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Howie: Bulldogs eye men’s hoops opener against Winona

The Twin Ports has a strong appetite for competitive college basketball, Bulldog men’s basketball coach Justin Wieck said in a phone interview earlier this week.

“We’ve seen that hunger from our fans and alumni base over the last two years, as we’ve battled down the stretch for a conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth,” said Wieck, who has guided the Bulldogs to a 39-19 overall record and consecutive third-place finishes in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in his first two seasons. “Everyone has been on board since day one from the top down administrative wise — Josh (Berlo, Athletic Director), Karen (Stromme, Senior Associate Athletic Director), Gary (Holquist, Senior Development Officer and former Bulldogs men’s basketball head coach). Really, everybody in our department has a hunger for basketball to be successful.”

UMD had won only 16 total games in the two seasons before Wieck arrived, and the Bulldogs have responded with 17 and 22 win seasons.

“I think these first two years of success has been a breath of fresh air in our athletic department,” said Wieck, a former walk-on at Iowa who earned a scholarship in his senior year. “Our challenge now is to continue to be good and hopefully be better. Our ultimate goals are to win a conference title and advance to the NCAA tournament. We haven’t quite made it there yet. But I know over the next three, four years with this group of guys, we’ve got a chance to put together something pretty special here.”

The Bulldogs will open Jan. 2-3 against Winona State at Romano Gym, launching a pandemic-shorted 16 game regular season schedule that includes 14 games against North Division opponents in back-to-back days at one location.

The Bulldogs, who graduated team scoring and rebounding leader Brandon Myer (23.7 points, 9.7 rebounds per game) and Alex Illikainen (14.0, 6.7), will build around sophomore guard Drew Blair, an All-NSIC second-team selection who averaged 15.9 points a game last season, and sixth-man Jack Middleton (4.4 points per-game), among a host of elite newcomers.

“We attacked the recruiting trail and were ultra-successful,” said Wieck. “A lot of guys in our 2020 recruiting class were borderline DI, DII guys, and some guys had DI offers and decided to come here. Other guys are DI transfers. Charlie Katona, Cole Nicholson, Austin Andrews, Joshua Brown, those are top-notch DII players coming in. We knew we’d be really young this season, and now it’s a matter of getting these ultra-talented, hard-working young guys experience and seeing how long it takes for us to be successful.”

“Our expectation is to be one of the best teams in our league every year. We’ve been there the first two years. By no means are we rolling into the season saying it’s going to be a rebuilding year. These guys will compete and expect to win. It’s one of the primary reasons why these guys came here.”

Bulldogs Bites

The NSIC North Division preseason coaches’ poll: 1. Northern State; 2. MSU Moorhead; 3. Bemidji State 4 (tie) Bulldogs, St. Cloud State; 6. University of Mary; 7. Minot State; 8. University of Minnesota Crookston.

The Bulldogs’ eye-popping 2021 recruiting class includes Duluth East’s 6-9 back-to-the-basket center Noah Paulson and 6-6 power forward Mattie Thompson, and dynamic 6-0 point guard Joshua Strong of Brooklyn Park, Minn. Paulson is ranked No. 13 among Minnesota senior prospects, according to Prep Hoops Minnesota, with Strong at No. 16 and Thompson No. 19.

Published in Columns Quote Me, Howie

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