Ask anyone involved with the UMD men’s basketball team about the team’s goals and you’re likely to receive a pretty common answer. “The only goal is getting better every day,” said senior co-captain Jake Hottenstine, repeating the goal that just about all of the players and coaches seem to have in mind.
The team is about to see if two months of practice will pay off. The Bulldogs open the season Saturday with the annual Border Battle against the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Game time is set for 4 p.m. at Romano Gym.
For a team that missed out on the NCAA Tournament last year, the expectations are high this season.
“Our goals are to win an NSIC championship, go the national tournament and be nationally competitive and be able to compete for a national championship,” said first-year head coach Matt Bowen, who is stepping into the position vacated by long-time coach Gary Holquist. “But we don’t reach those goals by striving for those goals. Our ultimate goal is just to take care of today, do our job and get better for tomorrow.”
While a national championship may be a goal, just a return to the NCAA Tournament would be a big step forward for the program. The Bulldogs have made five national playoff appearances in program history, but none since 2003.
Last year’s team struggled for the most part, finishing with an overall record of 14-13 and a conference record of 11-11, good for seventh in the NSIC. UMD has won 16 NSIC Championships in school history, but the last came in 2002.
“Every weekend is tough in the NSIC,” Hottenstine said. “From top to bottom, the NSIC has got to be one of the better conferences in the nation and the Friday/Saturday games are a grind.”
Hottenstine figures to be an offensive leader for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-3 guard from Green Bay scored 16 points per game last season. He is joined by the likes of sophomore guard Reece Zoelle, who impressed as a rookie last season; junior center Brett Ervin, a former NSIC Freshman of the Year; and 6-foot-10, 290-pound Erik Powers at center.
The Bulldogs have a plethora of freshmen and sophomores who will compete for playing time. Freshman Austin Pohlen figures to receive significant playing time at point guard.
“I mostly just want to help the team out any way I can,” said Pohlen, who comes from Warba, Minn. “Obviously you want to get playing time, but you’ve just got to work hard at practice and things will fall into place.”
It’s a young team, but the veteran players and coaching staff are showing a lot of confidence.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys coming in this year, as well as a solid returning group,” Hottenstine said. “This is the most competitive, hardworking team I’ve been around in my four years here so I’m looking forward to the season. I have high expectations for us.”
Bowen is hoping to find success again in the NSIC, a year after winning the conference’s regular season title as head coach at Bemidji State.
“Our ultimate goal is to just take care of today, do our job and get better for tomorrow,” Bowen said. “If we can compartmentalize that, make it simple, day by day getting better, then we’ll see where the ceiling ends.”
BY TOM OLSEN firstname.lastname@example.org