The University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s basketball team became eligible for the NCAA Division I Tournament for the 2015-16 after going through a four-year transition from Division II to I.
The Mavericks haven’t made the NCAA Tournament so far through three seasons, but Blue Springs South graduate KJ Robinson hopes to get them there for the first time this year.
Nebraska-Omaha is in a good spot to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance as it’s in second place in the Summit League with a 17-9 overall record and 11-2 conference mark.
The Mavericks are also on a five-game winning streak, and Robinson has been a big part of his team being on pace to have its best record since 2009-10.
“This year has been a lot of fun,” said Robinson, whose team was 9-22 last season. “I think this year we’ve grown a lot collectively. We’re a lot more comfortable with each other. We still have a long way to go.”
The junior guard played just 8.8 minutes a game during his freshman season as a reserve. As a sophomore, he started in 27 of 28 games and averaged 9.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.8 steals per game. During that season, he saw some of the best competition he’s played against during his career. He even got to be the primary defender against then star Oklahoma guard Trae Young, who now plays for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
“I’d have to say Trae Young is the most difficult player I’ve had to guard,’ Robinson said. “He didn’t have his best game, but you could tell he was very high level. You definitely have to pick him up as soon as he crossed half-court.
“It’s been a blessing to play this game at this level. We get to play crazy venues like KU, Oregon and Louisville. It’s been so much fun. It’s great to experience that in person.”
Seeing top-notch competition helped prepare him to have his best season yet in 2018-19. He’s averaging 11.9 points per game on 47 percent shooting from the floor, while averaging 2.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 3.3 assists per game.
He had to change his game when he first joined Nebraska-Omaha. Robinson was the No. 1 scoring option during a senior season in which he averaged 26 points per game and was a DiRenna Award finalist and Examiner Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
He had to adjust to being more of an all-around point guard for the Mavericks.
“It was different when I came here. You have to play hard every single possession,” Robinson said. “And focus more on defense. I had to work on becoming more of a pure point guard and get my teammates involved. At this level, we have scorers, so I don’t necessarily have to be our leading scorer.”
And part of that process has been working on reducing his turnovers, something he struggled with at times as a sophomore. Last season, he averaged 2.64 turnovers per game. This season, he’s cut that down to 1.04.
“The main thing I wanted to improve was taking care of the ball,” Robinson said. “I was turnover prone last year. I’ve also been working on getting more people involved and being more of a leader.”
He played that role well in an 85-84 home victory against the first-place South Dakota State Jackrabbits. He scored 17 points, had four assists and three rebounds in a game that Robinson said was his most memorable this season.
“We had our top amount of people at the game,” Robinson said. “It’s the most people (4,228 in attendance) we’ve had in a game since we’ve been in our new arena. That was a big game we won on a buzzer beater.”
Robinson said he hopes that win propels his team to earning the top seed in the Summit League Tournament. If the Mavericks win that tournament, they would earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“I think that’s all of our goals (to make the NCAA Tournament), honestly,” Robinson said. “That’s our dream. As a kid, everyone fills out brackets. Then you hope one day, you hope to be in it. We still have to finish out the regular season first.
“I feel like we have a good shot. If we win out, we can get the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. That will put us in a good spot."