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College men’s basketball: Fifth-ranked UMD off to historic 14-0 start

Blair and the Bulldogs hope to let the good times roll into Saturday’s home matchup against Concordia-St. Paul.

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Minnesota Duluth men's basketball players watch the UMD women play Minnesota State Mankato at Romano Gymnasium on Friday Jan., 7, 2022, in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

DULUTH — It was September 2018 when first-year Minnesota Duluth men’s basketball coach Justin Wieck made a visit to Drew Blair’s home in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

It was a Sunday, and Wieck planned to get there right after the Packers-Vikings game, about 3 p.m., except there was one little problem: the game went into overtime.

“I ended up watching the game with him for about an hour because he and his family are diehard, either Packer or Viking, split both ways,” Wieck recalled. “I quickly realized we weren’t going to talk any basketball business till that game was over.”

When they finally did get down to business, Blair liked what he heard and ended up transferring to UMD after a short stint at Northwest Missouri State.

Now four years later, Blair and the Bulldogs could never have envisioned how well this would go.

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UMD is off to its best start in program history at 14-0 and up to No. 5 in the latest NCAA Division II coaches' poll — the Bulldogs’ highest-ever NCAA ranking.

UMD (14-0 overall, 7-0 NSIC) which was idle Friday night after Minnesota State-Mankato had to cancel due to COVID-19 protocols, looks to improve to 15-0 when the Bulldogs host Concordia-St. Paul (1-13, 0-8) in an NSIC contest at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Romano Gym.

“It’s never nice to get a game canceled, but just stay in the moment and focus on the next one,” Blair said. “We’re lucky enough to be able to get one in this weekend because we know COVID is pretty bad right now. You never know what’s going to happen on a weekly basis. We’re lucky we’re still playing games.”

For those scoring at home, the Bulldogs are fully vaccinated but that doesn’t mean issues couldn’t still arise this season.

“Knock on wood,” Blair said.

Blair is a big reason for the Bulldogs’ hot start. The crafty 6-foot-5 guard leads UMD at 18.9 points per game, is second with 15 steals and third with 4.9 rebounds per contest.

It’s hard to believe UMD went 4-25 in 2016-17, not long before Blair’s and Wieck’s arrival.

“Obviously, coach Wieck and his coaching staff did a really good job of turning the program around, along with that first group when I arrived here,” Blair said of a UMD class that included the program’s all-time leading scorer, Brandon Myer of Superior. “They really started it by working hard and buying in. They laid the groundwork and then we’ve gotten some good guys since and have just been cruising along. Every year we get better, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted this. It’s pretty exciting.”

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While Blair has put up nice numbers, the Bulldogs are incredibly balanced. All five starters average at least 11.2 points per game, helping the team average 87.8 points per game compared to only 68.5 allowed.

UMD is shooting 52.5% as a team, including 38.6% from 3-point range.

“I knew we’d be better, that we could win on any given night, but to be ranked No. 5 in the country is a great testament to what these guys have done,” Wieck said. “They got better in the offseason and are ahead of schedule, but we certainly don’t want to rest on where we’re at.”

Wieck said if the season ended today it would be hard to argue with Blair or sophomore forward Austin Andrews (17.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 16 steals, 10 blocks) for conference player of the year. Andrews, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, plays a little undersized inside (listed generously on the roster at 6-foot-6) but is the Mick Jagger of the low post, with moves to spare. Andrews, last year’s NSIC North Division freshman of the year, is shooting an almost ridiculous 62.8% from the field.

“Austin has great hands, great touch and great footwork,” Wieck said. “He’s super productive and is a big-time matchup nightmare because he’s so different from most inside players. He’s a bruiser, and bigger, slower guys have trouble guarding him.”

Junior Jack Middleton (Edina, Minn.) plays point guard and is efficient, averaging 11.6 points while leading the Bulldogs at 46.7% from 3-point range. He has 48 assists to only 19 turnovers.

Sophomore Joshua Brown (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) plays shooting guard who Wieck said provides something different athletically than one usually sees in the NSIC, while he called sophomore Charlie Katona (11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) “that Mr. do-it-all guy.” UMD doesn’t run a lot of plays for him but he still finds a way to make a difference offensively and defensively.

“He’s our Swiss Army knife,” Wieck said.

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Jacob Shields (4.9 ppg), Joshua Strong (4.1 ppg) and Lincoln Meister (3.4 ppg) lead the bench. While they might not put up big numbers, they are productive for the minutes they play.

“Any one of those guys can hit for 15 points any night,” Wieck said.

And what’s even better, all the players mentioned have eligibility remaining, making the future look downright scary (for the opposition).

That includes Blair, who has two seasons remaining after this year as he took a redshirt season at UMD plus got another season due to the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19.

Blair, who was featured in this week’s “NSIC Spotlight,” is a business marketing major who would like to be a college coach one day. He certainly has the basketball IQ for it.

But the future can wait. He’s having too much fun in the present.

“As of right now, I’m planning to take everything I’ve got,” Blair said of his remaining eligibility. “As long as I stay healthy and my body feels good, I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”

Drew Blair NSIC Spotlight

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Minnesota Duluth's Drew Blair spots up for a shot during the second half of a Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, game against Minnesota Crookston at Romano Gym in Duluth. Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

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