LINCOLN, Neb. — A lot of Nebraska basketball fans probably did a double-take when they saw the Incarnate Word Cardinals on the schedule.
Who are these guys anyway?
Well, they’re from San Antonio and are in the second year of their transition from Division II to Division I.
And because they’re pretty darn good, they are on the fast track to establishing an identity that encompasses more than basketball.
It’s all part of school president Louis Agnese’s plan to make the 9,700-student Incarnate Word the largest private university in Texas by 2020.
“Nobody knows about our university, and he wants to use Division I as branding so people will learn about our future medical school, our business school and what we’re trying to accomplish,” coach Ken Burmeister said.
The Cardinals (6-1) measured themselves for the first time against an opponent from one of the Big Five conferences when they visited Nebraska (5-3) on Wednesday night. Incarnate Word won 74-73.
“When we talked in the early days of reclassification, we thought basketball would have the best opportunity to be the first program to be successful,” athletic director Mark Papich said.
So far, so good. The Cardinals were 21-6 against a partial Division I schedule last season, and through the first month this season they have been one of the nation’s highest-scoring and best 3-point shooting teams.
They won 79-68 on the road against a Princeton team picked in the middle of the pack in the Ivy League and went into Monday’s game at UTEP averaging 90 points a game and shooting 48 percent on 3s. They went cold against the Miners and lost 81-65, but it was a game UTEP coach Tim Floyd was glad to get past.
“We were hoping that we were scheduling a win when we did this,” Floyd said. “I think everybody tries to get four or five of those. When we looked at Incarnate Word we got really concerned because they were second in the nation in scoring, they beat Princeton at Princeton and they lost by a tip-in at the buzzer at Stephen F. Austin [last year].”
Before Papich hired him in 2006, Burmeister worked in advertising during a six-year hiatus from coaching. In the 1980s he coached Texas-San Antonio to an NCAA tournament appearance, and he later was head coach at Loyola of Chicago and Trinity University in San Antonio.
The 67-year-old Burmeister is known as a savvy recruiter. He targets San Antonio, Houston and Dallas for overlooked players who would be good fits in his motion offense.
The stars are Denzell Livingston, who’s averaging 21.4 points; Kyle Hittle, who’s shooting 68.4 percent on 3s and averaging 19.5 points; and Jontrell Walker, who scored 30 points against UTEP and is averaging 16.8.
The Cardinals are ineligible for the NCAA tournament and NIT until 2018. They could play in either the College Basketball Invitational or CollegeInsider.com tournament before then.
“Nebraska is kind of an NCAA tournament game for us because this is big time,” Burmeister said.
The Cardinals play to an average of just 654 fans in their 2,000-seat campus gym. They share the gym with the women’s basketball and volleyball teams, and other campus activities are held there. Scheduling conflicts require Burmeister to sometimes shuttle his players to practice a mile away at Trinity.
Papich said he’s hopeful a capital campaign beginning next year will address the athletic department’s facility needs.
Burmeister’s team, the flagship of the 21-sport athletic program, must be frugal. There are no charter flights. The Cardinals flew commercial to Nebraska, specifically booking tickets on Southwest Airlines because there are no baggage fees.
The Cardinals will earn $300,000 in guarantees this season and more next year when they play road games against Oklahoma, Purdue, California and St. John’s (N.Y.).
“People think we’re nuts,” Burmeister said, “but that’s what my president wants — branding and money.”