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Gophers open season against North Dakota State

Minnesota’s men’s basketball team could let Friday’s exhibition loss to Division II national champion Winona State begin the tumultuous season many project for the inexperienced Gophers.

Or Minnesota could begin the process of quickly erasing memories from last Wednesday with a victory in their regular-season opener tonight against North Dakota State. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. at Williams Arena.

To become a better team, coach Dan Monson said the Gophers must first gain confidence – which will have to be found during their tough nonconference schedule.

“I think, obviously, we’ve got to get better, and to get better we’ve got to have confidence,” he said.

The opening game of Minnesota’s nonconference games isn’t against the toughest team the Gophers will face, but the Bison will present similar problems for Minnesota as Winona State.

Just like the Warriors, Monson said they are efficient offensively, play together and are unselfish.

“Whatever they lack physically, they make up with their cohesiveness and just their character,” he said.

And like Winona State’s fans, North Dakota State’s fans could take over the Barn. Eight players on the Bison’s roster are from Minnesota.

One of those eight, sophomore guard Ben Woodside, is one of Monson’s biggest concerns. He led North Dakota State in scoring last year with 17.5 points and 5.1 assists per game.

Monson said the Gophers looked at recruiting Woodside.

“I would expect him to have a very good game, and if he has a very good game, they are very tough to beat,” Monson said.

The Bison return all five starters from a team that stunned Wisconsin last year in Madison and won their season-opener against Idaho on Monday.

In that game, North Dakota State put up 91 points and shot 63 percent from the floor.

To keep up with that sort of offensive production, the Gophers will have to likely rely on junior guard Lawrence McKenzie.

McKenzie said he feels comfortable at the point and the off-guard positions – good news for a team with a banged-up backcourt.

Sophomore Jamal Abu-Shamala, who should see time at shooting guard this season, has still not practiced since sitting out Wednesday’s game, and starting point guard junior Limar Wilson wasn’t able to finish practice on Saturday.

McKenzie, who took 16 shots and only made four of them against the Warriors, said he expects to be a big part of the Gophers offense this season.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll have to score a couple of buckets a game,” McKenzie said before the season began. “But I’ll do whatever my team needs and whatever we have to do to win.”

Monson said following Wednesday’s loss he may need to insert new players into the lineup to fix the Gophers’ glaring weakness – a lack of physicality. But on Sunday, he said, those changes are “up in the air.”

Monson said he has focused more on concrete areas which his team full of fresh faces can improve upon, including offensive execution and defensive breakdowns which the Gophers struggled with Wednesday.

“We also have to play with confidence,” he said. “And that’s something we didn’t have towards the end of the game (Wednesday night) either.”

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