, to let us have a schedule.”
Transitioning teams must play their share of so-called “guarantee games” to make ends meet financially, same as other teams at the bottom of Division I.
To help support Nebraska-Omaha’s $8.6-million budget for 15 sports, the Mavericks needed every dime of the $340,000 in guarantees they earned for traveling to Texas Tech, Iowa State, Wisconsin and Denver and for participating in a tournament put on by Nebraska-Lincoln. Northern Kentucky, which has a $9.1-million budget for 15 sports, is banking a total of $245,000 for games at Ohio State, Texas Tech and San Francisco.
In 2013-14, the process begins for Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word and Grand Canyon. Bryant, North Dakota, Presbyterian, Seattle, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and South Dakota became newly minted full DI members in 2012-13.
During the transition period, schools put into place staffing and safeguards necessary to meet standards for NCAA rules compliance, academic progress and student-athlete services – all of which cost far beyond the $1.2-million Division I entry fee. Capital campaigns and building projects also are part of the move, though membership entitles a program to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in disbursements from their conferences and the NCAA. New revenue streams that didn’t exist in Division II begin flowing from licensing, tickets and the corporate community.
But the growing pains are immense.
By far, coaches say, recruiting is the hardest part of the job.
A freshman at a school in Year 1, such as Northern Kentucky, has no chance to play for a conference championship or an NCAA Tournament bid unless he sits out a year as a redshirt.
South Dakota’s Boots recalled a couple of Minnesota high school stars who visited campus in 2009 but wanted no part of the Coyotes’ transition.
One, Nate Wolters, picked rival South Dakota State, which came out of transition the year before his freshman season. Wolters has become one of the nation’s most prolific scorers, putting up 53 points Thursday night, most in Division I so far this season. The other, Mike Muscala, chose Bucknell and has been an All-Patriot League selection three years in a row. Both will have chances to play in the NBA.
“The NCAA Tournament is their hope and dream,” Boots said. “We had no hope of that until the transition ended. We probably took some kids who weren’t going to be Division I-level kids. It’s unfair to them and unfair to us, but you have to fill your roster. We feel we’re still in catch-up mode.”
The best a coach of a transition team can hope for is to find the overlooked player who turns into a star.
Nebraska-Omaha coach Derrin Hansen found one in Justin Simmons, a 16-point-a-game scorer who bounced from one junior college to another before landing in Omaha. The chance to play in the postseason was the least of his concerns.
“I had no other offers,” Simmons said.
“I’m part of building a program. I always say that if I make it somewhere, I love to give back. I guess I’m making footprints for the people who follow me.”