By Chad Courrier
---- — MANKATO — The pain still hasn't left Connor O'Brien.
It's been almost seven months since he was on the court, playing basketball for Minnesota State. In that final game, the Mavericks lost in overtime to rival Winona State in the region championship game, missing a trip to the national quarterfinals. The pain was obvious on O'Brien's face that night and just as obvious Tuesday.
"It will probably stay with me until the first game," O'Brien said Tuesday, having just finished the first official practice of the basketball season at Bresnan Arena. "I thought about it every day. Every time I went on the court, every time I worked out. The only way to get rid of that feeling is to start winning."
The Mavericks have nearly the full squad back from last season when they posted a 28-5 record and won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship. The only players missing are Jarvis Williams, the team's leading scorer but hardly the only weapon, and backup guard Jimmy Whitehead, who transferred to get more playing time.
"Expectations are always going to be high for this program because of what we've done in the past," said O'Brien, a senior and lone player on the roster who competed with the Mavericks in their final-four trip three years ago. "We're going to have a target on our back, but we like that because it brings out the best in us."
Center Assem Marei is back, having spent the summer playing with the Egyptian national team at several international tournaments. He averaged 13.6 points and 7.3 rebounds, and he appears to hjave lost weight as he's gained experience.
Point guard Zach Monaghan averaged 11.8 points and 5.6 assists, and Gage Wooten averaged 9.2 points. Marei, Monaghan and Wooten started all 33 games last season, and O'Brien started 31.
"We just need to focus on getting better every day," coach Matt Margenthaler said. "That's easy to say, but with the talent we have coming back, it would be easy to look too far ahead and worry about things we can't control."
Reserves Jaymeson Moten, Zach Romashko, Lucas Brown and Alex Hanks are back, and T.J. Okafor returns after redshirting last season following shoulder surgery. Mike Busack and Grant Pope also redshirted as freshman, and senior Tanner Adler has transferred here from Black Hills State. T.J. Lake is a freshman from Western Dubuque (Iowa) High School.
"It's a very confident team and a very talented team," Margenthaler said. "This team needs to get tougher mentally. There's going to be adversity this season, and we have to be able to handle the good and the bad."For O'Brien, the start of a new season will bring an end to a tortorous offseason. He's been to the Final Four and would like to go back, though it might be tough to get everything in line like it was last season.
"We have enough talent, and now it's a matter of playing together," O'Brien said. "I think the guys have the right attitude and have worked hard to get ready. There's a lot of competition at practice."