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Hawks hope to build on rugged schedule

SPOKANE, Wash.—The McCarthey Athletic Center—or The Kennel as the locals call it—may be the perfect venue for college basketball.

The Kennel seats 6,000, small enough for every fan to make an impact and large enough to have that feeling of big-time college basketball.

UND experienced The Kennel for the first time Saturday, and the final result was predictable as No. 12 Gonzaga—a national power disguised as a mid-major program—won 89-83 in overtime but not before the youthful and undersized Hawks threw a major scare into the Zags and did not look a 30-point underdog.

For UND, the game was the end of a gauntlet its men's basketball program had never run. Without question, UND's nonconference schedule has been the toughest in program history—with games against Gonzaga, No. 25 Creighton, Nebraska and Utah Valley—a team that pushed Kentucky early this season. In addition, there were games against South Dakota State and North Dakota State—teams expected to push for a Summit League title this season

But was the schedule too tough? Will it have a negative impact when UND, now 4-7, opens Big Sky Conference play next week? Will the lopsided losses affect UND's confidence?

Yes may be the answer to all three questions, but we won't know for certain until UND hits the heart of its Big Sky schedule in January.

UND's sub-.500 nonconference record, however, is nothing new. UND never has been above .500 in nonconference play since the Hawks joined the Big Sky in 2012.

However, in four of the five years UND has been a Big Sky member, the Hawks have reached the semifinal round or championship game of the league tournament four times. The Hawks won the Big Sky last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In three other seasons, they participated in the Tournament.

As a mid-major program, UND has to play guarantee—or "money"—games, those designed to bring in revenue.

And UND has brought in considerable funds to the school's athletic department this season. UND received guarantees of $100,000 for its game against Gonzaga, $95,000 for its Dec. 5 game at Creighton, $95,000 for its contest at Nebraska last month, and $80,000 for its game last week at South Dakota State.

That's $370,000 UND has contributed to the school's athletic budget. That's almost FCS guarantee-type money

But that also raises the question whether those games help produce a better basketball team when it begins conference play.

UND coach Brian Jones, however, largely put this schedule together before 6-foot-7 power forward Drick Bernstine transferred to Washington State and 7-foot center Carson Shanks transferred to Loyola-Chicago.

The lack of an inside game has been a big problem for UND this season,

Last season was magical for UND, which won a program-best 22 games and reached its first NCAA Tournament.

And it also helped land UND's game at The Kennel. UND and Gonzaga were both in Salt Lake City for their first-round tournament games and Zags' coach Mark Few reportedly was impressed with UND's style of play in its game against Arizona. That may have helped land UND's game against a team that entered Saturday's play with an RPI that trails only No. 1 Villanova and Kansas.

"The schedule was put together with a veteran team in mind," Jones said. "But we're not going to cut corners because things aren't going our way."

UND left The Kennel late Saturday night with another loss. But it was the best the Hawks have played all season.They had last season's national runner-up on the ropes. And that is something to build on.

Now, it will be interesting to see how the brutal nonconference schedule affects UND when it begins play in Big Sky Conference—its comfort zone the past five seasons.

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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