Minnesota opens with exhibition

Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has been ready for quite some time to face a team other than itself.

The Gophers will get their chance to encounter fresh faces when they begin their exhibition season tonight against Division II Bemidji State at 7 p.m. at Williams Arena.

Junior center Spencer Tollackson said the Gophers are anxious to start the season.

“We’re looking forward to beating up on somebody else, because it’s getting a little old playing against your own teammates four scrimmages in a row,” he said.

Coach Dan Monson said the Beavers, who hail from the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, are pretty much unknown to him and his players, so team members will be worrying about themselves more than their opponent.

“This game, we’re going to utilize more as getting ourselves ready and not worry so much about who they are or what they’re doing,” he said.

Monson said he will experiment with different lineups in tonight’s game, as well as in Wednesday’s final exhibition encounter against Division II Winona State.

For many players on the team, the exhibition season may mean quite a bit when it comes to getting a spot in the lineup.

According to Monson, the Gophers still have no set positions officially, but it appears the only position up for grabs in the starting lineup is small forward – where sophomore Jamal Abu-Shamala started 10 of 30 games he played in last season.

The 6-foot 5-inch 200-pounder will likely be battling for the spot with redshirt freshman Damian Johnson, who has impressed many people during the early season practices.

Shamala said he understands he might be interchanged with Johnson throughout the season depending on the situation. If the team needs defense and athleticism, Shamala said Johnson would play; if shooting is an issue, he said he can fill that void.

“For me, starting isn’t that important,” he said. “I think it just depends on who we are playing.”

Monson said he anticipates everyone playing in tonight’s contest except guard Ryan Saunders, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery.

However, Monson said he is looking at Saturday’s practice as a more important stepping stone for the team than tonight’s game.

He said it will be significant, because it is the first time the team will be able to critique its mistakes as a unit.

With more questions to be answered than in years past, Monson said he is hoping to define roles in the exhibition season but said he understands it might take a large portion of the team’s nonconference games on the schedule to find a definitive rotation.

“I think it is easy to want to jump to a lineup or jump to conclusions on players, but it’s been two weeks and we haven’t played anyone else,” he said.

But Monson doesn’t want to be juggling lineups weeks into the Big Ten season.

“I don’t want to be seven games into the Big Ten trying to answer those questions,” he said.

Monson said he is looking for the best possible combinations, not just the one that works successfully on any given night, as could happen tonight against the Beavers.

“I think we have to be very open-minded through the process with this team,” he said. “Just because one group might be good together doesn’t mean the next group can’t be better.”