UND to face another big, physical national basketball power

SPOKANE, Wash.-As a handful of University of North Dakota basketball fans visited with Creighton coach Greg McDermott recently in Omaha, discussion turned toward Gonzaga-the Fighting Hawks' opponent Saturday, Dec. 16, at the McCarthy Center.Creig...
North Dakota Fighting Hawks forward Conner Avants (32) drives on Creighton Bluejays forward Toby Hegner (32) Tuesday, Dec. 5, at CenturyLink Center Omaha. Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

SPOKANE, Wash.-As a handful of University of North Dakota basketball fans visited with Creighton coach Greg McDermott recently in Omaha, discussion turned toward Gonzaga-the Fighting Hawks' opponent Saturday, Dec. 16, at the McCarthy Center.

Creighton's size and length impressed the UND fans, who later watched the Bluejays rip the Hawks 111-68.

"Wait until you guys play Gonzaga," said McDermott, a former UND assistant whose team lost a 91-74 decision to the Bulldogs earlier this month. "They're a lot bigger."

Yes, UND will play a bigger, more physical team Saturday night compared to Creighton and Nebraska-the two vastly bigger teams the Fighting Hawks played earlier this season.

UND's schedule has turned out to be perhaps the most demanding in program history and the Hawks are trying to navigate their way through it to prepare for the upcoming Big Sky Conference season.

Gonzaga is ranked No. 12 and No. 13 in the AP Top 25 and USA Today polls, respectively, while Creighton is No. 25 in the USA Today poll.

At one time, Creighton, Nebraska and Utah Valley, which edged UND in overtime last month, all had an RPI that likely would place them in the NCAA Tournament if it started today.

UND's schedule, however, isn't about to change and the Hawks are trying to make the best of it.

"We're going through growing pains and growing pains aren't comfortable," said UND coach Brian Jones. "We just have to put that stuff aside. If we have to go through things like this to get to where we want to go in the Big Sky, then we have to do these things. It's just stretching us right now."

UND is 4-6 while the Gonzaga Bulldogs are 8-2, their only losses coming in double overtime to No. 7 Florida and a 91-74 setback against No. 1 Villanova.

It's been a frustrating stretch for UND, which has given up an average of 98.7 points in its past three games against Creighton, North Dakota State and South Dakota State, the team that likely will contend for the Summit League title.

UND prefers an up-tempo style and when it plays against big-time opponents that also prefer the same style. Points come early and often against the Hawks.

But UND's Marlon Stewart said his team still needs to stay the course.

"This stretch has been pretty difficult," said Stewart, who is averaging 13.7 points. "We have a young team and facing teams like this is tough. But at the end of the day, it's a learning experience.

"It can be frustrating at times because I know we're better than this."

UND's main problems so far have been its lack of depth and its shooting. The Hawks have four players averaging double figures, led by Geno Crandall (16.5 ppg). Outside of its five starters, however, UND's next leading scorer averages 4.7 points.

Also, UND is shooting only 43.8 percent overall from the field and 26 percent on 3-point attempts.

Gonzaga is led by 6-foot-9 power forward Johnathan Williams, who averages 15.5 points and shoots 53.8 percent from the field. He is one of four Zags averaging double figures and they average 91.2 points-sixth best in the country.

Despite being a huge underdog Saturday, Stewart said all UND can do is stay the course and stay within its game plan.

"We have to approach this game with the mentality of how good we want to be in March," said Stewart. "It's not going to happen overnight. We just have to keep working at it.

"A lot of these teams we're playing are more physical than us. We won't see teams like this in the Big Sky. But it does help us playing against teams like this.

"When we stay within our staples, we're pretty good. We're a young team and we let a lot of things affect us mentally."

UND at No. 12 Gonzaga

• When: 7 p.m. Saturday.

• Where: McCarthy Center, Spokane, Wash..

• TV/Radio: ROOT TV; 100.3 FM.

• Records: UND 4-6; Gonzaga 8-2. Gonzaga is 4-0 all-time against UND and the teams last met in 1972.

• Of note: Gonzaga was the national runner-up last season, losing to North Carolina in the title game. The Bulldogs' losses this season came against Florida in double overtime and against No. 1 Villanova.