Trip to Wake Forest gives men’s hoops first true test of year

by Jabari Ritchie

Through its first three games, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team won by an average of 22 points, out-rebounded opponents by 28 and shot 49 percent.

But the Gophers played Mercer, North Carolina-Asheville and Eastern Washington – none of which has a winning record – and all three contests were at Williams Arena.

In Tuesday’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge match at Wake Forest (4-0), Minnesota (3-0) expects an early measure of its team’s strength.

“This is our first away game and it’s a good team,” said sophomore forward Michael Bauer and the Gophers’ leading scorer. “Wake Forest is a good squad and they’re an ACC school. The ACC and the Big Ten are probably the two premier conferences and everybody knows that we’re going to have to go into that game with a lot of excitement, be well-prepared and do what we have been doing in the preseason.”

Wake Forest lost 74-67 to Syracuse in the preseason NIT championship game on Friday. The No. 25 Demon Deacons are the only currently ranked team Minnesota will face before opening the Big Ten season at second-ranked Illinois on Jan. 2.

“Tuesday night is a great test, (but) it’s not going to make our season,” said Gophers coach Dan Monson. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us. We’re going to learn a lot about our basketball team on Tuesday and that’s why you play those games. I think it simulates Big Ten games and if we want to be successful in the Big Ten we need to simulate that in the preseason.”

The Gophers made progress in their games against North Carolina-Asheville and Eastern Washington last week. After a slow start on Wednesday, Minnesota had a strong second half to defeat the Bulldogs by 27. The Gophers played a consistently strong game to dominate the Eagles on Saturday.

“We’re taking baby steps,” senior forward Dusty Rychart said. “I’m impressed with how fast we’re learning and coming together as a team. You can’t have a bunch of individuals doing their own thing, and that’s not what we have.”

Minnesota features three players who average 15 points per game.

Wake Forest won its first four games against North Carolina-Wilmington, Arkansas, Elon and Fresno State. But the Demon Deacons won only once by more than five points. They beat Elon by 20, but defeated North-Carolina Wilmington and Fresno State by one-point margins.

“I feel very positive and optimistic,” Rychart said about Tuesday’s game. “It’s going to be a great challenge for a young team to be on the road and an ACC team is just like a Big Ten team. If we can be mentally prepared and physically prepared, and if we all come with the same mindset, it could be a great opportunity and a great experience.

“If we don’t, it could be a nightmare.”