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After massive roster turnover, Golden Eagles look to forge new identity

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Ibu Jassey Demba takes a shot in a game against the University of Mary on Jan. 25, 2020. Jassey Demba is the lone senior on the Minnesota Crookston men's basketball team.

The Minnesota Crookston men's basketball team that takes the court on Jan. 2 against Concordia-St. Paul will be almost unrecognizable.

For the last four seasons, the Golden Eagles were led by Harrison Cleary, a superstar and gravitational force of the highest order. Cleary defined and dominated every aspect of UMC basketball. The program's all-time leading scorer, the 6-foot-1 guard averaged 23.7 points per game for his career. That's 32 percent of the Golden Eagles' entire offense over that span.

Cleary, though, is now playing professional basketball in Spain. He's not the only significant loss for Minnesota Crookston, either: seniors Malcolm Cohen and Javier Nicolau graduated, while redshirt junior Chase Johnson and redshirt sophomore Zac Olson left the team after last season. Key players Ben Juhl and Reed Miller departed during the season. 

All told, the Golden Eagles bring back just five players, 39 percent of their minutes, and less than 30 percent of their scoring, rebounding, assists and shot attempts from 2019-20.

It's worth revisiting the expectations that hovered over the program last year. After UMC's best season as a DII member — a 17-16 season in which it reached the NSIC quarterfinals — it was picked to finish seventh out of 16 teams in the conference. Instead, Cleary's brilliance couldn't save the Golden Eagles from falling to 11-18 and 7-15 in conference play, wrapped up by a blowout loss in the conference tournament.

Without the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference's all-time leading scorer and so many other contributors, it makes sense that UMC has faded from view. The Golden Eagles were tabbed last in the NSIC North earlier this month.

"There might be some other teams that look around and are like, 'Well, Harrison's gone, so they're gonna take a dip,' " UMC coach Dan Weisse said earlier this month. "But we're looking at it as, we're gonna prove these guys wrong. We're gonna be better than we were last year."

The Golden Eagles didn't just fall short of outside expectations last year: on multiple occasions, Weisse has admitted he was disappointed with the most recent campaign. Last year's preseason polls weren't just overinflated hype: in Weisse's view, UMC really could have been that good, or better.

So Weisse sees 2021 as a chance to push the reset button. With the cornerstones of his past teams gone, it's time to start building a new foundation — one that will most likely look much different from the previous one.

For one, there's no Cleary. Minnesota Crookston's top returning scorer, redshirt junior guard Brian Sitzmann, averaged just 7.4 points per game. Rather than forcing Sitzmann or another player into Cleary's ball-dominant role, Weisse hopes to rely on a bevy of scoring options. Defenses won't need to key in hard on one player, but they also won't be able to ignore the other four.

It wasn't a given that UMC would have two double-digit scorers in any game last season. But with Sitzmann, Tyrese Shines, Leonard Dixon and Ethan Channel, to name a handful, the Golden Eagles might be able to count on three or four any given night.

"It's gonna be by committee," Weisse said. "I don't think we have an elite scorer by any means, but I think we got more guys that can score."

On defense, Weisse has lingered on a few choice stats. The Golden Eagles allowed nearly 80 points per game last year (82 in NSIC play), and teams shot nearly 50 percent from the field and 41 percent from three against them. 

Weisse knows those numbers have to improve, and he's optimistic that they will. He thinks he has more physical players — big men, in particular — than in the past. In preseason practices, he's noticed his players communicate much more effectively than a year ago.

"We had probably the quietest team in the country last year," Weisse said. "(This year), they work together. When something goes awry, they'll talk to each other about it and correct it."

Here, too, depth plays a role. The Golden Eagles' roster at the end of last season numbered just 10 players. This often meant a sapped squad, which reared its ugly head on defense in particular.

When breaking down his roster, Weisse didn't need much time to rattle off 10-plus players he thinks can make the rotation. There's Sitzmann, Shines, Channel, Georges Darwiche, Josh Dilling, Zach Westphal in the backcourt. Ibu Jassey Demba, Leonard Dixon, Quintin Winterfeldt on the wings. Morgan Carter, Georges Blaj-Voinescu, Rafael Carton down low.

As long as there's competition, rather than confusion, over roles, Weisse thinks this depth can absolutely be a plus.

"We've got some interchangeable parts," he said. "If we got a guy not playing up to his capability, there's another guy we can put in. Maybe we haven't done that in the past. ... We're not gonna have guys pouting. They get along really well, but they'll also challenge each other and get after each other."

While the returners — Jassey Demba, Shines, Sitzmann, Winterfeldt, Westphal — should still be expected to lead the way, it's the 12 newcomers that can determine the Golden Eagles' ceiling. It's a mix of freshmen who have room to develop still (Dilling, Carton, Hunter Lyman, to name a few), and transfers such as Darwiche, Dixon and Channel who are ready to step in and contribute right away.

"They'll rally for each other, they'll cheer for each other, they don't care who gets the credit," Weisse said. "You would never guess we brought in 12 new players (with) how they hang around and get along."

It's not a fully-fledged rebuild — Weisse has been careful to not use that word — as evidenced by the seven transfers in the class. Instead, it's an effort to create a roster that can compete now and only improve in the future.

Whatever you call it, though, it's clear the page has turned from one chapter of Minnesota Crookston men's basketball to the next.

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730 or sports editor Jacob Shames at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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