By Chad Courrier
The Free Press
A smooth, undersized power forward, a point guard who wants and needs the ball in his hands late in games and a scrappy wing player that can hit from outside or in and defends pretty well.
Is this the 2011 Minnesota State men's basketball team or the 2013 version?
"There are some similarities," coach Matt Margenthaler said. "But we're an immature, young team that's still learning how to play the game. The chemistry is getting better; we're probably getting there quicker than we thought we would. We just need to get consistent effort every night."
Through 18 games, the Mavericks are 16-2, 12-2 in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference games. In the 2010-11 season, the senior-dominated Mavericks were 16-2 in 18 games, with a 12-2 conference record.
And there are some similarities. On the 2010-11 team, which advanced to the national semifinals, Jefferson Mason was an undersized power forward, whose tenacious attitude and quick-leaping ability allowed him to average 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds, shoot 55.5 percent and frustrate bigger, thicker opponents, attempting 313 free throws in 33 games.
Senior point guard Marcus Hill played nearly every minute of every important game, especially late in the season. He averaged 16.4 points and shot 41.0 percent from 3-point range and 87.7 percent on free throws, often controlling the final couple of minutes with his ball-handling and decision-making.
Senior Cameron Hodges was a hard-nosed defender and slasher, averaging 13.4 points. He usually drew the opponents' best offensive player, but he also made a lot of clutch shots during that spirited postseason run.
There was also Stephen Kirschbaum, Joe Drapcho, Taylor Morrow and Jimmy Whitehead who each made meaningful contributions for the best team in program history.
The biggest difference between this team and the one from two years ago is in the middle. This team has Assem Marei, averaging 13.4 points and 6.9 rebounds, at center, whereas the 2010-11 Mavericks had Connor O'Brien, an inexperienced, skinny true freshman who has matured into a more suitable role at power forward.
"I see a lot of things we have in common (with the final-four team)," O'Brien said. "But we have a ways to go. I think we have a lot of the right pieces to run."
This season, senior Jarvis Williams fills the Jefferson Mason role. He's undersized, but he gets most of his points around the basket. Williams is averaging 14.1 points and 6.2 rebounds, shooting 49.7 percent from the field.
"His athleticism and quickness are similar (to Mason)," Margenthaler said. "Jarvis is a gamer, and he makes plays. When we need a basket, we go to him, just like we went to Jefferson."
Sophomore point guard Zach Monaghan has averaged 12.8 points and leads the Northern Sun in assists and steals. He always has the ball in his hands at the end of games, shooting 79.1 percent as the Mavericks' most reliable free-throw shooter.
"Zach and Marcus are both leaders," Margenthaler said. "They both control the ball, and they're capable of knocking down a big 3 or big free throws."
Gage Wooten ranks fourth on the team with 16 3-pointers, and he's shooting 51.4 percent from the field. Wooten averages 8.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, and he's a strong defender. He's been the biggest surprise of this season, given that junior-college transfers generally take a little longer to adapt to the Division II game.
"He's been so steady," Margenthaler said. "He knows his role, and he plays it very well."
This season's bench also has quality backups such as Zach Romashko, Jaymeson Moten, Lucas Brown and Whitehead. The bench, the deepest in the Northern Sun, has played a key role in a couple victories and could be important in any postseason success.
"We need the bench to step up and play with focus every game," Margenthaler said. "The bench is a huge advantage for us, and we need great play from them over the next two months."
The Mavericks are coming off an overtime home loss to Augustana, but it's easy to forget that the 2010-11 team took a couple of bad outings: an early two-point loss at St. Cloud State, a 15-point setback at Mary and a home loss to Concordia-St. Paul. The Mavericks also lost to Winona State in the semifinals of the conference tournament before getting on a roll that took the squad to Springfield, Mass.
So far, the Mavericks have only two losses, both coming with similar scripts. Against Upper Iowa and Augustana, both at home, the Mavericks fell behind early, took a lead in the second half and lost at the buzzer.
"We're 4.3 seconds away from being undefeated," Margenthaler said.
He said that the team needs to play with an "edge" and toughness. Most of this team is playing at the Division II level for the first time, and the intangibles of focus and concentration will be tested as the games become more meaningful.
During the 2011 postseason run, Margenthaler kept referring to something special about that team. He claimed that the Mavericks had the "it factor" of chemistry and determination that allowed it to finish off games and have a successful season.
This team is still developing its identity, though the talent level thought the entire roster might be better than two years ago.
"We've beaten a lot of good teams this season," O'Brien said. "We just need to continue to bring the effort every night and play together as a team. We had a little setback (against Augustana), but we need to stick with what has worked for us and not get too down."