The Puerto Rico Tip Off finished as a history making event for Golden Gopher basketball with Tubby Smith leading his crew to three wins and a national ranking (15th). Minnesota is flying high at 5-0 and tonight they battle North Dakota State. The Bison will be confident (they are 3-1 and came within two baskets of defeating Oregon) and motivated (8 of their players are from Minnesota).
However, recent Bison versus Gopher basketball match-ups haven't been as close as expected. In the last four meetings Minnesota has won twice by 14, once by 13, and then there was the 88-56 hammering in Tubby's first season as coach (2007).
What may be different about this year's Bison team? They may not have a star like a Ben Woodside but there is better scoring balance. NDSU has two players scoring in double figures and another seven averaging between 6.5 and 9.0 points a game.
Who to watch? The producing leader is 6-foot-7 210 pound Michael Tveidt who is currently averaging 16.5 points per game. He's a an excellent shooter from all angles as he's hit 57 percent of his 44 field goals and 67 percent of his 15 three point attempts.
Tveidt is more skill while 6-foot-6 (if that mark is true he's grown a couple inches in college) small forward Eric Carlson and 6-foot-8 230 pound power forward Marshall Bjorklund are the very definition of the term "battlers".
NDSU took on a couple local exhibition opponents and coaches from those schools told Gopher Illustrated "we were fairly even with them at times but we couldn't do anything with Carlson". From there the conversation went to Bjorklund and the word "tough" said it all.
Carlson, from Shakopee, was a Minnesota Magic teammate of both Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber. The three, along with Wisconsin's Jon Leuer and Oklahoma City Thunder's Cole Aldrich, toured the nation in AAU basketball and had some memorable moments. Now Carlson comes to Williams Arena as a junior Bison leader ready to defeat former teammates (Eric also played a couple high school years with former Gopher Jamal Abu-Shamala).
Bjorklund is a guy that many in the Twin Cities forgot about. Why? Because a shoulder injury sidelined him for an entire spring and summer meaning no AAU ball. Add in that he played at Sibley East and about the only exposure he received was from Minnesota Preps.
But last year the Mr. Basketball crew of Minnesota traveled west often to see Marshall play because he was easily one of the state's top three players last season (Bjorklund didn't win that award but the AP [the Minnesota Basketball News] did name him their Player of the Year). His last high school game was played in Williams Arena and he scored 33 points with 23 rebounds. So far in his early college career Marshall is averaging nine points and 5.5 rebounds in less than half of a game.
This group of NDSU frontcourt players may not measure up in size nor athletic ability to Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson, or Colton Iverson but they are an equal in heart. Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins must always box out Carlson, Mbakwe and Sampson have to keep a hand in Tveidt's face, and Iverson will be at war with Bjorklund. You want to see elbows flying? Watch Marshall and Colton do battle.
In the backcourt NDSU is more steady than spectacular. Former Owatonna Husky Drew Lundberg, from St. Paul Johnson Governor Freddy Coleman, Wisconsin product Nate Zastrow, and 6-foot-7 freshman guard Taylor Braun will all produce.
When it comes to Tubby Smith you know that he's spent a good part of the week preaching to his team the importance of being focused. After all it's a tough time. It's the night before Thanksgiving and the Gophers don't play again until Monday. Their opponent isn't wearing Carolina Blue and they don't have Bob Huggins leading them.
And let's not forget eight of the Bison players are local products with their families in the stands hoping to take their favorite NDSU player home for a Thanksgiving meal talking about a W. This is one of those games where you could see a potential mental letdown so it's possible there will be a Gopher lull here and there. But in the end Minnesota wins 81-60.