GRAND FORKS — On Thursday, Nov. 7, the University of North Dakota opens its men’s basketball season against Crown College — a private, NCAA Division III college located in St. Bonifacius, Minn.
Five days after the Crown game, UND will take on national power Gonzaga — ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 men’s preseason basketball poll. If that’s not daunting enough, Gonzaga downed Michigan State — the preseason AP No. 1 team — by 16 points in a closed scrimmage last month in Denver.
UND’s first two opponents are on the opposite ends of the college basketball spectrum. But that doesn’t matter. UND's mission early in the season is to prepare itself — no matter the opponent — for the Summit League season that begins in January.
After nearly 30 preseason practices, UND simply wants a game.
Thursday’s opener also will be the first game for new UND coach Paul Sather, who took over the program in June when Brian Jones was named the associate head coach at Illinois State.
The transition to a new staff has gone well.
“I’ve gone through a lot of coaching changes,” said UND senior guard Marlon Stewart, the team’s top returning scorer. “You’ve got to be an adult about it. We just had to adapt to the coaches’ intensity and we’re taking constructive criticism.”
Stewart said he’s ready to face someone new after a month of practice.
“We’re ready to get into the real thing,” said Stewart. “It’s getting a little old beating up on each other.”
UND’s style of play may focus on the inside game more than it did in the past.
Early on, the Hawks’ inside game will rely on 6-foot-9 sophomore Filip Rebraca and 6-9 senior Kienan Walter.
UND added another big man to the mix in the offseason — 6-7 Gertatutas Urbonavicius, a Lithuania native who played three seasons at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Florida. At the 2018 U-18 European Championships in Latvia, he averaged 8.1 rebounds and 3.9 rebounds.
‘G,’ as he is called by teammates, represents one of four European nations on the UND roster — the others being France, Serbia and Latvia.
“I’ve been happy with our inside play in practice,” said Sather. “Filip has been strong in practice but (6-9) Marko Coudreau and ‘G’ as we call him have shown that we may have some size, depth and physicality in the post.”
UND will have an outside presence as well, with Stewart senior Billy Brown and sophomore Annen Moody, who shot 41 percent on 3-point attempts last season.