Senior-laden MSU men’s basketball team hoping to take next step

Sean Arbaut/Minot State athletics Minot State's Tyler Rudolph (24) tries to convert a layup during a men's college basketball game last season.

There seems to be an imaginary checklist hanging in the Minot State men’s basketball office.

Each year, the team pushes itself to accomplish something that has never been done before in the program’s brief Division II history.

In the 2015-2016 season, the Beavers finished with an overall record above .500 for the first time. Last year, a playoff game was finally played in the MSU Dome after the Beavers finished in the top four in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference North Division. Yet, MSU lost that game on a last-second shot.

This season, the Beavers are pushing for their first NSIC Tournament victory.

“I’m just hoping to go on a playoff push finally,” said senior forward Tyler Rudolph. “We had that home playoff game last year, but now I want to get past that and make a run in the playoffs this year. We’ve put a lot of work in during my four years here and have seen this program grow. So, to take that next step would be huge.”

To have a program changing season, the Beavers are going to be heavily relying on their difference-making post player.

Rudolph’s credentials have already earned him star status in the conference after he became the first MSU men’s player to be named to the first team All-NSIC last season. He averaged 21.1 points per game and 10 rebounds per outing, both team-highs. The 6-foot-6, Bismarck native led the NSIC in rebounds with 291 and double-doubles with 14, was second in field goals made (238) and third in points per game.

He’s seventh on the all-time MSU scoring list with 1,357 career points and second in program history in rebounds (690). If he has a similar statistical season to last year, he will be the program’s all-time leader in both categories.

“He’s probably a little stronger and a little more athletic this year,” MSU coach Matt Murken said. “The focus has shifted toward being a better defender. He plays with great energy and just when you don’t think he can raise the level anymore, he raises it. He’s started to see that same energy level on the defensive level, not just on the defensive rebounding side to it. He has a chance to be a good defender and he’s heard that enough from me over that last year or so that he’s probably ready to make me shut up a little bit.”

While Rudolph provides a large chunk of MSU’s point and rebound production, the Beavers aren’t just a one-man team.

Senior point guard Luis Ricci Maia returns after averaging 13 points per game last season and finishing second on the team with 121 assists. Senior guard Nathaniel Moore provides another scoring option (10 points per game last season) and three-point specialist Russ Davis is also back to give MSU a scorer beyond the arc (9.6 points per game, team-high 76 made 3-pointers last year).

Other contributors from last season returning are sophomore forward Trevor Rothstein (4.5 points, 3.2 rebounds per game) and senior guard Brandon Green (1.8 points per game).

“We have as many returners and internal leadership as we’ve had in a long time,” Murken said. “I think the really good teams have that player leadership, not just the voice of the coach all the time. We have a lot of guys that want to lead and some younger guys looking to buy in. Frankly, we also just have some pretty good players.”

Several newcomers will have an opportunity to fight for playing time, such as junior forward David Akibo, who redshirted last year for MSU.

“New guys will be out there, as we look at it there might be 12 or 13 guys that could find their way out there for us on a game-to-game basis,” Murken said. “It’s really competitive in practice and some of our younger guys have a lot of athletic ability. We’ll probably have three to five guys that are new to our program or guys that redshirted in the program that I’m sure will contribute at least a little bit.”

Meanwhile, some familiar faces lie on MSU’s roster, such as Bishop Ryan’s Eli Stewart (who decided to join the team as a walk-on) and New Rockford-Sheyenne’s Jack Schaefer. Both seem to have a long way to go before they see the court, but Murken said he sees potential in both of them.

“Eli has a great basketball knowledge,” Murken said. “His family has coached basketball and his sisters have all played. Mentally, he picks things up quickly and is a smart player. He just has to learn how to speak our language and get used to the speed of the college game, it’s just a huge jump.

“Jack, same thing, the game is really fast for him right now. He’ll look confused at times and won’t be sure what I’m talking about, but then he’ll make a tremendous basketball play like hitting a three to win a drill and you’ll see some of those signs of why we recruited him. You just have to remind those guys there’s a way to do things within our system. Not a lot of freshmen play in our league, it’s just rare to see anyone play any minutes let alone meaningful minutes. If they can do that, they’re usually a pretty special player.”

MSU has an exhibition at 7 p.m. Monday against Valley City State University in Valley City and opens the regular season Nov. 10 against Southern Arkansas University.

Garrick Hodge covers Minot State athletics, the Minot Minotauros and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @Garrick_Hodge.