It's been 21 months since the Minot State University men's basketball team played in the most important type of game outside of a tournament contest - a conference game.
After an independent NCAA Division II schedule last season, the Beavers (1-2) will open their inaugural Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference slate Saturday against the University of Mary in Bismarck.
"It's been too long," said MSU senior Kelvin Fraser, who preserved his final year of eligibility by not playing last season. "Sitting out a year - it's definitely not fun. We didn't do too good and I felt kinda bad because I wasn't there helping my teammates play."
Minot State University senior forward Josh Johnson handles the ball against a Northland College (Minn.) defender during the Beavers’ Nov. 18 blowout victory at the MSU Dome.
Fraser, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker, could play a key role in the game against the 1-3 Marauders, who don't feature a player taller than 6-6. However, two of Mary's 6-6 players are among the Marauders' most productive, with senior forward Alex Dorr averaging 14.5 points and 12 rebounds per game and junior Marc Musungayi chipping in nine points and eight rebounds a contest.
"We're bigger on the inside, so we're probably going to try to pound a lot on the inside this game," said 6-5 MSU senior forward Josh Johnson. "We need to get to the rack, and other than that, we should be fine."
Saturday's game will be the Beavers' first since an 86-27 thrashing of Division III Northland College (Minn.). First-year MSU coach Matt Murken has been pleased with his team's practices over the long layoff.
"We've been able to take that next step detail-wise where they understand our stuff a little bit better, they understand our system," Murken said. "I see some guys where the light's coming on, where they feel a little more comfortable and they can kinda just play without having to think about why they're doing something or what the calls are."
Murken said the Marauders are precise in their offensive execution and play physical, half-court man-to-man defense. He said a key for the Beavers will be limiting Dorr and senior guard Josh Turner (15.3 ppg, 3.3 apg).
"They have two guys that can really score it and if those two guys are able to go out and have big nights, then they're gonna be successful more often than not," Murken said, "so it'll be a big key for us to defend those primary guys and make some of those other guys work for scoring opportunities."
The Mary athletics website is trumpeting the matchup as a "rivalry renewed" from when the teams were members of the NAIA Dakota Athletic Conference. The game, which tips off at approximately 7 p.m. following the 5 p.m. women's game, will be aired on NBC North Dakota.
"Obviously, any conference game is important, and we'll play 22 of 'em so one is not more important than another one," Murken said. "But it'll be fun to start off playing Mary and playing an old rival and a team that used to be in our league before. ... We look forward to having some good battles with those guys."