Anyone who’s watched Minnesota Crookston basketball knows how good Harrison Cleary is. And any coach whose team plays the Golden Eagles knows how much attention they’ll have to pay him.
Harrison Cleary knows this as well as anyone. He says it plainly and without any trace of arrogance. He’s used to opponents throwing the kitchen sink at him. He’s dealt with it for three seasons running. It’s his reality — and thus, it’s Minnesota Crookston’s reality.
Since Cleary’s freshman season, coach Dan Weisse has tried to give him as much freedom as possible, knowing his team would be best off if Cleary was let loose. This means all four other Golden Eagles on the court have to be viewed not just in terms of their own ability, but how they complement Cleary.
Maybe no one does so quite as well as Malcolm Cohen.
Weisse’s offense is based off of Jay Wright and Villanova. In their 2017-18 national championship season, the Wildcats had one of the most efficient units ever with their four-out motion offense, and Weisse believes that Wright’s system fits his personnel at Minnesota Crookston.
Cohen is the Golden Eagles’ starting power forward and second-leading returning scorer. At 6’6 and 210 pounds, he doesn’t exactly have the size desired from a traditional four. But he’s tough, athletic and can shoot — perfectly suited for a system predicated on ball movement and perimeter play.
“I can guard one-through-five, I can play with fives,” Cohen said last Wednesday. “So whenever there's any situation I can be involved in any way, whether I'm scoring, whether I'm setting screens, I’m always gonna help the team.”
On another team with different personnel, Cohen might be boxed in at small forward. At power forward, though, and with Cleary at the point, Cohen goes from merely a solid player to a matchup nightmare.
“He gets more shots at the four because he'll play with Harrison more,” Weisse said last Wednesday. “So they have to pick which guy they want to guard. Malcolm's a great shooter, really spaces the floor really well.”
Weisse’s offense is meant to keep the defense on its toes and shifting constantly, trying to follow the ball. While the defense is caught up doing that, a forward can come down and set a screen for the ball-handler.
When Cohen is the one setting the screen, the defense can try to stop Cleary, a career 44 percent 3-point shooter, from rising and firing from deep or from driving to the rim, where he’s just as likely to kick out to an open teammate as he is to score himself. Or, it can rush to Cohen and take away the pick-and-pop.
If it chooses the latter and doesn’t close out well enough, Cohen has the quickness to blow past them and the strength to finish in traffic. It’s far more than most defenses are equipped for.
“That gives us more space to work,” Weisse said Tuesday. “… You got a really good player, you maybe want to get your two best players in a ball-screen situation.”
Weisse believes that Cohen has all-NSIC potential, and in last Wednesday’s 85-77 exhibition win over Bethel, he more than looked the part. He scored 27 points and drilled six threes, most of which were of increasing difficulty.
Cohen did something else difficult to do — he made Cleary’s 22 points seem quiet. But Cleary played his part in Cohen’s breakout — four of his five assists went to Cohen.
“The whole season, I'm gonna be getting a lot of defensive looks and defensive schemes, so I'm gonna be able to get a lot of people open,” Cleary said. “(Cohen) was getting open, he was setting good screens and he was knocking shots down.”
Added Cohen: “A lot of attention is always on H. He's got a lot of pressure on him, lot of scouting reports to jump that ball screen, make sure he doesn't have the ball. That's why coach puts me in on the ball-screen situations cause if they want to go to him, we have another scorer that's a threat.”
One might look at Minnesota Crookston’s stats from last year, which show Cleary with twice as many points and shot attempts as any of his teammates. They might conclude that the Golden Eagles are a one-man outfit that needs their star guard to drag them across the finish line.
But the general tendency to only see teamwork as balanced scoring doesn’t apply to Minnesota Crookston. The entire team has roles to play, even though those roles are there with one player in mind.
And if Cohen continues to play his role like he did Wednesday, it’s going to be increasingly hard to call the Golden Eagles a one-man army — or stop them from winning.
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