State basketball preview: Ready for their moment

Throughout 2012-13 season, Marshall boys’ basketball coach Travis Carroll has been able to draw upon extensive experience. That experience, however, has not always been his own.

When Carroll took over the program this season he inherited a veteran team and veteran assistant coaches, relying on their knowledge of each other to minimize the side effects that accompany a new coach.

The experience paid off as Marshall has put together one of the best seasons in program history with a 27-2 overall record (12-0 in the Southwest Conference), the No. 3 ranking in Class AAA and a Section 2AAA championship.

Now the first-year coach will look to rely on the experience of those around him one more time, as the Tigers take on Grand Rapids today at Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

The state tournament can be a logistical nightmare for a first-time coach (trying to find gyms to practice in, scheduling pick-up times for buses and the like), which is why Carroll was relying on longtime Marshall assistants Mike Christianson and Ben Haugen in the days leading up to today’s 4 p.m. tip-off against the Thunderhawks.

“We’ve got guys that have been here before and been through this situation before,” Carroll said. “There’s a lot of day-to-day things while you’re up in the Cities that need to be taken care of, and we’ve worked well together and have been able to talk through these things we’re going to approach when we’re up there. We’re ready to go and it’s good to have that experience on our staff.”

During the game, Carroll will be able to rely on the experience of three of his seniors. Austin Saugstad, Hunter Peterson and Tanner Bukowski were all on Marshall’s 2011 state tournament squad as sophomores and should be able to provide a calming influence for the players making their state tournament debut.

“I think going our sophomore year helped us just to know what it is all about, like getting some of the patterns down, the schedule and knowing how everything runs a little bit,” Saugstad said.

Without the off-court distractions, the Tigers have been able to turn their attention to Grand Rapids and slowing down highly regarded sophomore center Alex Illikainen. Illikainen, who is listed at 6-foot-9, averages 27 points per game and 15.2 rebounds per game, and surpassed 1,000 career points and rebounds this season.

“We’re just really working on our stuff on the defensive end, working on the different defenses that we have. We know that a lot of their offense runs through him and we have to prepare for him,” Saugstad said.

According to Carroll, the keys for Marshall to advance to the Target Center will be the same as they have been all season.

“We’ve got to limit them to one shot when they’re shooting the ball, we’ve got to take care of the basketball and we’ve got to communicate on both ends of the floor,” he said. “If we can do all those things, just like any other game this year, we like our chance in that situation.”

Working in favor for the Tigers will be their balance and athleticism. Though Marshall lacks any individual with Illikainen’s height, in general the Tigers will be bigger than the Thunderhawks. Likewise, the extra 10 feet of floor which come with playing on a college court should play in Marshall’s favor, especially since the Tigers have already played five games in a college gym this year.

“It’s good that we played in the Taylor Center leading up to this,” Carroll said. “There are a lot of similarities between the Taylor Center and Williams Arena in terms of the size of the floor. We think with the way that we play the game that it definitely works to our advantage and it’s definitely something that we’re looking forward to.”

Marshall is currently riding a 16-game winning streak. Driven all season by the goal of making the state tournament, the Tigers’ resume (which includes a 3-0 record over other state tournament qualifiers) landed Marshall the No. 3 seed in the Class AAA field. With the seed also comes expectations.

“There are definitely some expectations being seeded third, but we’re working hard in practice, coming prepared and ready to get a job done,” Saugstad said.

With the expectations comes a new goal.

“The goal is to have a three-game winning streak,” Carroll said, alluding to a state championship. “But the biggest thing is we have to be locked in on Grand Rapids and ready to go right away. They are a very good team and if we’re not ready to go it’s going to be an uphill battle. We don’t want to put ourselves in a difficult situation, but if we are keyed in and focused at the beginning of the game, we like our chances going forward.”