During the season’s first two weeks, the Minnesota Crookston men’s basketball team did plenty that would lead you to believe it can meet its high expectations, and plenty to guide you toward the opposite conclusion.
Dan Weisse, of course, believes that his team left things on the table even last season, when the Golden Eagles set a program record for wins. So you can guess what the UMC coach is more focused on.
“We need to play better, period, if we wanna get to where we wanna get to,” Weisse said Monday.
Minnesota Crookston sits at 2-2 as it prepares for its home and NSIC opener against Bemidji State this Thursday. That record has as diverse a composition as you can get through four games: a down-to-the-wire battle with No. 1 Northwest Missouri State, a dominant road win over a solid Missouri Western team, a gutty win over improved Concordia-St. Paul and a blowout loss to Wisconsin-Parkside.
Weisse, thusly, is of multiple minds. He knows his team needs to improve, and he’s not one to settle for anything less than a win in every game. But against the competition the Golden Eagles have played, “maybe 2-2’s not so bad.”
“We scheduled much tougher this year to get ready for conference because we think we're better, but that doesn't mean anything,” Weisse said. “We gotta go play for 40 minutes, and that's where the story will tell itself.”
If “playing for 40 minutes” is too vague for your taste, you can look at a stat sheet. Immediately, you’ll see some areas for improvement, and rest assured Weisse is aware of them too.
Minnesota Crookston is being outrebounded by over 10 per game, and 39 percent of its scoring has come from one player. Those problems have been consistent, but other deficiencies have been harder to predict.
It isn’t particularly surprising that Harrison Cleary leads the Golden Eagles in scoring, averaging 26.5 points with only one other player (Brian Sitzmann) even in double figures. Throughout his career, Cleary’s scoring prowess has been borne out of equal parts necessity and being the best player on the court just about every game.
But this season, UMC has a few more contributors than in years past. That means Cleary has to be not just a dominant scorer, but a facilitator at point guard.
“When we were really, really good, like against Missouri Western, it was when other guys were stepping up: Malcolm Cohens, Brian Sitzmanns, Ben Juhls,” Weisse said. “ … I'm not gonna ever take an open look ever away from Harrison, I'm not gonna take away his aggressiveness, because when he's good, we're good. But we gotta have other guys also step up to have the freedom to say, okay, I can take this shot and make this shot.”
Cleary, however, has been the best and by far most consistent offensive player through four games. Malcolm Cohen, who scored 27 points in the exhibition win over Bethel, is shooting just 26 percent so far. Ben Juhl’s scoring average has dropped from 8.2 to 5.5. The Golden Eagles’ big men, Javier Nicolau and Chase Johnson, are shooting just 42 percent. Ibu Jassey Demba has started every game but hasn’t hit a shot yet.
“We got some pieces,” Weisse said. “Our bullets are in the chamber, as one coach told me. But it's gotta be every guy every night. We're not a Mankato where we can pick up for a couple pieces.”
When everything’s working, Minnesota Crookston’s capable of going nuclear, like it did during a 19-0 run against Missouri Western on the way to a 47-29 halftime lead. But last weekend, the Golden Eagles surrendered a 15-2 game-opening run against Concordia, and were outscored 16-2 to start the second half against Parkside.
“If we're all consistent players, then we're gonna be a heck of a team,” Weisse said. “But it's all talk.”
Beavers get buckets
If you like offense, you’re going to want to get to Lysaker Gymnasium at 6 p.m. on Thursday.
Bemidji State has scored over 100 points in each of its three games. Granted, none of those games have come against a Division II opponent and one was an exhibition. But at a certain level, scoring is scoring, and the Beavers can do just that.
Nick Wagner, a JUCO transfer who once played for D-I Northern Illinois, averages 31 points and has hit 14 threes on 56 percent shooting. Jassey Demba will have his hands full with Wagner, but Cleary and Sitzmann are under just as much pressure: senior point guard Ja Morgan is averaging a near double-double with points and assists, while Jacob Hoffman is a pure shooter who is hitting 67 percent from deep.
“I see them very similar to us, as far as personnel,” Weisse said. “It's gonna be a battle.”
It’s tempting to look at Bemidji State and see what Minnesota Crookston could be right now if it had scheduled a few cupcakes to start the year: an offensive triggerman putting up eye-popping numbers, lethal shooters all over the court and bigs who chip in efficiently when needed. Thursday will put that idea to the test.
Sitzmann evolving on offense
While most of the Golden Eagles’ returners have seen their numbers slightly decrease from last year, Sitzmann has done the opposite. In fact, he’s looked well on his way to making The Leap.
Sitzmann impressed as a 3-and-D shooting guard as a redshirt freshman. This year, though, he’s averaged 12.5 points per game on 47 percent shooting and 50 percent from outside, and has shown an increased willingness and ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own offense. Sitzmann has already shot 13 free throws, nearly one-third of what he did last season.
“He’s been good spotting up from three, but he also can take the ball to the hole,” Weisse said. “He needs to work on his handling, but he can get two to three dribbles in and get it to the rim. Any more than that can get a little chaotic.”
Evolving into a true all-around scoring threat isn’t an easy next step to take. But Sitzmann’s arrived at a point where he can realistically think about taking it, and perhaps quicker than expected.
Jassey Demba still adjusting
The transfer from Monroe College (N.Y.) was always going to have a limited role on offense. But Minnesota Crookston would surely like its starting small forward to take more than five shots in 63 minutes — and make more than zero.
“If a team's gonna leave him open he's gotta be able to make one of three from the 3-point line,” Weisse said. “ … He's shown he can in practice, he just hasn't done it in a game.”
Weisse believes it takes transfers at least a semester to fully get acclimated, and not just on offense — Jassey Demba’s strength, on the defensive end, also comes tempered by the fact that Monroe played an up-tempo, pressing style, which the Golden Eagles rarely do.
But that doesn’t mean that Jassey Demba can’t be a key player on both ends. If he keeps the ball moving and out of the hands of the defense, sets screens, makes cuts and hits the shots he’s supposed to, the Golden Eagles won’t have many problems.
“He can play a huge role for us rebounding the basketball, playing really good defense,” Weisse said. “If he can focus on those two things and taking care of the ball on offense, it's a huge role for us.”
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