MSU MBB ready for showdown with SCSU, Gage Davis

Sean Arbaut/Minot State athletics Minot State's Russ Davis (20) drives to the lane during a men's college basketball game earlier this season.

Two of the biggest early season storylines in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference men’s basketball season will align tonight.

The first is of course, the unprecedented success of Minot State, the biggest surprise of the season after starting 11-1 despite a 14-15 finish last year. Only the 1971-1972 MSU team has had a better start, as those Beavers began the season 22-1.

MSU (5-1 in conference play) opens the second half with an important showdown with St. Cloud State at 6 p.m. tonight at the MSU Dome. It’s a game that could eventually determine who finishes second in the division (assuming Northern State wins the North), as the Huskies enter the matchup 8-3 overall and 4-1 in NSIC play. It’s the Beavers’ first game since beating UMary on Dec. 19.

“You never know how you’re going to do off that winter break,” MSU coach Matt Murken said. “You get seven days off and only get three practices, so I don’t know if anyone will be where they left off. You’re trying to get as close as you can to full speed in only three days, which is a big challenge. I’m sure everyone will have a watered-down game plan this weekend with the short time period and everything.

“It’s early in the conference season, but it sure looks like a pretty big game. It would be good to get this one.”

As for the second league-wide storyline, it’s fair to wonder what in the world is going on with SCSU star Gage Davis. Davis, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, was suspended by SCSU coach Matt Reimer for the team’s first six games due to a violation of team rules, whatever that means.

Davis returned to the Huskies on Dec. 2 and had 25 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes in a 96-62 victory over Bemidji State. Then, Davis missed the next two games for reasons undisclosed to anyone. Last year’s first-team all-NSIC selection has played in his team’s last two contests and is expected to play tonight.

Davis has scored 48 points in 65 minutes of action this season (averaging 16 points per game), and averaged 22.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and four assists per game last year.

After a 96-91 overtime loss to SCSU last year, a game in which Davis scored 34 points, dished out 11 assists and grabbed nine rebounds, Murken infamously called Davis “the best player to ever play in the NSIC.”

Murken’s comments ruffled a little bit of feathers in surrounding NSIC communities, but a year later, the sixth-year head coach still thinks Davis could be one of the all-time greats.

“It’s interesting with him missing a little time this year,” Murken said. “Stats wise, he’s probably as impressive as anyone and that probably would have been a little bit better of a way to say it back then. Even with missing a little time, if his career continues to play out like it has he’ll probably be near the all-time NSIC records in points, rebounds and assists. Not many guys can do that, it’s pretty impressive.

“This league has had a lot of really talented guys, but when you look at guys that consistently stuff the stat sheet, he’d have to at least be in the conversation I think.”

Yet, despite missing Davis for the majority of the season, the Huskies have managed just fine. Senior Jon Averkamp has emerged as a top player in the NSIC, averaging 20.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Brindley Theisen (13.7) and Sean Smith (12) are the other players that average double figures for SCSU.

The Huskies rank first in the NSIC in steals per game (7.27), second in assists (16.27), rebounding (37.7) and turnover margin (3.64) , third in blocks (four) and fourth in scoring defense (68.1). SCSU won both matchups last season and owns a 7-3 all-time record against MSU.

“They have had guys step up this year,” Murken said. “Their returning players have taken a step forward and their newcomers are getting better. They have a little more balance and a little more depth than they’ve had in the past. They’re also better defensively, so I’m sure they’re going to be a handful for league in the next eight weeks.”

MSU hasn’t been too shabby either, leading the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.57) and scoring margin (14.9), while ranking second in scoring defense (65.7) and field goal percentage defense (42.1 percent).

The Beavers have the front runner for NSIC player in the year in Tyler Rudolph, who scores 22.7 points and grabs 7.6 rebounds per game while shooting 62 percent from the floor. David Akibo (11.9) and Nate Moore (10.1) are the other double-digit scorers for MSU.

After the matchup with SCSU, the Beavers face Minnesota Duluth (3-7, 0-5 NSIC) at 4 p.m. Sunday at the MSU Dome.

MSU women hoping to get back on track

After making their way through a daunting five-game stretch, the MSU women hope to get back on track against one of the only teams they found a way to beat last season in SCSU.

MSU (4-6, 1-5 NSIC) takes on the Huskies at 4 p.m. today at the MSU Dome, then hosts Duluth at 2 p.m. Sunday.

“I view these as the biggest games of the season,” MSU coach Mark Graupe said. “They’re teams we’re going to be fighting with in the north, and if we lose these two then lose the next two at Northern and Moorhead next week, there’s a chance we could lose the girls. They could lose confidence in what they’re doing and in themselves. We want to try to finish off these games so we can compete for that fourth seed and get some confidence back.”

MSU enters today’s matchup with SCSU (6-3, 3-2) on a five-game losing streak, the most recent loss to UMary on Dec. 19. The two teams split the season series last year, with each program winning on the road. The Beavers won in St. Cloud 77-63 and the Huskies won 76-69 in Minot.

SCSU has two players averaging double figures in Andrea Thomas (12.9 ppg) and Tori Wortz (10.8).

“St. Cloud doesn’t have that standout so to speak, but they’re very solid overall,” Graupe said. “The girls did beat them last year, so hopefully that gives them confidence that they can get a win.”

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