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MEN'S BASKETBALL: UND ready to go against Bison

In its brief Division I era, UND has played a handful of times before big crowds -- from more than 17,000 last year at Wisconsin to 16,300 this season at Kansas. More than 14,000 were on hand last week at the UND-New Mexico game.

In its brief Division I era, UND has played a handful of times before big crowds -- from more than 17,000 last year at Wisconsin to 16,300 this season at Kansas. More than 14,000 were on hand last week at the UND-New Mexico game.

But the program's difficult Division I transition -- now in its final season -- hasn't afforded UND the opportunity to play in front of big crowds at home.

That changes Tuesday night when UND hosts rival North Dakota State at The Ralph -- the first time the teams have met in Grand Forks since 2004.

The rivalry -- at least in men's basketball -- appears to be back on track for the long haul as both UND and NDSU are planning for future games, likely one contest each season rotating between Grand Forks and Fargo.

There is no estimate on Tuesday night's turnout.

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As of Friday, approximately 5,000 tickets had been sold and UND officials are hoping for a turnout of at least 8,000.

The pregame buzz, the expected big crowd and the environment surrounding the game couldn't come at a better time for UND, which needs a jolt of positivity as the Green and White are trying to gain traction after a demanding transition -- one that meant few choice home games and a ton of travel.

"I'm not trying to make this game any bigger than it is," UND coach Brian Jones said. "It won't make our season and it won't make their season. But it's a positive for both programs. It's positive for the state. It needs to happen in all sports."

It's a game UND players want each season as well, even those who had no knowledge of the rivalry.

"Even though I didn't know much about it last year, I can't wait to play them again," said UND sophomore guard Jamal Webb, a New York native. "I learned that it is bigger than just a game. It's good for the coaches and players and it's really big for the fans."

Webb perhaps didn't realize the enormity of the game until he experienced the atmosphere at the Fargodome last year, where the beat UND 81-56.

"We had a good amount of fans there, and a lot of them were students," Webb said. "That's how I knew it was a big game because we don't get a lot of students at home."

It also could be the type of game to hook more students to UND basketball, especially if Webb and his fellow sophomore teammates continue their strong play.

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UND's sophomores average 69 percent of the Green and White's points each game this season, which ranks No. 3 in Division I. Last season, as freshmen, Webb, Aaron Anderson, Josh Schuler, Brandon Brekke and Troy Huff, ranked No. 1. And their play helped carry UND to the Great West Conference postseason title and a berth in the CollegeInsider.com tournament, where the Green and White fell to Air Force.

As well as UND's sophomores have played, however, North Dakota State's sophomores rank No. 1, averaging 77 points per game. The sophomores at Memphis rank No. 2 at 70 percent.

The high ranking of the two sophomore classes could produce some interesting games in the future.

"We're already in the works for another game," Jones said. "We're trying to put together a long-term deal."

Nelson reports on sports. Reach him at (701) 780-1268; (800) 477-6572, ext. 268; or send e-mail to wnelson@gfherald.com .

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