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November 18, 2013

Two established mid-majors square off again at University Arena

The Western Michigan Broncos (3-1) host the North Dakota State Bison (1-1) Wednesday night at University Arena for the second consecutive season, in what figures to be an outstanding matchup of two stellar Midwest mid-major programs. This year's matchup is a return game from the 2011-2012 season, when the Bison defeated the Broncos 86-73 in Fargo.

The Broncos ended NDSU's season last year by defeating the Bison 72-71 in overtime at University Arena in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) Tournament. Shayne Whittington led the Broncos with 18 points, and TrayVonn Wright led all scorers with 23 points.

Senior wing Taylor Braun filled the stat sheet for the Bison with 10 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 1 steal and 1 block. Braun is averaging a steady 15.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game so far this season, and remains a liability for the Broncos defensively.

"Anybody that was at that game last year knows how good they are," head coach Steve Hawkins reminded media members earlier this week.

"They're a really good team and they have almost everybody back. They're led by the best player in the nation that nobody's ever heard of, Taylor Braun. He can start for almost anybody at the small forward spot. He's a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-7. He's a mean, tough kid, who can shoot the three and put the ball on the deck."

Hawkins will not have the luxury of blanketing Braun with a long, lanky, and athletic wing like Nate Hutcheson last year. He'll likely need to get creative with the bench.

"Last year we had a great matchup situation because Hutch was here and he was a great defensive player for him. This year, we're going to be challenged, at every position. There's no weaknesses in that team. I'm glad we're playing at home."

If the Broncos are going to pull off another solid win against a very good team in North Dakota State, they'll have to do a much better job at the free throw line (20-38) than they did against Alabama A&M Sunday night. Against NDSU, it could be the difference between a close game and a double-digit loss.

"We've got some good work to do between now and then to get ourselves ready for another opportunity to find out where we stack up against an outstanding team. I think that they will be the best team that we've played so far. They are outstanding."

Starting point guard Lawrence Alexander suffered a partially torn achilles heel injury late last spring and seems to be fully recovered. His backup Joel Lindberg, however, isn't as fortunate and there are questions in Fargo as to whether or not he'll ever play again after tearing a patellar tendon in his knee.

Regardless, head coach Saul Phillips has to be looking forward to this upcoming season, because this could be the best team he's ever had at NDSU. Senior center Marshall Bjorklund (14.5 ppg) and senior guard Mike Felt (13.5 ppg) are also two key impact players who are expected to help lead the charge in NDSU's quest for a Summit League championship.

Tip-off is set for 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night.

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