It was never really about the press.
Sure, it worked — Minnesota Crookston men’s basketball cut a 23-point deficit to single digits in last Saturday’s second half in large part because it went to a full-court defense to stifle Minnesota Duluth. But more than anything, Dan Weisse was looking for something different.
“It’s about playing with the energy we feel we lack sometimes,” the Golden Eagles’ head coach said Wednesday. “Something’s gotta change. That could help us be better.”
UMC (7-7, 3-5 NSIC) has lost five out of its last six games to fall into sixth place in the NSIC North. It doesn’t matter that four of those games were on the road in a notoriously difficult league, or that the five teams UMC lost to are all in the top six of the conference. It just isn’t where any of the Golden Eagles want, or expect, to be.
“We’re not shooting the ball particularly well right now,” Weisse said. “Our energy for 40 minutes — I don’t know if it’s because we’re on the road, but it really shouldn’t matter, you control your energy. There’s been swings in the game we don’t recover from.”
Going to a pressure defense against the division-leading Bulldogs seemed to be an antidote. Normally, it’s a look that the Golden Eagles keep in their back pocket — Weisse remembers employing it earlier in the season, but no more than once. But for the limited amount of reps, UMC executed as well as Weisse could have asked for, forcing UMD into eight second-half turnovers as opposed to four in the first half.
Corollary to the press is a more up-tempo offense. By forcing opposing ball-handlers into tough decisions and ideally turnovers, the Golden Eagles naturally sped up the game and generated more possessions on offense, many coming in transition.
“It was more about creating our own energy,” Weisse said. “ … Now, we’re not completely changing our identity. But what we’re trying to do is create better looks, have the opponents’ offense maybe take quicker shots or shots they normally wouldn’t take.”
Weisse hopes to play more in transition this weekend, in games against Northern State and Minnesota State Moorhead. Even without seeing it in action last Saturday, it’s easy to see the logic: UMC has one of the nation’s best players in Harrison Cleary (Sr., G), averaging 29.2 points per game, to lead the break, and a number of capable outside shooters and good athletes including Malcolm Cohen (R-Sr., G/F), Brian Sitzmann (R-So., G) and Ibu Jassey Demba (Jr., F).
The idea? Let your best players make plays.
“There’s really good players and good coaches (in the NSIC), and they’re gonna do their best to get the ball out of (Cleary’s) hands or make it as difficult as possible for him when he has the ball in his hands,” Weisse said. “... It’s not a helter-skelter style, but I do think if we don’t let the defense get set, Harrison will be freed up. They won’t be able to get their defense set, and I think that will help Harrison and our other guys.”
But for all the benefits that Weisse thinks playing faster can achieve, it’s a reactive choice. A 1-5 record since Dec. 7 has forced the Golden Eagles to take a look at themselves in the mirror, and what they’ve seen, according to Weisse, is a lethargic team that isn’t playing up to its full potential.
“We’ve had a rough stretch here,” Weisse said. “They need to play better, and I need to coach better, and we just need to be better.”
Seems simple, doesn’t it?
With Juhl’s transfer, Shines stepping into important role
Everything was going according to plan for Ben Juhl.
Juhl started 25 of 29 games as a freshman in 2017-18, averaging 11.0 points per game. He looked well on his way to building on that as a sophomore with 68 points through his first five games.
Injuries, however, started to get in the way, and Juhl ended up missing eight games. By Jan. 18, Sitzmann had taken Juhl’s starting spot for good, and Juhl scored just 51 points over the season’s final 10 games.
“When Ben came back he wasn't quite the same,” Weisse said. “Maybe he came back a bit too early, but Brian was doing a great job.”
The story remained the same this season. Sitzmann continued to assert himself as UMC’s starting shooting guard, while Juhl averaged just 4.4 points through the first five games. Soon after the fifth, an 88-72 win over Bemidji State on Nov. 21, Juhl walked into Weisse’s office and told him of his intentions to transfer, in what Weisse called a “tough” but “cordial” meeting.
Juhl, who lives with Sitzmann, will finish the semester at Minnesota Crookston before playing at another school his senior year. Weisse hasn’t had contact with Juhl since his decision, but he expects him to transfer closer to his home in Iowa.
“I didn’t want him to leave,” Weisse said. “But Tyrese Shines has done a really good job of stepping up.”
Shines, a freshman from Illinois, averaged just 3.4 minutes per game before Juhl’s transfer. Since then, he’s essentially received all of Juhl’s minutes, as well as spelling Cleary on the rare occasion the country’s top scorer needs a break. His statistics in that span — 17.6 minutes, 3.4 points and 2.0 rebounds per game — bely the development he’s made.
“He’s learning,” Weisse said. “But he’s probably our most athletic guard. He can shoot the outside shot, he’s a quality driver, quality defender. We get on him about being too casual sometimes, and that’s somewhat typical for a high school kid because you can’t let up an inch in a college game. But he’s really bought in, and he understands his role.”
Even before Shines stepped into the regular rotation, Weisse had praise for his defense, rebounding and physical attributes. But Weisse has seen him take great strides as an outside shooter, as well as in his overall adjustment to the flow of the college game.
“He can guard pretty much any perimeter player, and offensively he's playing within himself,” Weisse said. “He's not trying to do anything he can't do. … He’s a big part of it right now and he’s only gonna be a bigger part of this.”
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