Golden Gophers vs. Northeastern State RiverHawks
7:00 pm (CDT) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
TV: Streaming at http://www.bigtennetwork.com/
Tickets: Row 25, baseline, lower deck
Tucked in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, just Southwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma sits Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the home of Northeastern State University. It is supposedly an idyllic town, one of the best places to live in the country, and located a short drive from a couple of the best place-names I have ever heard, No Head Hollow and Ten Killer Lake. The town of just over 14,000 was also featured in the book and movie Where the Red Fern Grows. I write this not just to help you plan your next summer vacation in vaguely Northeastern but just as easily East Central Oklahoma, but to demonstrate that transitioning into a new season is rarely seamless and often an abrupt new beginning.
It is time to start at the beginning. In this case, it is against Northeastern State.
With so many new faces in new places, this won’t be last season’s Golden Gopher basketball team. Gone are the two captains and leading scorers. Gone is all the chaos and drama that seemed to lurk around every corner. Hopefully gone are the last second failures, the epic collapses, and one of the more disappointing seasons of Tubby Smith’s career.
Tuesday night Trevor Mbakwe finally plays a semi-official game for the Gophers. Al Nolen returns to the team he let down. Blake Hoffarber starts his final assault on the record books. And too many freshman to name put on a Gopher uniform. It is a great time of year. It also gives the state of Minnesota something else to focus on, as the Vikings spin out of control and the Wild and Timberwolves sputter through another disappointing season. This town needs a winner, and don’t be shocked if the Gophers become Minnesota’s team this winter.
Before any of that can happen, they’ll start the season with a tune-up against the Riverhawks. The traditional opener against a sub-par local Division II school is on hold for a year. In their place, the Gophers will take on a sub-par school coached by an old friend of Tubby Smith. Northeastern State plays in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association against power house teams like Central, Southern, Northwestern and Western Missouri. A year ago they made it to the semi-finals in the Lone Star Conference Tournament. And no, I also don’t have enough context or knowledge of small school Oklahoma college basketball to know if they had a good season.
What I can tell you is that the Gophers should win easily tomorrow night, and still have a chance to mix and match the many new players in a consequence free environment. The RiverHawks have two players that are 6’7”, one that is 6’6” and one that is 6’4”. The remaining eight have a very real risk of being a Blake Hoffarber post-up victim. Of their 4 double-digit scorers two return, Dominique Gaines who averaged over 18 points per game and Antoine Branch who averaged 11 points per game. Branch is the team’s best outside shooter and Gaines averaged six rebounds per game despite being only 6’2”.
Regardless of the players on the other teams, this should be and will be a blow out, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to watch.
Who to watch for the Gophers:
Trevor Mbakwe FINALLY will play a game for the Gophers. Watch how he handles his return to competitive basketball, and more importantly how he handles the hype. Various pundits, myself included are expecting several dominating performances throughout the season. If we expect to see him hold his own against the Ohio States and Michigan States of the world, Northeastern State shouldn’t be able to slow him down.
What to Watch for the Gophers:
Preventing easy baskets was difficult for the Gophers once Al Nolen was suspended half way through last season. Nolen has returned, and hopefully so has the team’s defensive intensity. The mere presence of Nolen won’t make the defense better though. During the Big Ten media day Tubby Smith mentioned that his team needs to communicate better. Knowing how Tubby Smith values defense, this can only mean that team has been a bit slow to gel and play as a unit. Tomorrow night should give us at least a glimpse at how it is coming together. If the press is effective and no one gets lost on screens, the Gophers are ahead of schedule.
Who to watch for the RiverHawks:
Dominique Gaines had season highs last year of 32 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. Regardless of the level of competition, he is a versatile player.
What to watch for the RiverHawks:
Playing on a big stage will be no easy task. The largest crowd they played in front of last season was 2,598 people. Tahlequah, Oklahoma has a population of 14,458. Williams Arena’s capacity is 14,625. It’ll be important to stay calm, and possibly measure the length of the court and the height of the baskets before the game.