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College men's basketball: Illikainen transfers to UMD

News Tribune file photo Grand Rapids native Alex Illikainen, here during a 2014 game, has announced he is transferring to Minnesota Duluth for his senior season.

Alex Illikainen’s phone began lighting up as soon as his name popped up in the NCAA’s new transfer portal, calls and text messages from programs across the country seeing if he was interested in joining their program.

In the end, the Grand Rapids native decided to come home.

Minnesota Duluth announced Wednesday the signing of Illikainen, a 6-foot-9 forward who played three seasons at NCAA Division I Wisconsin before sitting out this past winter. As a graduate transfer, he could have transferred to another D-I program and not had to sit out a year but chose UMD for his final season of eligibility in 2019-20.

“Alex could have played immediately anywhere in the country, honestly, but he’s been rock-solid all along that he definitely wanted to come here,” Bulldogs coach Justin Wieck said.

Illikainen was rumored to be heading to UMD over the winter and Wednesday made it official. While he couldn’t be reached for comment, he said in a release that he was “honored” and “proud” to be a Bulldog and “glad to be home.”

This is the type of recruit coaches love. Besides Illikainen’s desire to return to the Northland and join UMD, where his parents went to school, Wieck said Illikainen is very humble, which should help him blend in. Expectations will certainly be high.

Illikainen already had familiarity with several Bulldogs and has worked out with them previous summers.

“I think it was a good comfort level with our players, our city and our program,” Wieck said. “He’s excited about what kind of a team we can have here for his senior season.”

Illikainen averaged 26.5 points and 15.0 rebounds in his final two seasons at Grand Rapids. He left the school as its all-time leading scorer (2,185 points) and rebounder (1,402 rebounds) before finishing his prep career at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., helping Brewster go 34-1 and win the 2015 national prep school championship. Then, it was off to Madison.

In three seasons at Wisconsin, Illikainen established career marks of 10 points against Purdue and seven rebounds against Penn State during the 2015-16 season. He also had a career-high 26 minutes in the Nittany Lions game while serving as a key reserve. Wisconsin won 64 games and made a pair of Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA tournament during his tenure.

Illikainen, however, appeared to fall out of favor, with his playing time decreasing each season, from 9.8 minutes per game as a freshman to 6.8 as a junior.

At UMD, he will join a program that enjoyed a nice bounce-back season this winter, going 17-10.

“Alex has played in some big games,” Wieck said. “He’s played in all the big arenas in the Big Ten, so we expect him to come in and make a huge impact for us. We had a good year last year. We were knocking on the door of winning a division title and making the NCAA tournament, so hopefully now we can take that next step. It’s an exciting time for our program.”

It’s not the first time UMD has benefited from a Division I transfer. In more recent years, the Bulldogs gained standouts such as Jordan Nuness (Minnesota) and John Emerson (Wisconsin), and older examples include local products Rockne Johnson (Minnesota, Oregon State) and Lew Rickert (Minnesota).

Pairing Illikainen with Superior native Brandon Myer (21.6 ppg, 10.5 rpg, NSIC first team), the Bulldogs just don’t have local name recognition but a pair of versatile big men who will create matchup nightmares and could potentially dominate.

“That’s a pretty good start,” Wieck said.

With those two drawing attention, that could help free other players such as sharpshooter Logan Rohrscheib (10.9 ppg, 42.5 3-point percentage), who along with Myer and Illikainen are part of a strong five-member senior class. In addition, Wieck is excited about his incoming recruiting class, which includes Jack Middleton (Edina, Minn.) and Charlie Gorres (Cottage Grove, Minn.), ranked Nos. 12 and 15 in the Minnesota 2019 class by NorthStar Hoops Report. That should bolster UMD’s play along the wing, and there is still the possibility of adding more talent as UMD has increased its scholarship allotment to near the NCAA Division II maximum of 10.

But ultimately, it wasn’t all about scholarship money to Illikainen.

“Alex was really excited about playing back home, so hopefully we can generate some interest from Grand Rapids and the surrounding communities for our team this year,” Wieck said.

Illikainen’s father, Darin, played hockey at UMD from 1984-88, and his mother, Mary (Zgonc), played basketball for the Bulldogs from 1985-89. His three sisters all played college hockey, and his uncle, Daryl Illikainen, played football at North Dakota State and was the longtime head football coach of the Hermantown Hawks.

Wieck didn’t exactly have to show Alex Illikainen around campus.

“There wasn’t much selling from my standpoint,” Wieck said. “This is something he’s wanted to do and is really excited about. I think it was less about our recruiting pitch and more about just how much he wanted to play at UMD, to play his final year here and hopefully have a really good end to his career.”

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