No. 15 Gophers aim to continue momentum against NDSU

Senior guard Al Nolen drives the ball against Winona State November 8 at Williams Arena.

Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Senior guard Al Nolen drives the ball against Winona State November 8 at Williams Arena.

Josh Katzenstein

Two seasons ago the Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team sat at 5-0 with an in-season tournament âÄî the NABC Classic âÄî title already in hand before cruising to 90-76 victory over North Dakota State, a team that would eventually lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament âÄî the same fate as Minnesota. The Gophers won their next six games, including a victory over No. 9 Louisville, and cruised to a 12-0 start in coach Tubby SmithâÄôs second season with the team. That team never reached a ranking higher than No. 18, a mark the Gophers âÄî who host the Bison (3-1) at 7 p.m., Wednesday at Williams Arena âÄî surpassed Monday when they found themselves at No. 15 after winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off last weekend. The difference? The 2008-09 Gophers opponents in the NABC Classic (hosted at Williams Arena) were Concordia-St. Paul, Bowling Green and Georgia State. Already this season, Minnesota has taken down three teams that advanced to the 2010 NCAA Tournament (West Virginia, Wofford and Siena) and No. 25 North Carolina, a team ranked eighth before falling to Minnesota and Vanderbilt last weekend. Sure, the 2008-09 squad could play, and the win over Louisville wasnâÄôt a total fluke, but the senior leadership on that team came from Jamal Abu-Shamala and Jonathan Williams, who averaged a combined 18.4 minutes per game. This yearâÄôs seniors make that tandem seem a distant past and are a main reason for the hot start. They will also be crucial if the Gophers expect their success to continue into the Big Ten season. âÄúMe and Blake [Hoffarber] are not going to let those guys relax at all,âÄù Al Nolen said after SundayâÄôs finale, a win over West Virginia. Through five games, Nolen and Hoffarber are averaging 32.6 minutes and 35 minutes, respectively, and have led the team in scoring in a combined three times. Co-Big Ten player of the week Trevor Mbakwe has also been resilient thus far, averaging 14 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He also came back onto the floor Sunday after what looked like a hard ankle twist. Minnesota holds a 24-1 edge in the all-time series with the Bison, but the mid-major team from the Summit League cannot be overlooked. North Dakota StateâÄôs only loss this year came against Oregon on Nov. 12, an overtime game played in Eugene. Notes Smith was noncommittal about suspended junior guard Devoe Joseph during his media availability Tuesday. âÄúI donâÄôt know when weâÄôll see him,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI have to do some evaluation of what he did academically last week and going forward, so weâÄôll see.âÄù