The Mankato Free Press
---- — Since the Minnesota State men’s basketball team started this nearly annual tradition of playing in the NCAA II tournament, the home team has almost been unbeatable in the regional.
The Mavericks have played in nine of the last 10 national tournaments, and the only two times that the home team didn’t win was 2010 and 2013, when the tournament was played at Bresnan Arena.
While there’s no shame in losing to one of the 64 best teams in Division II, why have the Mavericks only been able to win one regional in three tries on the home court?
“You have the bull’s-eye on your back,” senior Gage Wooten said. “There’s pressure, but we’re at home, where we have played pretty well.”
In 2010, the Mavericks defeated a scrappy team from Colorado School of Mines in the quarterfinals but were defeated by St. Cloud State in the semifinals. That team had Travis Nelson in the middle, and Jefferson Mason was starting to emerge as a big-time player. The Mavericks struggled to find perimeter offense and made only 2 of 15 from 3-point range in the loss to the Huskies, who won the region championship.
Last season, the Mavericks sailed through the first two games before running into Winona State in the finals. Before a large, loud crowd, these teams, who many predicted would meet in the final game, delivered an intense, physical battle that ended in overtime, a game many called the best they’d ever seen in the arena. But it was Winona State, thanks to a couple of banked 3-pointers, that left the building with the nets.
Bresnan Arena contributes to other teams’ success. It’s a big-time facility that lends a special feeling to the tournament, which helps other teams feel more comfortable. It’s a shooters’ gym, with a nice background.
And Minnesota State isn’t known for being a hostile crowd.
There’s no doubt that when the Mavericks won the region title in 2011 the home crowd made a difference, especially in the semifinal victory over Metro State, another game that many rank in their top 5 in arena history. When 3,900 fans packed Bresnan Arena for the championship game two nights later, Fort Lewis didn’t stand a chance.
But those crowds are amazingly rare, given the success of the program. When the Mavericks take on Harding on Saturday, there will be about 1,500 folks there, depending on how many travel from Missouri and Winona to watch their teams.
There will be some applause for the Mavericks’ good plays, maybe a howl for a dunk, but the crowd won’t intimidate Harding, much the way fans in Winona and Marshall made it tough on opponents when region tournaments were held at their institutions.
But those are excuses, which don’t get you far this time of the season. The Mavericks are hosting for a reason — they have been deemed the best team in the region this season — and are the favorites, though this is a more balanced field than last year.
“This is a loose team, and we just need to play that way,” coach Matt Margenthaler. “The expectations are high, but we’ve dealt with that for a number of years. This is a challenge, and the way this team has accepted challenges is what makes them special.”
The Mavericks have set another record for victories this season, winning 29 of 33 games. They have earned the right to host this tournament.
But with that comes no guarantees. There are seven teams coming to Mankato that have a chance to win this. What has happened over the last four months means very little this weekend, as we have seen twice before, when opponents have left Bresnan Arena with the championship.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.