College men’s basketball preview: Andrews, UMD as good as ever
NSIC North Division Player of the Year looking tough after having a banner season cut short last winter.
DULUTH — Minnesota Duluth forward Austin Andrews doesn’t know exactly what happened last February, whether he was going for a rebound or trying to block a shot, and he sure isn’t about to watch the tape to figure out the specifics.
It's too painful.
Andrews landed awkwardly on his left foot and his knee gave out.
This injury hurt about as bad as it looked — so bad, in fact, that Andrews said he went into shock just by the mere sight of it. It was Joe Theismann-esque.
“I looked down at my knee right away and saw that the kneecap wasn’t where it was supposed to be,” Andrews said.
Yes, that would make even the heartiest of folks cringe. Unfortunately for Andrews and the Bulldogs, the tear to the medial patellofemoral ligament, or MPFL, the small ligament that holds your kneecap in place, ended his 2021-22 season just a bit short. But the NSIC North Division Preseason Player of the Year is back for 2022-23.
“It was honestly the best-case scenario considering what happened,” Andrews said. “I didn’t need surgery because of where the tear was, so I was able to do rehab and strengthen it back up. I’m feeling great now. I have no brace and don’t notice it at all. I feel really good and I’m just glad I’m back and ready to go for this season.”
Andrews, a 6-foot-6 junior who still has two years remaining after this season, was named NSIC North Division Player of the Year last year after averaging 18.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists in leading the Bulldogs to a 25-6 record and first berth in the NCAA Division II tournament since 2003.
However, Andrews injured his left knee in the first half of the NSIC tournament semifinals Feb. 28 at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. UMD still held on to defeat Upper Iowa 76-73, but without Andrews lost their next two games, 81-73 to Minnesota State-Moorhead in the NSIC tournament championship game, and then 83-73 to Washburn in the first round of the NCAA Central Region tournament.
“Austin is kind of the quarterback of our offense, so when you’re missing that quarterback out there, it just makes everything more challenging,” UMD coach Justin Wieck said. “Our guys fought. I thought we played two really hard-fought games without him and had a chance to win, but there’s no doubt we’re a better team when he’s out there.
“He’s good on the block, he can pass, he plays a little bit on the perimeter in our offense. Everything runs through him offensively for us. We’ve got a ton of other good players around him, but he really helps us space out our offense a little bit on that end of the floor.”
Wieck, just starting his fifth season at UMD, returns a team that hardly lost anybody from last year, when the Bulldogs started the season a program-best 16-0 and reached No. 5 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches NCAA Division II poll, their highest ever. They were ranked No. 7 in this year’s preseason national poll, also believed to be their best ever.
All five starters — Andrews, guards Drew Blair (18.6 points per game), Joshua Brown (15.1 ppg) and Jack Middleton (10.5 ppg) and forward Charlie Katona (11.4 ppg) — are all back, as well as their top bench players in guard Joshua Strong and forward Lincoln Meister.
All those players have at least another year of eligibility left after this season. If COVID had to happen, as Wieck said, it was perfect timing for UMD as the Bulldogs were so young then, anyway.
In addition to all those returners, 6-foot-7 forward Mattie Thompson, a 2021 Duluth East graduate who was redshirted last year, has already contributed solid minutes off the bench for the Bulldogs, who are 2-0 going into this weekend’s Small College Basketball Champions Classic in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
“We definitely upped our competition level with our schedule, so the record might not stay the same, but there’s no doubt we’re a better team than we were last year,” Wieck said. “Just like everybody, you have to play well and you have to be good on defense, which is something we’ll continue to work on, but we’ve got a ton of offensive firepower. I’ll put our guys up against anybody. I like where we’re at and we have a chance to have another really special year.”
Perhaps even more special, and it all starts with Andrews.
While his teammates might be motivated by that loss to Washburn, Andrews’ motivation goes beyond that.
“It’s no fun sitting there and knowing you can’t play, especially when you’re such a big part of the team and had such a great year,” Andrews said. “It was really tough.
“I’m not taking any practice, any workout, anything for granted because just like last year it can be gone in the blink of an eye. You never know how bad something can get. It’s definitely changed my mindset. I’m a lot more thankful just for being able to play every single day.”
Saints on the mend
Veteran St. Scholastica men’s basketball coach David Staniger was asked the other day how he was doing, and rather glumly said, “‘Hanging in there.”
The same could be said of his team. Barely.
Hearing Staniger go through the litany of Saints’ injuries sounded like he was an ER clerk reading through the roster.
“We’ve had injuries, illness, the whole deal,” Staniger said. “We’ve been kind of disjointed from Day 1 of practice with lineups and getting guys on the court and being comfortable with what we’re running.”
How about you, Staniger, hanging in there?
He laughed and said, “Well, I’ve got a bad toe, but I think I’ll be OK.”
The Saints only lost one player in the top eight of their rotation, but he was a good one in Quinn Fischer, the 2018 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year out of Esko. Fischer was a four-year starter and one of many local products on a team that features fifth-year senior Nick Carlson of Canyon, Noah Winesett and Isiah Hendrickson of Duluth East, Connor Bich and Kevin Thomas of Hermantown and point guard Cade Goggleye of Nett Lake.
“It’s important to me, to us, to have the best local guys here representing the Northland,” said Staniger, a Chisholm native. “A lot of people in the Twin Cities don’t think northern Minnesota guys can play, but we’d like to think we’re all right.”
Hendrickson, dealing with a shoulder injury suffered in an exhibition game Nov. 3, is expected to be back for the Saints’ MIAC opener against Concordia-Moorhead at 1 p.m. Saturday at Reif Gymnasium.
Bich (stress fracture in back), Mohamed Washington (broken thumb), a guard who transferred from Hibbing Community College, and junior guard Jeff Moore (high-ankle sprain) have all been out but are hopefully back before the new year.
“A guy gets strep throat and misses five, six, seven days, that kind of stuff,” Staniger said. “And then Cade had food poisoning. It’s just one thing on top of another.”
Still, after a rough season-opening 73-57 loss Nov. 8 at Wisconsin-Superior, St. Scholastica somehow managed to bounce back with a 70-62 victory over former UMAC rival Northwestern in the Saints’ home opener Wednesday night at Reif Gym as Carlson scored his 1,000th career point.
“What I really like is how much improvement we showed between that UWS game and Wednesday night,” Staniger said. “Just in that week of prep, even if we didn’t have our full squad, these guys just worked hard and got better. I was really proud of the effort that we had last night. They played hard and played so much more together, so they’re learning. We’re getting there.”
Yellowjackets off to good start
Wisconsin-Superior goes into its nonconference game against Bethel at 3 p.m. Saturday in Arden Hills, Minnesota, off to a 2-1 start.
Not bad for a team picked to finish fifth in the UMAC preseason poll.
Sixth-year head coach Greg Polkowski returns a young roster with 11 newcomers to go along with 10 returners from last season.
Top returners include guards Reid Johnson, T.J. Moberg, Joey Barker and J’Vaun Walker and center Josef Fahrenholtz.
Walker was chosen for the UMAC All-Defensive Team as a freshman, while Barker is a Superior native and two-sport athlete, also playing baseball.
The Yellowjackets open conference play Friday, Dec. 9, at Bethany Lutheran. The team is headed to Florida at the end of December to play in the Basketball Destinations Division III Naples Shootout. While that won’t be a traditional vacation, it sure will be a really nice break this time of year.