“Obviously, you want to win the game.”
Under normal circumstances, this qualifier wouldn’t be at all necessary. But even as Minnesota Crookston enters 2019-20 with its highest-ever expectations, coach Dan Weisse understands that some bridges might be a bit too much.
Friday afternoon, the Golden Eagles open the regular season in St. Joseph, Mo. against No. 1 Northwest Missouri State. The Bearcats, the defending national champions, are a powerhouse at the Division II level, having won at least 20 games every year since 2011. Unbeaten in 2018-19, they’ve lost five games in the last three seasons.
Northwest Missouri State extended its winning streak to 40 last weekend with two double-digit wins against ranked opponents. The week prior, the Bearcats went to Durham, N.C. in an exhibition and nearly shocked Duke — yes, that Duke — ultimately losing by six.
“It sounds great,” Weisse said Tuesday. “ ‘Hey, we get to play the number one team in the country.’ But then you see, they legitimately are. … This will be a heck of a challenge for us, but we want to put our best forward. It’s one great opportunity for us, that’s for sure.”
No one will bat an eye if the Golden Eagles are blown out Friday. But that also begs the question: what would be a successful result against Northwest Missouri State?
That all comes down to what Weisse wants to see from his team. To him, the Bearcats aren’t just a team, but a measuring stick — the tallest measuring stick in the country.
“We want to hold our guys and they want to hold themselves to a higher standard and keep raising the bar,” Weisse said. “It's hard to think of a better way to do it against a number one team to really see where you're at. Now win, lose or draw, this game, this is a great team to learn from.”
There’s plenty Minnesota Crookston can learn on Friday. For one, its communication, particularly on defense, has been subpar, according to Weisse. The Golden Eagles don’t talk as much as Weisse would like them to, leading to a lack of energy that often manifests in a lack of rebounding and ability to provide solid help defense.
“We gotta make sure we don't get rattled, because there will be times this team will certainly go on a run,” Weisse said. “You could be guarding a guy in a great position, you're there exactly where coach wants you to be and they still make a shot. That will happen against a team like this, so we gotta get through those types of things.”
If Minnesota Crookston does that, it might be enough to avoid getting run off the court. Weisse is excited about his team’s youth and depth, and said that on Monday that his scout team, made mostly of freshman, more than held their own against the starters. The starting lineup looks set with Harrison Cleary, Brian Sitzmann, Ibu Jassey Demba, Malcolm Cohen and Javier Nicolau, but Ben Juhl, Chase Johnson and Reed Miller and maybe Tyrese Shines and Quintin Winterfeldt make up a capable reserve unit.
This rapid development could come in handy against the Bearcats, whose lone “weakness” might be their depth. Their rotation is just six deep, and their top two players, Ryan Hawkins and Trevor Hudgins, almost never leave the court.
But that might be for the best. This season, Hawkins has scored 68 points in two games, while Hudgins has averaged 21.5 points and eight assists. The Bearcats are shooting 58 percent from the field, 51 percent from deep and 85 percent from the line.
Northwest Missouri State might be the most dominant team at any level of college basketball right now, and it is for a reason.
“We’re looking to compete for 40 minutes,” Weisse said. “We'll see how the game goes, there will be highs and lows, we'd love to be there right at the end and have a chance.”
If you’re looking for a mission statement from Minnesota Crookston, that would suffice. But everything has to go right first.
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