Coach credits team unity for high standings
Minnesota Duluth is this college basketball season’s hidden success story, at least locally. The Division II men’s basketball team has been ranked in the nation’s top 10 all season as well as topping the league standings in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).
“Our guys have really shown how much better and how well they can play together. They really embraced the team side of it,” noted UMD Coach Justin Wieck recently to the MSR. He is in his third season at the Duluth school.
Since his arrival in 2018, Wieck has assembled a diverse talented roster—five of the 15-man squad are Black, and four are from the Twin Cities area: freshmen Joshua Strong (Brooklyn Park) and Henry Shannon (Apple Valley), sophomore Joshua Brown (Minneapolis), and junior Isaiah Watts (Bloomington). Graduate transfer Jacob Shields (Houston), who formerly played at Concordia-St. Paul, rounds out the Bulldogs roster.
Wieck said the Duluth area always will be recruiting territory, but the Twin Cities will be prime recruiting territory as well. “The Twin Cities mean St. Paul, Minneapolis, and all the surrounding communities around there,” he explained.
“We’re just trying to identify the best players, and I think we’ve been able to really connect on a personal level. It’s just trying to really build that relationship throughout the recruiting process.”
The 6’-4” Brown, a Park Center grad, is the first Twin Cities-area player Wieck signed to play at UMD.
“Duluth isn’t the most diverse place in general,” noted the coach. “Our student body isn’t the most diverse student body, so for us in the recruiting process, we just had to be really upfront with that. We really talked about that openly with Joshua and with the entire [Brown] family.
“Joshua was really the first one to really jump on board,” admitted Wieck. “I think he was really the springboard to allowing us to continue to recruit a really diverse roster. Joshua Brown really helped open those doors for us.”
As successful as UMD has been on the court this season, the Bulldogs have been successful in enacting social change as well. The Jacob Rittenhouse not-guilty verdict last fall was a game-changer for the players.
“They’re really aware of what’s going on around them,” said Wieck. “We had a big game and the verdict came out when we were on the bus. When we got off the bus…you could see hurt in all of our guys, and you could see it in their eyes.
“A couple of guys on the team approached me and wanted to make a statement during the national anthem,” he continued. “Our team decided to just stay in the locker room that night during the national anthem. Our entire team supported each other.
“I think the biggest thing is [that] it really opened up a lot of conversation on our team,” said Wieck. “We support each other. There’s a very unified front on our team.”
Back to the Bulldogs on court play, “I think we’ve always been a pretty high-powered offensive team,” said Wieck. “We’ve got five guys out there that can really score but also really smart players. We’ve got six or seven guys out there that can score 20 points on a given night.
“They’ve done a great job of just trying to work together, trying to get the best shot possible. They compete their butts off every single night.”
Wieck pledged that the Twin Cities remain on his recruiting radar. “We’ve got two more guys coming from the Twin Cities next year,” he said. “It’s been so far, so good.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.