SMSU MEN’S BASKETBALL: Mustangs look to make noise in NSIC

MARSHALL It’s been a couple of quiet seasons for the Southwest Minnesota State University men’s basketball team, but with a few new faces mixed in with their veteran leaders, the Mustangs are ready to use the noisemakers in full force this season.

After posting a 13-15 record last year, the Mustangs have started off their 2016 campaign with a pair of victories, including a 77-74 win over Emporia State (Kan.) in the final minutes on Sunday.

Junior center Carter Kirk is excited to be back on the court after a long offseason.

“It feels really good,” said Kirk. “We’ve been working hard and going at each other for about two months and for us to go against someone other than ourselves is a good feeling.”

The Mustangs return 10 players from a season ago, with Mitch Weg, Taylor Schafer, and Kirk leading the way. Weg led the team in scoring and rebounding last season at 12.5 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game. Schafer led the team in three-pointers with 57 in all 28 games, while Kirk finished second in the NSIC conference in field goal percentage.

Coach Brad Bigler said they have a lot of players to look out for this season, but added the junior class of Ryan Bruggeman, Turner Moen, Schafer and Kirk will be key for them.

“Ryan Bruggeman, Taylor Schafer, Carter Kirk, Turner Moen, they’re all kind of coming into that third year of college basketball. I think that’s the year where players have the biggest growth, so I would say the combination of those three,” said Bigler. “You have the reliable guys in Joey Bartlett, Mitch Weg and then Drew Osmundson coming off the bench as seniors. And the new fresh face is K.J. Davis, who had a good first weekend and we expect a lot from him.”

One area the Mustangs have improved so far this season is on defense. SMSU limited their opponents to just one 3-pointer apiece in both games this season, something that Bigler takes pride in.

“We’ve had to get better at defense the last two years. We’ve really struggled on the defensive end and we just need to be better,” said Bigler. “We were one of the worst teams in the country at defending the three-point line last year, whether it was bad luck or execution, teams got every look they wanted. To go this past weekend with only two made threes on us the entire weekend is a miracle for us right now.”

Another factor that Bigler is trying out this season is starting a pair of centers at the beginning of the game, with Kirk and Kolin Bartlett getting the start for the Mustangs down in the frontcourt.

“It (Starting two centers) allows us to really put some pressure on them in the paint right away and it allows us to also use their physicality to start the game,” said Bigler.

The Mustangs roster also features a trio of freshmen, including Nick Dufault, Vydal Bradford and Braedan Hanson.

Bigler said they will be redshirting, but will have their time when it comes.

“We’re trying to develop them and they’re doing all the right things,” said Bigler. “Nick has his moments in practice where he hits his threes and Vydal’s a slasher. Braedan’s coming off of an injury but is very versatile player that is going to log a lot of minutes throughout his career.”

Bigler added right now as a team, they’re just taking it one day at a time.

“When you’re coming off a couple of years where things didn’t go quite your way, you’re just trying to see positive steps,” said Bigler. “I don’t we’re trying to say anything crazy right now but this is a pretty serious group. We do have the experience where we should be pretty competitive night in and night out.”

The Mustangs will face NSIC-foe Northern State University tonight at 8 p.m. in Aberdeen, S.D. The Wolves are currently 1-1 on the season.

Bigler said despite their record, NSU will present some challenges for their team.

“They’re going to be a very physical team. That’s the one thing that they’re going to do when we step on the court is match our physicality,” said Bigler. “We’re going to have a little bit of experience on them; they lost a pretty talented player to injury this summer so they’re trying to fill his role.”

Senior Joey Bartlett said their biggest key on the offensive end is not turning the ball over.

“Our biggest thing is taking care of the basketball. We’ve been averaging too many turnovers and this year we’re really trying to take care of the ball and win the possession battle,” said Bartlett. “We’ve been shooting well and as long as we can get the ball up we should be alright.”

Bigler said each matchup gives their team the chance to learn from their mistakes as well as their highlights.

“Each game you have your opportunities to learn, especially in the beginning of the year. Every coach is trying to improve and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Bigler. “In the first game we started off slow and our tempo wasn’t great but we were able to go on a run in the second half. The second game showed why we practice end of game situations every day. We weren’t necessarily executing at a high level at the end. We went 3 of 9 on possessions and were scoreless on five in a row.”

Bigler said their biggest takeaway is building confidence each and every game.

“Anytime you win, you build confidence, especially when you win close games early in the year. Even though we didn’t play well down the stretch we found a way to win and made some defensive stops,” said Bigler. “The one thing I’ll take away is we have some good depth and we need to figure out how to use that rotation and different lineups.”

Kirk added this year’s roster will have its adjustments, but ultimately it comes down to their efforts as a team.

“It’s a new group of guys. We lost five guys to either graduation or transfer and we gained four guys, so that’s a nine guy swing,” said Kirk. “Just going into the first weekend and coming out with two wins is a huge confidence booster. We know what we’re capable of and have high expectations of ourselves so the sky’s the limit.”