THE OPENING TIP
It’ll be NSIC action the rest of the way for the 5-2 UMD men’s basketball team as it kicks off conference season with an equal mix of home and away matchups. The Bulldogs first meet Minnesota Crookston in Romano on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. before heading out to Bemidji for a bout with the Beavers on Saturday, Dec. 3 at 5:30 p.m.
LAST TIME OUT
Last week was a bit of a marathon for UMD.
The Bulldogs started things out with an NSIC teaser out in St. Cloud against the Huskies on Tuesday. If this matchup ends up setting the tone for what conference play will look like this year, then it’ll be quite a season. With 5:04 left to play in the first half, St. Cloud held a 14-point lead at a score of 33-19 and had seemingly taken control of the contest. That is until the Bulldogs came storming back with a 20-9 run to close out the half on top 39-38. In the second half, it was the Bulldogs’ turn to take a firm grip over the game- with just five minutes left to go, it was 77-68 UMD. History has a way of repeating itself. The Huskies rallied, going on a 17-8 streak to climb themselves back into the contest. The only difference this time around was that their effort was only good enough to knot up the score at 85 apiece. To OT the game went, where, for the second time this year, the Bulldogs took control. UMD outscored St. Cloud 9-4 in the extra frame to snag the battle 94-89. Through it all, Drew Blair had himself a night. The guard put up a career-high 38 points on 12-21 (57.1%) shooting from the field, 6-13 (46.2%) shooting from three and a perfect 8-8 shooting from the line.
There’d be little rest for the Bulldogs, as they’d turn around and host a pair of non-conference foes from Michigan that weekend. UMD sure didn’t look any worse for wear on Friday against Michigan Tech- the Bulldogs took control early and didn’t let up. UMD would end up taking that one 99-65 on the back of double-digit scoring from five different Bulldogs. The next day would play out a little differently. Northern Michigan forced the issue onto UMD most of the way, consistently holding near double-digit leads. However, just as reliably, the Bulldogs would claw back into the game to draw themselves within one or two scores of changing the narrative. This continued until the score was 80-74 with just 1:30 left on the clock. A red-hot Max Bjorklund, who scored 17 of his 26 points on the game in the second half, had just scored a layup and was at the line for a chance at an and-one. He’d miss the free-throw but snag his own rebound, and soon enough, Brian Parzych drove to the basket to sink a layup of his own to make it 82-74. UMD would play the foul game the rest of the way, but the Wildcats refused to miss, closing the night going 8-8 from the stripe. Northern would take the contest 90-76.
The D2SIDA’s newest Central Region Poll kicked the Bulldogs down a spot, with UMD going from No. 3 to No. 4. The Bulldogs fell four spots from No. 18 to No. 22 in the D2SIDA Top 25 Poll. UMD didn’t receive votes in the latest NABC Coaches Poll.
SCOUTING REPORT ON MINNESOTA CROOKSTON
Sports are hard. Organizing them is hard (case-in-point, the Buffalo snowstorm not too long ago), playing them is hard, even watching can be hard, win or lose.
Coaching is no exception. Coaching is hard.
And it doesn’t really matter how long you’ve done it for. You can even stick around the same program for years and years, and the basic fact will never change. Sure, you’ll gain experience that might make things a little more comfortable, make a little more sense, but you never reach a point where it all clicks and you win every game in perpetuity.
Look at the history of the Minnesota Crookston Men’s Basketball team, and you’ll see what we’re talking about.
Gary Senske was the longest-tenured Crookston head coach in the school’s history, at the helm for 21 seasons. For the first 12 years of Senske’s reign, his Golden Eagles never had a season where they dipped below .500- and they only broke even once. Still, even Senske wasn’t immune to the difficulties of sport. In his last nine years with the team, the legendary coach didn’t have a season above the .500 line. Senske would close his storied career with an overall record of 227-274, and the Golden Eagles started the new millennium in a win deficit.
Coaching is hard.
Jeff Oseth joined up with Crookston ahead of the 2001-02 season. Never is it easy to have to fill the shoes of a figure like Senkse. Well, never is it easy to coach at all. In 12 years with the Golden Eagles, Oseth would post a 26-208 record overall. Before the 2014-15 campaign, Crookston would make a change at the coaching position.
Enter Dan Weisse. Weisse didn’t quite hit the decade mark as the Golden Eagles’ bench boss, but he still filled the role for eight seasons. There were some early growing pains, but by 2017-18, Crookston had secured its first season of double-digit wins since the 90s. Why not ride the wave and set another landmark- in 2018-19, the Golden Eagles had their first winning campaign since the Senske era in 1993-92. In this historic season that saw Weisse at the helm, Crookston went 17-16. On the court, the Golden Eagles were led by Harrison Cleary. Talk about historic- Cleary’s career clearly fits that bill. By the end of it, he wasn’t just the most touted Golden Eagle of all time- he topped the NSIC charts as the conference’s leading scorer ever. Definitively, too, the only player ever to cross over the 2,000 point plateau with 2,107. In 18-19, the guard averaged 22.2 points a night. Cleary and company would close out a memorable season with an 80-67 loss in the NSIC Tournament quarterfinals. Because even with one of the best talents the league has ever seen, basketball is hard.
The following year, Crookston would retain Cleary for his senior year. He’d outdo himself, too, ending the season with a career high 26.6 points per game average. The Golden Eagles would close the year 10-19.
Basketball’s pretty tough.
In Weisse’s last two seasons with Crookson following Cleary’s graduation, the Golden Eagles would post a combined 10-33 record. Weisse had seen Crookston through its most successful tenure since most students attending the university at the time had been born. Still, this is basketball, where things are hard and hard decisions have to be made. Before this season started, Crookston started another coaching search.
Enter Bryan Beamish. Well, “enter.” Beamish had already been with the Golden Eagles since the 2014-15 season before he was tabbed to be the new head honcho. He’d spent four of those years as an assistant before being promoted to associate head coach for the following four. That means Beamish’s tenure thus far had overlapped perfectly with Wiesse’s. Beamish had seen success, he’d seen defeat, he’d seen talent beyond belief, roster turnover after roster turnover. In other words, heading into his first stint as a head coach, Beamish knew basketball. Thus, he knew it was hard.
So maybe the challenges that faced Beamish ahead of this season weren’t surprises to him- but they were challenges nonetheless. Big ones.
Every single member of the Golden Eagles’ starting rotation last season was no longer on the roster heading into 2022-23. With them went a combined 51.3 points a game, 22 boards a game, 8.9 assists a game. That’s not even accounting for the rotational pieces that were also gone from the squad. If you look up the definition of “roster turnover” right now, you’d see the head of a Golden Eagle. Only four players return from last year’s group- 10 fresh faces join the fold.
Three new Golden Eagles have averaged double-digits through the team’s seven games thus far. At the top of the crop is Blaize Sagna, a guard who came to Crookston by way of JUCO Howard College. The London, England native’s averaged 14.1 points a game for the Golden Eagles thus far on some sharp shooting splits, working at 49.3% from the field and 44.4% from three. Sagna’s also grabbed 5.1 boards a game, tied for the team-lead. Right behind Sagna in team scoring is another junior-college product in Xzavier Jones. Jones joined up with Crookston after two years with Iowa Lakes Community College that followed a freshman campaign at DII’s Northern Michigan. The dual guard/forward’s averaged 11.4 PPG for Crookston so far and is the other Golden Eagle to average 5.1 rebounds a night. Rounding out the terrific trio of transfers is a third junior college player in Dezmond Washington. There’s a less-than-zero chance that you’ve heard that name before- that’s because Washington was a part of the East Los Angeles College squad that was the centerpiece of a season of Netflix’ Last Chance U. If Washington’s time with that program was indeed a “last chance,” then it’s clearly one he took and ran with. In his first stint in the NCAA Division II ranks, Washington’s averaging 10.3 points a night. He’s also grabbing 4.7 rebounds a contest.
So far this year, the Golden Eagles are 1-6. Sports… they’re still hard. None of the circumstances surrounding Crookston heading into the year made things any easier. All that this new regime can do is keep chugging along. The difficulties in the path that awaits them are no secret- the question is whether or not this group will be able to mold into something that will be able to face them.
SCOUTING REPORT ON BEMIDJI STATE
Don’t make us tap the sign. You know the mantra of this story all-too-well by now. That reality doesn’t change with a shift in focus from team to team.
The early part of Bemidji’s tale will try its best to convince you otherwise.
Current head coach Mike Boschee struck gold. He inherited a Beavers squad fresh off the heels of one of their most successful seasons in school history. Bemidji had finished the 2011-12 season 22-7. They’d won their 10th NSIC regular season title, their first since 2003-04. More importantly, the Beavers had made it to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time ever. They’d gone on to lose their first-round matchup 77-72 in a tough contest with NSIC-foe St. Cloud State, but these things happen. An outing like this seemed like it would shape the framework for a new era in Bemidji, and Boschee would get to lead it. Pretty sweet deal.
In his first two seasons, Boschee did a pretty bang-up job.
In 2012-13, Bemidji went 18-12. With that mark, Boschee posted the winningest first season any first-year Beaver coach had ever (and has ever) had. There was no NSIC gold to be had for Bemidji in the regular season this time around, but they would instead make it all the way to the conference title game in the postseason for the first time ever. Unfortunately for the Beavers, they’d go on to lose that championship bout 73-68. This defeat ultimately spelled the end of the Beavers’ hopes of making it to the Big Dance in back-to-back years, which would have been another first.
2013-14 looked to be more of the same. Actually, it seemed as if Boschee and co. were outdoing themselves. Heading into NSIC Tournament play the year prior, the Beavers had been 15-11. This following season, they were 18-8. This was good enough to land them a two seed in the conference’s postseason bracket. The first step on the Beavers’ path to tourney redemption was seventh-seeded Wayne State. The Wildcats had finished the year 8-18, polar opposites of their first-round matchup.
Wayne State would go on to upset Bemidji 88-76.
The Wildcats had been well familiar with the fact that sports are hard. Who better to have given the Beavers a refresher. It’s one the program ended up needing.
After a tough conclusion to an otherwise successful season in 2013-14, things took a turn for Boschee and Bemidji. The Beavers would close the 2014-15 campaign with a record of 8-19. It’s the first time the team had gone without double-digit wins since 2008-09. Oh well- these things happen. Five seniors graduating over the summer probably hadn’t helped. While Bemidji would crack the 10-win mark again the following year, though, that’s as far as they would go, finishing 10-17.
All things considered, after that 2013-14 campaign, Boschee had gone a combined 71-127 heading into this season. In that eight-year span, the Beavers had had just one winning record, a 14-13 mark in 2019-20. Bemidji’s most recent offering had been a 8-17 record.
Last year’s squad had shown signs of life, though. In fact, four different Beavers had averaged double figures on the year. It sure would have been something if all of them had been able to stick around for another swing at things, but reality prevailed. Travis Bianco and his team-leading 16.4 points per game (to pair with 6 rebounds a night) graduated. Derek Thompson and his 10.7 points a game (third on the team), along with his 6.7 boards a contest, also earned a cap and gown.
That still left the Beavers with a lot to work with. Take Mohamed Kone, for example. The fifth-year guard had been second on the team in scoring in 2021-22 with 11.7 points a night. That kind of production has carried over well into the new campaign. Kone’s averaging 11 points this year- not only that, but he’s been a major facilitator elsewhere, grabbing four boards a night and tossing out four assists a contest, too. Then there’s someone like John Sutherland. The junior forward was fourth on the team last year with 10.3 points a night to go along with 5.7 rebounds. This year, with increased opportunity, Sutherland has exploded onto the scene. He’s averaged a team-high 18.7 points a night so far this year, and he’s doing it on a whopping 60.9% shooting from the field. Why not chuck in 8.5 rebounds a night, while you’re at it? Best believe that others have caught notice of Sutherland- he’s already won one of the season’s three NSIC North Division Player of the Week awards. And why not close things out with a feel-good story in Dalton Albrecht. As a sophomore, Albrecht was a contributor, but his 7.9 points a game didn’t quite push him over the hump to join his contemporaries in the double-digit space. This year’s gone a little bit differently for the guard- he sits at second on the team with 17 points a game, essentially a double-digit increase in his nightly output. He’s doing it on 56.1% shooting from the field, too.
Remember- sports may be hard, but with experience comes a better understanding.
And it never hurts to add some fresh talent to the mix, either. Brandon Christlieb was once a freshman at Division III’s Manchester University in his home state of Indiana. That year went pretty well for him- he’d led the team in scoring with 18 points per game, which was good for fourth overall in the entire Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. Speaking of conference honors, Christlieb was Second Team All-HCAC. With that kind of success came the opportunity for the guard to take his talents up a notch (or Division) for this season, and that he did with the Beavers. So far, it’s safe to say that Christlieb has fit in pretty well. He’s averaging 13.7 points a night, good for third on the team. And he doesn’t shoot the three often, with just 21 attempts to his name so far, but when he does, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going in. He’s 61.5% from beyond the arc to open the year.
Seems as if these Beavers have been pretty good at building. The fruits of their efforts so far? A 5-1 record. That mark looks pretty good in isolation, but there’s more to be seen. Not all 5-1 teams are created equal. This one is 12th in the country in scoring offense with 91.2 points a night. And it’s not just because the Beavers are chucking up a bunch of prayers- they’re 17th in the nation in field goal percentage, working at a team clip of 51.7%. No surprise that they’re 16th in three-pointers per game with 10.7, 13th in three-point percentage at 42.4%. On top of all of this, when Bemidji is operating defensively, it runs a clean ship. The Beavers have the seventh lowest amount of fouls in the country on-average at just 12.7 a game.
It’s Boschee’s 11th year with the Bemidji program. In that time, he’s seen it all. Well, most everything. This scenario is a little different for the veteran coach. This is the first Bemidji group that has started to blossom like this entirely under his watch. His team’s only six games deep into the season, of course, but if all parties involved have it their way, current trends will hold. Maybe it would taste sweeter for them, having known what it’s like to be on the other end of it all.
Follow all of this week’s action live through the NSIC Network by clicking the links below:
vs Minnesota Crookston (Thursday, Dec. 1 @ 7:30 p.m.): bit.ly/3ud0rvp
vs Bemidji State (Saturday, Dec. 3 @ 3 p.m.): bit.ly/3VJdEaT
The Bulldogs take their first full-length NSIC road trip next weekend when they head out to North Dakota for a pair of conference matchups. UMD first faces Minot on Friday, Dec. 9 before meeting Mary on Saturday, Dec. 10.
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