Before last season, a lot of questions surrounded the Minot State University men's basketball program.
How would the team look under first-year head coach Matt Murken? How would the Beavers handle their first season in NCAA Division II and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference?
The answer: better than expected.
Minot State University freshman guard Nate Mertens handles the ball as senior E.J. Williams defends during an intrasquad scrimmage Oct. 16 at the MSU Dome.
MSU went 10-17 overall and 9-13 in the NSIC, improving on a 4-25 campaign in 2011-12.
Murken expects that growth to continue in his second season, which begins with an exhibition at Dickinson State on Wednesday and a regular-season home matchup against South Dakota Mines on Nov. 8.
"The biggest thing is we've got six or seven returning players who probably knew what we were expecting last year, but now they're a little bit more sure, they're a little bit more comfortable with it," Murken said. "We're able to have a lot more leadership from within, which most good teams have."
Murken said guards E.J. Williams and Adam Randall have emerged as team leaders. Williams, an explosive 6-foot senior, averaged a team-high 11.4 points last season. Randall posted 5.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore last year, often playing as an undersized forward at 6-foot-3.
The Beavers added more height this offseason, which will allow Randall to move back to his natural position of shooting guard. The Steele native, who stayed in Minot to work out with six teammates this summer, said practices are running more smoothly now.
"This year, we know what the system is," Randall said. "We get to kind of focus on the little things and polish it."
MSU returns all of its contributing guards other than Anthony Enriquez, who provided scoring punch (8.5 ppg) off the bench.
The frontcourt lost two starters in 6-9 center Kelvin Fraser - the school's all-time leader in blocked shots - and 6-5 forward Josh Johnson, who averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Senior Chris East ripped down a team-high 6.6 rebounds per contest and is the only experienced frontcourt returnee.
Junior Lazar Boskovic, a 6-10 Serbian post who redshirted last season, is expected to give the Beavers a skilled offensive option inside. Boskovic finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds in an exhibition loss to Winnipeg on Sept. 1.
In addition to Boskovic, the Beavers added four players 6-6 or taller - transfers Samuel Johnson and Nate Brandt and freshmen Alex Coleman and Stevan Jovanovic.
"When (Boskovic is) good, he gives up that back-to-the-basket threat probably a little more than we had last year," Murken said. "Nate and Sam gives us some athleticism and ability to crash the glass and replace some of what we lost last year from that position. As long as those guys play to their strengths and do what they can do well, they can certainly help us."
Sophomore point guard Dominique McDonald, who led the Beavers with 3.3 assists per game last season, is recovering from a fractured foot but is expected to return soon. Murken said he may be cleared to play after a checkup next week. In the meantime, Williams and freshman Nate Mertens hold the primary ballhandling duties.
Junior wing Thomas Korf, who hit a team-best 51 3-pointers last season at a 38-percent clip, said he's expanded his offensive arsenal.
"I definitely tried to add a couple different shots to my game this summer," he said. "One of them's the floater just because people get on me too close, and hopefully I can drive by them (and) maybe shoot a floater or a midrange, one-dribble pullup."
Just as Korf is trying to make his game more multidimensional, the Beavers are hoping their overall balance becomes a strength.
"The exciting this is we've got multiple guys that could be good on any given day," Murken said. "I don't have to sit there and say that one guy is that much better or is gonna carry us. That makes us a little more difficult to guard."
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.