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UND basketball now turns its attention toward the Summit

UND's Marlon Stewart looks for an opening against Montana State's Tyler Hall during their Big Sky Conference tournament game in Reno, Nev., last week. Photo/Skyline Sports.

RENO, Nev.—The UND men's basketball program made the jump to Division I in 2008. The first Division I game for the Fighting Hawks was a 61-56 win over UMKC.

Since that Nov. 14, 2008, game, perhaps no other men's program in the country has had to endure as many changes as UND.

UND's Division I journey has been a winding road. Starting as an independent, UND played a varied mix of opponents, including Division II teams, forgettable NAIA teams and an end-of-the-season tournament for independents, the Spring Thaw.

After the Spring Thaw, things began to heat up for UND as it became a member of the Great West Conference in 2009. It was nothing more than a Division I scheduling alliance to avoid future schedules of Division II and NAIA opponents. And, it helped, there was an opportunity to win a title.

The UND journey continued—and improved vastly—when the Hawks became a Big Sky Conference member in 2012. The Hawks did well in the geographically massive league, winning one title (2017) and, as a newcomer, became an instant contender in the league's postseason tournament by advancing to the semifinal round and beyond in three other seasons.

UND wrapped up its tenure in the Big Sky on Thursday, falling to the No. 1 seed Montana 84-76. Outside of its near-magical upset against No. 6 Gonzaga back in December, UND perhaps played its best basketball of the season.

The six-year run in the Big Sky was good for the Hawks, even though—at times—it felt like UND was the uncle the league invited home for the holidays but privately hoped wouldn't show.

"We're extremely grateful to the Big Sky for allowing us to be a part of their league," said UND coach Brian Jones after the loss to the Griz. "Hopefully, the Big Sky looks back on our journey with them and sees that we brought a lot of value across the board, not just basketball. We made the league better. Not trying to be arrogant, but we brought a quality product."

Those comments were made in Reno, 1,733 miles from Grand Forks. That distance was the biggest problem for UND and the league. As the eastern outpost in a west-oriented league, UND had trouble fitting into the nine-state, three time zone Big Sky.

UND, however, finished 9-4 in Big Sky postseason play. Granted, its time in the Big Sky was limited, but UND is one of only four current Big Sky teams to have a winning record in the league's postseason tournament.

Since the start of the Division I era, UND has had to adjust from being an independent to joining two leagues in nine seasons. That has meant different styles of play, different recruiting philosophies and areas, difficult travel and a fan base constantly adjusting to new opponents.

Its Division I record may say otherwise, but the Fighting Hawks have had more success than meets the eye with three conference titles and strong showings in other postseason tournaments.

And last season, UND advanced to the summit of Division I basketball—the NCAA tournament.

Speaking of the summit, that's where UND heads next—to the Summit League.

Finally, UND's basketball future looks to be stable for the long run as the Hawks will be reunited with rivals North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State. It's basically the 2.0 version of the old North Central Conference.

There will be challenges for UND in the Summit, no doubt, just as there were when the program joined the Big Sky.

UND will focus on bulking up for the Summit as the league has its fair share of size in the middle, something the Hawks lacked this season.

"We have to add some beef, size and rim protection," said Jones. "Our guards are as good as they get in that league (Summit), too. In any mid-major league, our guards are good enough to compete. We have to get quality depth on the front line."

The Big Sky is a great league. Both the Big Sky and UND benefitted from the Hawks' time in the league. It's just time to move on.

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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