You are forgiven if you don’t know much about Nebraska-Omaha basketball. The program is in its fifth season in Division I and its fourth as a member of the Summit League. There have been no NCAA tournaments for the Mavericks, no NITs; only a CIT appearance in 2014, but why are we even talking about that? Hell, you’re forgiven if you know nothing at all about the Omaha Mavs.
But here’s where we change that. Here’s where we introduce you to Tra-Deon Hollins.
Hollins, a junior point guard, is well on his way to accomplishing something no Division I player has in 14 seasons—averaging four steals per game. Not since Alabama A&M’s Desmond Cambridge stole a rather incredible 5.52 basketballs a game in 2001-02 has anyone hit the 4.0 mark, yet here Hollins stands through 19 contests at 4.26. Providence star Kris Dunn is miles behind in second place, averaging 2.88.
“It’s exciting to know that I can outdo somebody who’s going to be playing in the NBA someday,” Hollins said of Dunn—a projected 2016 lottery pick. “I honestly think he’s the best point guard in the country. To have something on him is going to stick with me forever.”
Game No. 19 was the best at Omaha for the 6'2" Hollins, a junior-college transfer who led the JUCO ranks in steals with 4.1 a game in 2013-14 as a freshman at Central Community College in Columbus, Nebraska. In an overtime loss to IPFW on Jan. 16, he had 23 points and 13 assists—both season highs—and a school-record eight steals.
The defeat left the Mavs 4-1 in Summit play, tied for first with IPFW. We may see this team down the line in March, or not. But Omaha is beginning to bubble up, and Hollins is the straw stirring the drink, as he leads a team that ranks third in the nation in scoring (85.9 PPG), tying Indiana and trailing only The Citadel and college hoops traditional blue blood North Carolina. Hollins’ 11.4 points and 5.9 assists per game speak to his well-roundedness as a player, but his defense is the engine that’s driving the program.
“He anticipates unlike anyone I’ve ever been around,” said Mavericks coach Derrin Hansen. “He can read where the ball is going to go. He can bait people into passes, but he does it within our defensive game plan. He rarely reaches and puts himself out of position to put us in a disadvantage.
“I probably won’t have a player as instinctive ever again.”
Hollins’ defensive instincts have guided him since his freshman season at Omaha Central High School, where his coach told him he could win a spot in the varsity rotation only if he brought defensive dog to the fight. So Hollins, then—and still—not a pure shooter, slapped palms to the floor and let his inner dog bark. Central won four straight Class A state titles, with Hollins playing starter’s minutes as a freshman and running the point as the starter thereafter.
“Game by game, I [defended] the best player,” he said. “That became part of my identity. Growing up in Omaha, you didn’t want anybody to show you up. You don’t want to give the other man bragging rights. I always had that edge.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m from Omaha, and playing for Omaha is a dream come true. Especially on the defensive end, I’m very prideful. On the defensive end, you have to have pride to be good. I’m not doing it just for the school; I’m doing it for the city and state. If somebody comes in here and does whatever he wants to do, he’s not only disrespecting me. It's not just [about] me and my teammates. It's the school—the whole city. It's everybody."
Omaha sophomore Tre’Shawn Thurman, the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, played with Hollins at Central. Thurman remembers Hollins as a standout wide receiver and cornerback who brought a football player’s mentality to the court. By Thurman’s reckoning, Hollins is the toughest 20-year-old in Omaha.
|NCAA Division 1 Steals Leaders in 2015-16|
|Player||Team||Total Steals||Steals Per Game|
|4||Hameed Ali||Texas A&M-CC||48||2.82|
|5||Terry Tarpey||William & Mary||44||2.75|
|7||Carrington Love||Green Bay||51||2.68|
|9||Malcolm Bernard||Florida A&M||48||2.53|
“It’s not just about steals with him,” Thurman said. “If someone even scores on him, he gets mad. He feels like you should have zero points when you’re going against him. He’s the best defensive player I’ve ever seen by far.”
Hansen says Hollins’ competitiveness in practices has transformed the program—transfused it with attitude. Hansen and his staff cater drills so that someone—anyone—other than Hollins will be in position to make defensive stops or hustle plays. One player’s immutable desire stands out that much.
Hollins’ favorite game this season certainly wasn’t the loss to IPFW. It was a 79-73 victory at South Dakota in which the Mavs trailed by 21 five minutes into the second half. Hansen tore into his team during a timeout, pointing out its glaring zero fast-break points. From there, Hollins binged on steals (finishing with five) and ballistic intensity, carrying the Mavs to a runaway finish.
“I felt all my teammates pick it up,” he said. “We turned it on.”
They followed their engine—the best ball-chaser in college basketball. You don’t have to know Omaha, but you have to know this guy. He’s that good—that historically good—and 4.0 is the proof. No one else is remotely close.
Steve Greenberg has covered college sports for nearly 20 years, namely for the Sporting News and the Chicago Sun-Times.