They lost numerous key players from a championship team after a landmark season.
Gonzaga? Yeah, we’ve addressed that pretty thoroughly. North Dakota? For sure.
The defending Big Sky Conference champion Fighting Hawks visit Gonzaga on Saturday in the Zags’ first post-finals week contest.
The Fighting Hawks advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in the school’s nine years as a Division I member. They won a D-I program-record 22 games.
They were hit hard by graduation and departures. Big Sky Tournament MVP Quinton Hooker (19.1 ppg) and Corey Baldwin (10.4 ppg) graduated. Drick Bernstine (8.3 ppg), a Colorado native and former AAU teammate of GU’s Josh Perkins, joined Washington State as a grad transfer.
Carson Shanks (5.3 ppg) decided to play his final season at Loyola-Chicago. Josh Collins (11 minutes per game) left the program right before the start of the regular season.
“They have nothing to lose,” Perkins said. “Their record isn’t what ours is, they know that. They’re going to try to play harder than us, try to at least, so we have to play harder than them.”
UND is 4-6 with wins over Division III Northland College and NAIA Presentation College. The Fighting Hawks lost 111-68 to Creighton four days after the Bluejays fell 91-74 to Gonzaga.
North Dakota features junior Geno Crandall, one of the Big Sky’s best guards. He scored 41 points in a season-opening win over Troy. He scored 22 straight UND points and had 37 alone in the second half.
Guard Marlon Stewart (13.7 ppg), who started his career at Creighton, has led the team in scoring four times. Cortez Seales (11 ppg) is another scoring option at guard. Stewart and Seales helped North Scott High win an Iowa 4A state title in 2015.
Forwards Conner Avants (6-foot-7, 235 pounds) and Iowa grad transfer Dale Jones (6-8, 225) combine for roughly 22 points and 13 points per game.
The Fighting Hawks, who are shooting 26 percent beyond the 3-point line, were picked fifth by the media and sixth by coaches in the Big Sky preseason polls.
“They have a pair of nice guards that can really do some things and one of the bigs is pretty mobile,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose teams are 38-1 versus Big Sky competition. “Obviously coming out of finals, that’s always been a tough game if you look historically through the years.”
The 12th-ranked Zags (8-2) hammered Washington 97-70 Sunday, their seventh game with at least 86 points. They’re sixth nationally at 91.2.
Senior Johnathan Williams averages a team-high 15.5 points and 6.7 rebounds. Perkins is next at 14.4 points and a team-leading 4.8 assists.
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