GRAND FORKS — University of North Dakota men’s basketball was living the dream seven months ago, winning the Big Sky Conference title and advancing to its first NCAA Tournament.
UND won 22 games last season, beat Big Sky power Weber State in overtime in the Big Sky title game and hung around longer than many expected against No. 2 seed Arizona in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Salt Lake City.
The Big Sky title and NCAA Tournament berth now is the bar for UND basketball.
But at UND’s basketball media day on Tuesday, the memory of last season is just that — a memory.
“This team has to have its own identity, its own journey,” said UND junior Geno Crandall — a driving force on last season’s team. “We have to check that at the door. We can use what we did last year as a building block. But it’s on the older guys to get the younger guys and some of the transfers to understand what it takes to play at that level so we can enjoy that success again.”
UND will open its season Nov. 10 in Hawaii against Troy — an NCAA Tournament team from a season ago. Brian Jones begins his 12th season as the UND coach with seven new players. And the season also begins without one of UND’s all-time greats -- Quinton Hooker, who now is playing professionally in Poland.
Jones said he’s optimistic about what his players have shown in preseason practices so far.
“They have the talent,” he said. “They have to embrace their roles. That’s what our teams the past two years were able to do.”
UND enters its last season in the Big Sky. Since joining the league in 2012, UND has reached the league tournament’s semifinal round twice and the title game twice.
With graduation and the departure of other players, Big Sky coaches picked UND to finish sixth while the media have them slated to finish fifth.
Crandall heads the list of returners. The 6-foot-4 junior guard, who was an all-Big Sky pick last season, averaged 15.5 points and 4.0 rebounds as a sophomore.
North Dakota returns one other starter, 6-7 junior Conner Avants, who averaged 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.
UND also returns Cortez Seales — the Big Sky Reserve of the year. The 6-4 sophomore guard averaged 8.5 points and 3.4 rebounds last season.
UND, said Jones, will play the same up-tempo style it did last season.
And North Dakota won’t ease their way into the season. either. Among others, they have nonconference games scheduled against Nebraska, Creighton and Gonzaga — last year’s national runner-up.
UND leaves for three games in Hawaii next week. There is no reason to dwell on last season’s NCAA Tournament appearance, Seales said.
“We need a new mindset,” he said. “No one cares what we did last year. It’s about what you do this year. We’ve got a lot of work to do but I think we can get back there.”