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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 28 2012

Times have changed at Nebraska-Omaha

FARGO – North Dakota State and Nebraska-Omaha will renew a men’s basketball series that once included a scuffle between the two head coaches. That was in 1990, when former Bison head coach Erv Inniger went toe-to-toe with UNO’s Bob Hanson.

That bad blood has long simmered, in part because NDSU went Division I in 2004 and the teams have different coaches.

“No chance of that,” said NDSU’s Saul Phillips, when asked if he’s going to put up the fists. “I remember hearing about that. Erv was a little more fiery than me.”

The return of the Mavericks tonight, however, is another step in the Summit League’s Midwest footprint. Omaha is in its third year of a five-year Division I reclassification and won’t be eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2016, but that doesn’t mean the league opener for NDSU doesn’t mean anything.

Omaha is eligible for the regular-season title.

“This is the biggest game of the year by a long shot,” Phillips said. “It counts as much as the last game in the regular season that could determine your seed in the (Summit) tournament.”

It won’t be the same Omaha from the North Central Conference days. The Mavericks are playing their home games at the new off-campus Ralston Arena, a 3,500-seat facility located south of Omaha in the suburb of Ralston.

The upgrade to Division I basketball was the biggest reason behind leaving Sapp Fieldhouse on campus behind, said head coach Derrin Hansen.

“The amenities are unbelievable, way different for UNO basketball,” Hansen said. “It’s brand new to us as well.”

The arena has club seats, private suites and beer sales at Mavericks games. Eventually, Hansen said, the hope is to field an NCAA tournament team.

He’s gotten advice from a variety of sources in how best to get through the transition, including Phillips, South Dakota State head coach Scott Nagy, former NDSU head coach and current Nebraska coach Tim Miles and University of North Dakota head coach Brian Jones.

“I’m not so naïve to think I didn’t need other insight when making the jump,” said Hansen, in his seventh year as head coach and 15th at the school. “I appreciate everyone’s openness and honesty.”

Well, not all was an open book.

“I don’t want to give them all the secrets,” Phillips said. “We have a formula locked away in a safe that we’ll never share. At the same time, they’re doing it the right way.”

NDSU is 5-2, including winning the Pittsburgh Subregional of the Progressive Legends Classic. Omaha is 2-5, beating Northern Illinois and Chicago State.

It’s an odd setup for NDSU having just one Summit game until hosting SDSU on Dec. 29. But for Omaha, it’s a historic game.

“We want to get through the league one time, then look at the year and learn from it,” Hansen said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia