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Big jump to the Big Sky

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota football coach Chris Mussman was asked if he feels a weight has been lifted off his shoulders now that the difficult transition from NCAA Division II to Division I is in the rear-view mirror.

He just laughed.

Like all of UND's programs heading into the Big Sky Conference, there's no time to enjoy a feeling of relief with the challenges of the new league on the horizon.

"We know what's in front of us," Mussman said. "(The transition years) will be something to look back on later in my career, but right now the focus is the Big Sky, which we all know will be extremely difficult."

The competitive leap from the Great West Conference to the Big Sky will be significant. Sioux men's basketball coach Brian Jones compared the jump to UND's initial leap from Division II to Division I.

"It's a point I've never had to bring up; they know the Big Sky is a whole different level than the Great West," Jones said. "Their offseason focus has to be better."

Over the past two seasons, all of UND's Big Sky-bound programs have tried to schedule more Big Sky and Summit League opponents in non-conference play to get accustomed to that level of play.

The UND men's basketball team saw mixed results. The Sioux, who will return four starters next season, picked up Big Sky home wins over Montana (an annual title contender) and Idaho State but also lost to the same Idaho State team and Sacramento State on the road.

Nevertheless, Jones said the Big Sky is getting a good product from his program.

"What I'm most excited about is that I think we have something very good here that we can be proud of once we're in there," said Jones, whose team has advanced to the Tournament the past two seasons.

The football program dipped its toes in the Big Sky waters, as well. The Sioux will be familiar with a good chunk of the Big Sky as former Great West mates Southern Utah, Cal Davis and Cal Poly will also be making the move into the Big Sky next season, with Davis and Poly being football-only affiliates.

The Sioux beat Davis and Southern Utah in 2011, as well as current Big Sky member Northern Colorado. They lost to Poly 23-19. In UND's rocky 2010 season, the Sioux lost to Davis, Poly, Southern Utah and Big Sky powerhouse Montana (27-17 in Missoula).

The Sioux women's basketball team was 0-3 against the Big Sky in 2011, including a four-point loss to Montana State in Grand Forks. The UND volleyball team, meanwhile, swept Montana 3-0 in its only matchup with a Big Sky foe.

One of the biggest competitive differences between the Big Sky and the Great West will be the depth of the Big Sky. UND's programs are preparing for a grind of a full schedule, especially the football team which has been forced to fill in its schedule with NAIA or Division II opponents during the transition.

"The bottom half of the Big Sky will be better," UND volleyball coach Ashley Hardee said. "It's going to be good night in and night out."

Hardee, whose program is expected to challenge for the league title immediately, also says the Big Sky opens up the chance for national recognition.

The Big Sky is part of the Pacific Region in volleyball, Hardee said. Within that region, UND could be eligible for all-region and All-American accolades.

"That's a big deal for us," Hardee said.

Sioux athletic director Brian Faison feels the moves made during the transition have prepared UND to step into the Big Sky and be a player immediately.

"I think across the board, we're stronger and more competitive," he said. "We know we're stepping up. I think the programs have reached a point where they can do that."

Faison said one area of concern, though, is facilities, specifically securing the necessary funds for the proposed indoor practice facility.

"That will be critical," he said.

Miller is a sports reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.