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Minnesota Crookston men's basketball team overview

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Tyrese Shines averaged 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds as a freshman for Minnesota Crookston last season.

The long wait is almost over for the Minnesota Crookston men's basketball team.

The Golden Eagles will open their 2021 season on Saturday, Jan. 2 when they host Concordia-St. Paul. They'll play a 16-game schedule in eight weeks before the NSIC Tournament the final week of February.

UMC is looking to improve on an 11-18 overall and 7-15 conference record and outperform its projected eighth-place finish in the NSIC North (as picked by the division's coaches). While outside expectations are low for a new-look Golden Eagle team, they believe they're capable of more — and either way, with the season having been delayed over two months, they're just happy to get the chance to prove it.

Here's what to watch for from Minnesota Crookston this winter:

Roster breakdown

Any team breaking in 12 newcomers is rife with uncertainty. But the Golden Eagles do have some carryover from last year.

Brian Sitzmann and Ibu Jassey Demba started 27 and 26 games, respectively, last year, and are the Golden Eagles' only returning starters. As UMC transitions from one core group to the next, expect Sitzmann and Jassey Demba to lead the way.

A 6-foot-4 redshirt junior, Sitzmann was a prototypical "3-and-D" guard his first two seasons, averaging 7.0 and 7.4 points per game. Without Harrison Cleary and his 26.6 points per game, Sitzmann will likely need to step up as an offensive aggressor and shot creator while still playing lockup defense.

Jassey Demba (5.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg in 2019-20) came to Crookston with a hyper-athletic, physical 6-foot-7 frame and potential to be a defensive stopper on the wing. But once on campus, his shooting stood out: he hit 33 of 82 3-pointers (a team-high 40.2 percent), including a game-winner at Minnesota State Moorhead in December.

Of the newcomers, junior Georges Darwiche appears to be the safest bet. The Romanian national played his first two seasons at Siena before transferring after a coaching change there. Darwiche has been described as an "unselfish," skilled point guard by UMC coach Dan Weisse, who's raved about his Division I pedigree — at Siena, Darwiche was on a team that won the 2019-20 MAAC regular-season title, and played alongside MAAC Player of the Year Jalen Pickett.

Sitzmann and Darwiche headline the UMC backcourt along with ascending sophomore Tyrese Shines, a 6-foot-3 combo guard who came on during the second half of the season. Shines ended up fifth on the team in scoring (6.6 ppg), fueled by outbursts against Minnesota State Moorhead, Upper Iowa and Minot State where he showed off a slashing offensive game and improving jumper. He's also a solid defender and strong rebounder for a guard. (Shines underwent back surgery over the summer, and while he is cleared to play, Weisse said Wednesday that he isn't quite 100 percent.)

Also figuring to make noise are Ethan Channel, Josh Dilling and Zach Westphal. Channel, a 6-foot-4 junior, is a high-scoring JUCO transfer from Oregon who, according to Weisse, brings explosiveness which the Golden Eagles have rarely had on the perimeter. Dilling's game is more subtle: the 6-foot-4 freshman from Wisconsin has the size to play anywhere from point guard to small forward, and the scoring and passing ability of, in his words, a "very knock-off version of Luka Doncic." Westphal, a 6-foot-2 redshirt sophomore, averaged 1.9 points per game in limited minutes for UMC last season.

Chandler Reeck, Jaylen James and Silas Xia round out the backcourt. Reeck averaged four rebounds, four assists and two steals per game as a high school senior at Edina H.S., and James, a freshman from Apple Valley, has been described as one of the Golden Eagles' best shooters. Xia is a transfer from Santa Ana College and native of China.

Out on the wings, the Golden Eagles figure to rely on Jassey Demba, as well as Quintin Winterfeldt and Leonard Dixon. Winterfeldt, who averaged 2.4 points per game as a freshman, is an athletic, 6-foot-4 sophomore who can get to the rim. Dixon, a 6-foot-7 junior, should be among the team's leading marksmen: he shot 44 percent from 3-point range at Mount Hood C.C. last season.

Also on the wing is Sam Tiley, who was Minnesota Crookston's last signee this spring, coming to UMC by way of Eastern Wyoming College. Weisse has described the 6-foot-4 Tiley as a "tough-nosed" player.

UMC will also look very different down low this season, where 6-foot-7 Morgan Carter appears likely to replace the 6-foot-10 Javier Nicolau. The Welshman, who played last season at Hillsborough C.C. in Florida, "brings some finesse" and an inside-out game, according to Weisse. The 6-foot-8 George Blaj-Voinescu, a Romanian international and sophomore JUCO transfer, has been described as a more physical post presence to complement Carter.

Freshmen posts Hunter Lyman, from Fargo, and Rafael Carton, from Spain, might also factor in some. The 6-foot-8 Lyman, who Weisse called possibly UMC's only "true center" in May, is still growing into his body but offers enticing potential. Weisse sees the 6-foot-7 Carton as a pick-and-pop threat who, at 230 pounds, might be able to bang inside a bit.

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Balanced scoring: It's a given that Minnesota Crookston's offense will look different after Harrison Cleary, the program's all-time leading scorer, graduated. That starts with his replacement at point guard: while Cleary was a ball-dominant attacker, Darwiche would prefer to be a distributor first while picking his spots carefully.

Darwiche will create plenty of looks with his passing, but shot creating, which fell almost entirely to Cleary last season, will be a shared responsibility. Sitzmann will likely put the ball on the floor more this season, while that's the focal point of Shines, Channel and Winterfeldt's games. Meanwhile, the 6-foot-7 Dixon has the height to get an open look over anyone and create and knock down shots on the perimeter.

The Golden Eagles' leading scorer this season is anyone's guess, but they figure to score some points at the very least. After all, their offense (73.8 ppg) wasn't really their main problem last season.

Defensive improvement: No one could miss against UMC last season. The Golden Eagles surrendered nearly 80 points per game (82 in conference play), allowing opponents to shoot nearly 50 percent from the field and 41 percent from behind the 3-point line.

Improved depth should help. UMC ended last season with just 10 players, but with a rotation that could potentially go 11 or 12 deep, the Golden Eagles should be able to preserve more energy for defense. Weisse also thinks his team might be mentally tougher than it was last season.

Still, Minnesota Crookston will have to communicate much better in 2021: Weisse said his team was "probably the quietest team in the country" last season. Whether or not he was exaggerating somewhat, the Golden Eagles left plenty of outside shots and layups open.

NSIC North breakdown

Here's a look at the teams UMC will compete with for a division title this season (the NSIC is not crowning an overall conference regular-season champion).

Northern State ran through the conference last year, going 26-6 overall and 18-4 in NSIC play in winning both the regular season and tournament championships. The Golden Eagles saw just how good the Wolves were, losing to them by scores of 101-58 and 97-60 last season. With four of their five top scorers back, including center Parker Fox (19.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and guard Mason Stark (15.8 ppg), NSU is still the team to beat.

UMC swept Minnesota State Moorhead last season, but the Dragons (19-12 last season) return one of the most dangerous backcourt trios in the conference in Gavin Baumgartner (18.4 ppg), Bryce Irsfeld (11.7 ppg) and Johnny Beeninga (42.6 3-point percentage, 3.4 apg). Bemidji State (14-13 last year), picked third behind NSU and MSUM in the North, returns shooting guard Nick Wagner (14.7 ppg, 41.0 3pt%) and forward Derek Thompson (14.1 ppg).

Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State, which each swept UMC last year, were tied for fourth in the preseason poll. The Bulldogs return Drew Blair (15.9 ppg) from last year's 22-9 team, but lost three other double-digit scorers, including NSIC Player of the Year Brandon Meyer (23.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg). The Huskies, after losing Trevon Marshall (21.5 ppg) to graduation, look to improve on a 14-15 record behind guard Anthony Roberts (13.9 ppg).

University of Mary and Minot State were voted sixth and seventh, respectively. The Marauders (12-17 last year) will be led by senior big man Matthew Kreklow (14.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg), while the Beavers (10-19) have a star in senior point guard Max Cody (15.1 ppg, 6.4 apg).

Schedule 

Jan. 2-3: vs. Concordia-St. Paul* (1:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m.)

Jan. 8-9: vs. Minnesota State Moorhead (5:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m.)

Jan. 15-16: at Northern State (7 p.m., 4 p.m.)

Jan. 22-23: vs. Minot State (5:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m.)

Jan. 29-30: at University of Mary (6 p.m., 4 p.m.)

Feb. 5-6: at Minnesota Duluth (6 p.m., 4 p.m.)

Feb. 12-13: vs. St. Cloud State (5:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m.)

Feb. 19-20: at Bemidji State (6 p.m., 3:30 p.m.)

*non-conference

All games are streaming on https://goldeneaglesports.com.

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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