Here are two things to know about Dan Weisse.
One: He’s a good basketball coach. When he took the head coaching job at Minnesota Crookston in 2014, he inherited a program that had gone 8-46 over the last two seasons combined. Five years later, the Golden Eagles are coming off of a program-high in wins (17) and enter the 2019-20 season ranked seventh in the NSIC preseason poll.
Two: He’s not naive. One of the most common varieties of coachspeak involves a coach totally shrugging off polls or outside expectations, pretending as if they don’t exist or don’t matter.
It’s not as if those coaches are totally wrong. Rankings serve to spark debate and demand outside attention far more often than they accurately forecast results.
But it’s no small matter that a once-moribund Minnesota Crookston program is now considered, by most observers, to be among the top half of its conference. Weisse fully understands such. It doesn’t take much more than a stroll around campus to sense that Golden Eagle basketball is officially a Big Deal.
“I do get a buzz,” Weisse said in his office Tuesday. “But with that there becomes a little bit more responsibility, little more, I guess, pressure on our players. … You certainly want to come through.”
Expectations, at least outside the program, are higher than they’ve ever been.
But think that they’re ignoring that inside the walls of Lysaker Gymnasium? Weisse thinks that his team could have been even better last season. Just to give an idea of where the ceiling is now.
“We had some key injuries,” Weisse said. “Gable Smith, our starting five, missed significant games, and when he came back wasn’t fully healthy. Ben Juhl was our starting two-guard for the first eight games or so of the season, he got hurt. … It was a great year, but … we thought we left some stuff out on the table.”
By its standards, Minnesota Crookston is loaded heading into 2019-20. Injuries to Smith, who graduated, and Juhl opened the door for redshirt sophomore Brian Sitzmann — who Weisse called one of the best defenders in the conference — to gain experience at shooting guard, as well as senior Javier Nicolau and redshirt junior Chase Johnson to get minutes down low.
Juhl is back and should provide big minutes at both guard spots. Weiss thinks redshirt senior Malcolm Cohen has all-conference potential at power forward. Highly-touted JUCO transfer Ibu Jassey Demba is a Division I-caliber athlete, per Weisse, who can guard every position.
And then there’s point guard Harrison Cleary, who needs no introduction. He’s already Minnesota Crookston’s all-time leading scorer and the NSIC’s third-leading scorer for his career. Cleary goes into his senior season as the best player the Golden Eagles have ever had, one of the best players in the conference and a guy who can carry a team by himself if need be. This season, his leadership skills match his status.
“Harrison, in particular, has done a really good job of leading this team and being a good voice,” Weisse said. “I thought we lost a couple games down the stretch last year because we didn't have much leadership once things got tough or once crowds got involved, or whatever the situation arises. We didn't always handle those situations, so I'm hoping we handle those games a little better this year.”
All in all, Minnesota Crookston returns the bulk of a team that averaged 77.3 points per game, allowed 73.1 and shot 41.4 percent from deep a season ago. It’s an unprecedented amount of firepower.
But the Golden Eagles’ roster isn’t the only indication of how far this program has come.
Wednesday, Minnesota Crookston will play host to Bethel at home in its lone exhibition game. The Royals went 19-8 last season in Division III, and are perennially one of the best teams in their conference. Weisse says that the program picked Bethel off of a list of potential opponents for the exhibition based on their records.
While the Golden Eagles didn’t have quite the same say in scheduling Northwest Missouri State on the road in their official regular-season opener, the impact is the same. The Bearcats are the defending D-II national champions, and went 38-0 last season. Fittingly, Minnesota Crookston opens its first season as a Big Deal with a Big Game.
“(Bethel is) traditionally top of their league,” Weisse said. “They're gonna come in with a chip on their shoulder, and it will be a Super Bowl-type game for them. How will we handle that? Because we're no longer a team that teams can come into Crookston and just (win easily). They're gonna have to play well to beat us, and that's nice. But now we're gonna get every team's best shot.”
It wasn’t too long ago that those roles were reversed. But the Golden Eagles aren’t exclusively hunters anymore. Now, the role they play each night fully depends on the opponent in question. This two-game stretch couldn’t be a more appropriate early test for a program on the rise that hopes its mentality has risen with it as well.
Campus is ready. Fans are ready. The league is ready. Now, Weisse just hopes his players are. Last week, the Golden Eagles scrimmaged against Lake Region State, a junior college in Devils Lake, N.D. They didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, which Weisse is confident will be a fluke, but “we certainly found out we had some things we needed to work on and button up.”
“I don’t know if we’re ever ready, as a coach,” Weisse said. “But it will be good to play against somebody else. … I don’t want to put a number on wins or expectation on wins. What we’re gonna talk about is playing one game at a time and keep raising the bar.”
Already, the bar has been raised high enough to where Minnesota Crookston fans traveled in droves to Sioux Falls, S.D. for the NSIC Tournament last year, for which Weisse heavily credits Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause and Vice Chancellor John Hoffman’s support for the program. And thanks to them, thanks to Cleary, thanks to Weisse, the stage has been slowly and methodically set.
It’s just about showtime. The Golden Eagles will have to take it from here.
“Crookston deserves to have competitive teams,” Weisse says. “Crookston deserves to play in the best league in Divison II. Crookston deserves this.”