Men’s basketball team ready to justify ranking

by Anthony Maggio

For the first time since March 18, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team will take the floor at Williams Arena for a game that actually means something.

On Sunday at 1 p.m., the 24th ranked Gophers take on UNC-Asheville in their first regular season game.

The contest with the Bulldogs gives Minnesota its first chance to prove it deserves the respect it has received from preseason pollsters.

“Rankings and respect all come from performance,” coach Dan Monson said. “I don’t think there’s been much talk in the locker room about any of that stuff. We know that we have to earn it. Projections are great, but those all come to an end on Sunday.”

The Gophers pummeled UNC-Asheville in their third game of the regular season last year 92-65 in the first ever meeting between the two.

Forward Michael Bauer scored 19 points in the contest and is fresh off of a 19-point performance against Team Nike last weekend.

Bauer and his frontcourt teammates should pose problems for the Bulldogs, whose size is similar to Minnesota State, Mankato, whom Minnesota dominated in its first preseason game.

“They’re a good team,” Bauer said. “But I remember last year us playing our game was the biggest part of it. If we play our game, then they shouldn’t be able to get a win on us, especially on our home court.”

Taking advantage of the undersized UNC-Asheville squad on the boards and on defense is still top priority for the Gophers, who showed improvement in those two areas last weekend.

After allowing the smaller Mavericks 40 rebounds, including 16 on the offensive glass, Minnesota held Team Nike to 27-8 last Sunday.

“We really want to show what we’re made of,” forward Rick Rickert said. “We really want to be considered that tough, strong team.”

In last season’s game versus the Bulldogs, the Gophers struggled out of the gate and managed only an 11-point lead at halftime before blowing out UNC-Asheville by 27.

The tale of two halves is a trend from last season that Minnesota has curbed thus far, jumping out to 14-4 and 15-4 leads against the Mavericks and Bulldogs, respectively.

Still, Monson knows it’s too early to consider last year’s troubles fixed.

“I’m hoping that we’re more experienced and a team that plays every possession the same from the beginning to the end,” Monson said. “But the reality is, in the early season there are letdowns and a lot of times to begin games you’re not experienced enough to know the pace of the game and how it needs to be played early.”

Minnesota is undefeated in season openers under Monson and hasn’t lost an opening game since the 1991-92 season.

Monson, asked if he had any superstitions about winning the first regular season game, said, “I’m very superstitious about winning all regular season games.”

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]