Justin Wieck’s relationship with Drew Blair began long before Wieck arrived on the Minnesota Duluth campus as the new UMD men’s basketball coach.
While an assistant at Minnesota State-Moorhead, Wieck recruited Blair out of Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
After graduating in 2018, Blair attended NCAA Division II power Northwest Missouri State before transferring to UMD, joining the Bulldogs for the 2019 spring semester.
While Wieck had seen Blair enough to know he was good, it turned out, to paraphrase the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit, Wieck hadn’t seen nothing yet.
Blair — in his collegiate debut — scored 29 points in the Bulldogs’ 115-109 victory over nationally ninth-ranked Southern Nazarene in last year’s season opener.
“I was like, ‘Alright, this dude can really play,’” Wieck recalled, addressing the media via Zoom Wednesday. “That was a really good surprise, a really good extra jolt for our team. We had a ton of seniors last year where we kind of knew exactly what we had in those guys, but to be able to have a guy that can bring that scoring punch, bring his length on the wing for us, was kind of that factor that got us over the hump last year.”
Now, Blair is back. While only a redshirt sophomore, the 6-foot-5 guard is already a leader on a new-look UMD team that is ridiculously young, with no seniors and just one junior.
Blair will lead the Bulldogs into their NSIC season opener at 4 p.m. today against an experienced Winona State team at Romano Gym.
“There’s just a level of excitement with us,” Blair said. “As far as Winona State goes, we know they’re a top defensive team. We started to scout them a little bit, but for the last three or four months, we’ve been focusing on ourselves. If we go out there and play our game we’re going to have a chance to compete with anybody. It’ll be exciting to go out there and finally play against an opponent after all these months grinding in practice.”
UMD is coming off a 22-9 season and 15-7 mark in the NSIC but graduated 67 percent of the scoring from that team, including all-time leading scorer Brandon Myer of Superior and Alex Illikainen of Grand Rapids.
But if Blair proved anything last year, it’s that you can play well right out of the gate.
Blair averaged 15.9 points per game, second to Myer’s 27.3, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. He also averaged 4.4 rebounds per game and was second on the team with 36 steals, earning All-NSIC Second Team honors.
Not a complete shock from a guy who led Stevens Point Area Senior High to a pair of Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 championships during his prep career, averaging 28.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists his senior season, but big prep numbers don’t always transfer well to the collegiate level.
“It’s always hard to know what freshmen are going to bring that first year,” Wieck said. “Drew was a fantastic surprise in one sense, for how productive he was. Super crafty player, he can score in a ton of different ways. Obviously, he can really shoot the basketball, but he can also get to the rim, with herky-jerky finishes at the rim sometimes. That stuff’s hard to guard, when the defense doesn’t quite know what he’s going to do. He’s got that freedom, he’s got that knack for just putting the ball in the bucket.”
Expect Blair’s numbers to increase this year as he’ll be an offensive focal point, but the talent cupboard isn’t bare. It’s just young and inexperienced.
Wieck jokingly called his returners “those older guys.” They’re sophomores and junior guard Mason Steffen — that’s it.
“These guys really didn’t have to score (last year), but they’re all very capable,” Wieck said. “They’re going into totally different roles this season. They’ve been here and know what our program is about, and what it means to compete in this league. We’re going to lean on them.
“No doubt, it’s going to look a lot different than the veteran-led teams the last two years. We kind of knew this was coming, and we did a good job on the recruiting trail. We’ve got some good young talent.”
And it’s not like some of the returners can’t play. When you’re stuck behind Myer, Illikainen, sharpshooter Logan Rohrscheib and point guard Trevor Entwisle — all seniors last year — there’s only so many shots, and minutes, to go around. This year’s team will likely be more balanced.
Beside Steffen, who averaged 1.5 ppg in eight minutes per game, another returner Wieck mentioned was sophomore guard Jack Middleton, who averaged 4.4 points and 1.8 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per game last season.
Among the freshmen, 6-6 forwards Charlie Katona (Shakopee, Minnesota) and Cole Nicholson (Chaska, Minnesota) and 6-4 guard Joshua Brown (Minneapolis), who Wieck called a terrific shooter, could be names UMD basketball fans maybe haven’t heard of, but are about to.
“We’ve got a ton of really talented freshmen,” Wieck said. “But like all freshmen, they’ll go up and down a little bit, but they’re all really long and athletic guys, guys that can score the ball and play extremely hard. We’re really excited about our team this year and where we’ll be in the future.”