By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Connor O¹Brien remembers the first time that he sensed it was "cool" to go to Minnesota State basketball games. Jimmy Whitehead recalls the feeling of a packed Bresnan Arena, chanting "I believe that we will win."
Two years ago, the Central Region men¹s basketball tournament was played at Bresnan Arena, and the atmosphere and support were key to the Mavericks¹ first regional title.
"Fan support was huge," said Whitehead, a junior guard. "When you play somewhere else, sometimes it¹s hard to get energy. When you get that crowd behind you, it really helps you get going."
The top-seeded Mavericks (26-4) host Arkansas Tech (18-11) at 5 p.m. today in the quarterfinal of the Central Region. Whitehead and O¹Brien are the only players left from the 2010 team that advanced to the national semifinals.
"They¹re the captains, and they¹ve been through this," coach Matt Margenthaler said. "They need to be our vocal leaders and help the other guys understand what this is all about. It¹s a different deal than the conference tournament. This team was put together to be in this situation,
and now we have to finish the deal."
The Mavericks have the longest winning streak of the eight teams remaining in the region, having won six in a row. Minnesota State won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular-season and tournament titles, but that means little right now.
"You really need to be focused and dialed in on what we¹re trying to do," Margenthaler said. "When we stay with our game plan and execute our sets, we¹re awfully good."
The Mavericks are averaging 79.4 points, highest in the tournament, with six guys averaging at least six points. Jarvis Williams, the only senior, is averaging 14.3 points and 5.5 rebounds, coming off an MVP performance in the conference tournament. Sophomore center Assem Marei is averaging 13.4 points and 7.1 rebounds with 48 blocked shots. Marei is shooting 54.9 percent, while Williams is shooting 51.3 percent.
Sophomore point guard Zach Monaghan makes the offense go, averaging 12.4 points and 5.4 assists with 71 steals. He¹s made 56 3-pointers and is shooting 83.0 percent on free throws.
Minnesota State has used the same starting lineup in 28 of 30 games, but depth has been a major key this season. The reserve players are combining for 24 points per game.
"I¹ve got a better feeling about this team than I did (in 2010)," Whitehead said. "Everybody is playing at a high level, and I think we¹re ready to do what it takes."
The Mavericks won 17 of the first 18 games before hitting a mild skid in the middle of the season. In the final six-game winning streak, the team has scored at least 85 points in five games, and the margin of victory has been almost 16 points per win.
"I remember that every team in the (2010) region was very good, no matter what the record was," Whitehead said. ³The talent level was pretty equal, and you had to play strong and do everything solid to win."