GOLDEN, Colo. - Here we go again.
Less than a week after Southwest Minnesota State and Minnesota State-Moorhead met in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference men's basketball tournament championship, the Mustangs and Dragons face off on the court one more time at 9:30 p.m. today in the first round of the Central Region tournament.
SMSU, the No. 4 seed in the Central Region, won its first NSIC tournament title in school history with a 76-72 victory over MSU-Moorhead last Sunday in Rochester. The Mustangs are 19-10 on the year, while the Dragons enter the Central Region tournament with a 20-9 mark.
Photo by Joe Brown
Southwest Minnesota State guard Matt Zager goes up for a layup during the team's Central Region tournament practice at Lockridge Arena at the Colorado School of Mines Friday in Golden, Colo. Tonight at 9:30 p.m. CST, the No. 4-seeded Mustangs will take on No. 5 Minnesota State-Moorhead.
This time, both teams had a week to prepare, and Mustangs head coach Brad Bigler is expecting another close battle between the No. 4 and 5 seeds. The SMSU/MSU-Moorhead winner will take on the winner of No. 1 seed Colorado School of Mines and No. 8 Augustana.
"Going into this game, I think both teams will be prepared," Bigler said. "Both teams are familiar with each other and it should be an exciting basketball game."
SMSU is 6-0 in Central Region play, winning the regional titles in 2001 and 2009. But with the way the Dragons shoot the outside shot, there is a certain amount of uncertainty in preparing for MSU-Moorhead. The Dragons were the best in the NSIC in three-point shooting percentage (41.3) and three-pointers made (255), andare led offensively by DJ Hamilton (14.7 ppg).
"They're a scary team," said SMSU guard Matt Zager. "When they're hitting their three-pointers and hitting tough shots, they're one of the better teams in the conference."
When the Mustangs played MSU-Moorhead in the NSIC championship, the Dragons got the outside game going from an unlikely source in redshirt freshman Jordan Riewer. Averaging 6.1 ppg this season, Riewer went off for 25 points on 7 of 9 shooting from the outside.
"When you look at Moorhead and how they've been successful, when they knock down those three-point shots, they're as difficult to beat as anybody," Bigler said. "The thing about them is they can knock down contested three-point shots. They're a team we expect a battle with and a team we have a lot of respect for."
The key on the perimeter, according to SMSU point guard and NSIC Defensive Player of the Year Vinard Birch, is to challenge every opportunity the Dragons take beyond the arc.
"You got to make them uncomfortable because you don't want them to rock into their shots and get open shots," Birch said. "You try to be there on the catch and find it right away."
But perimeter play isn't the only thing that defines MSU-Moorhead. In the paint, the Dragons sport one of the toughest matchups in the NSIC in junior 6-foot-9 post Alex Novak. Along with averaging 11.5 ppg, Novak leads the NSIC in rebounds per game (8.9) and is tied for second in blocked shots with SMSU's Nick Smith (47).
"With Novak, he's similar to other talented bigs in the league where you want him to play both ends of the floor," Bigler said. "On the offensive end, when he's got the basketball, we'll be creative on how we defend him. When he's on defense, we'll look to pull him out in space, make him defend areas with ball screen-type actions and pull him away from the hoop. We all know he's one of the top shot-blockers in our league."
Finishing with 10 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in the NSIC championship, Novak frustrated the Mustangs' posts and penetrators. This time around, the Mustangs want Novak to commit on dribble-drives to open the floor for Smith and players like Zager and Jordan Miller.
"When I get in the lane, I try to make sure (Novak) comes up to me, he tries to stop me so I can try and get Nick and other guys open shots," Birch said. "When I go to the lane, I try to go into his body so he can't block the shot and make his job a little harder."
SMSU got the best of MSU-Moorhead in the last encounter. But a week later, and with the stakes even higher, the Mustangs know it's a brand-new ballgame against the Dragons.
"Both teams, I don't think, played their best game last week," Zager said. "We've had a week to prepare and we know their team better than we did before. We're working on our press and we're hoping we can stop them again."