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Set for opening tipoff: Northern Michigan University men’s basketball team prepares to start season with home series vs. Wisconsin-Parkside this weekend

Northern Michigan University’s Alec Fruin, right, fakes a jump shot and dishes off a pass in the second half of a GLIAC game played against Ferris State at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 16. Defending for the Bulldogs is Mason Pline. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“The key is going to be trying to find that defensive identity we had last season.” — Matt M

ajkrzak, head coach, NMU men’s basketball

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MARQUETTE — It’s been a long time coming, but the Northern Michigan University men’s basketball season is finally about to get under way.

The Wildcats host Wisconsin-Parkside, a relative newcomer to the GLIAC, at the NMU basketball practice gym rather than the Berry Events Center at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Northern’s women travel to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to take on their Parkside counterparts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

NMU men’s basketball head coach Matt Majkrzak looks dubious about a call in a game against Grand Valley State played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Feb. 20. (Journal file photo)

NMU men’s head coach Matt Majkrzak likes what he’s seen so far in the limited time the Wildcats have had to practice.

“It’s been a good start,” he said in a Zoom interview Monday. “We’ve had a week coming out of Christmas break, so it’s not the normal lead-up to the season, so that’s been a little bit challenging in different ways.

“But … the group of guys get along really well. We have a lot of shooting, we share the ball a lot better than last year’s team did as far as just having more shooting makes that a little bit easier. So I think we’re ahead of where I thought we’d be offensively.

“The key is going to be trying to find that defensive identity we had last season with losing some pretty good defenders.”

When asked if players are extra eager going into this season with a start two full months later than usual, Majkrzak didn’t think so.

Michigan Tech senior Kyle Monroe, left, looks to grab the ball while junior teammate Isaac Appleby, front right, attempts to hold off Northern Michigan University junior Alec Fruin during their GLIAC game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Feb. 27. (Journal file photo)

“I think the eagerness to practice was big time,” he said. “I don’t know if ‘eagerness’ is the right word right now in the sense of we just started practicing. So even though it’s January, it’s kind of getting ready this quickly is something that we’re not used to.

“And in a way, it’s been kind of fun because you’re definitely very all-in and present on each day. Not just as coaches, but I think the players are as well, knowing that the end is we’re gonna play on Saturday.

“So every day now, we’re trying to put in two, three days of learning and work in just one practice and it’s actually made for some really competitive practices, but also I’ve seen way more focus out of our guys than I’ve ever seen in the past … I think they know what the finish line is and that Saturday we have to ready to play a full (NCAA Division II) basketball game.

“So it’s kind of, I don’t know what the right word is for it, but there’s definitely more focus than I’ve ever seen before just knowing what’s coming this weekend.”

While some teams may be focused on getting themselves ready to play this early in the season, Majkrzak said his squad will be looking at its opponent instead.

“I think we’re going to focus a lot on our opponents,” he said. “I actually think with less time, in some ways, you’re kind of forced to focus on your opponents more because we’re not going to have everything that we want to be good at ready.

“So we have to kind of pick and choose to get good at the things that are going to help us in this Parkside game.

“For example, they run motion offense, which isn’t something that we normally spend a lot of time on, but because we have to be ready to play on Saturday, we’ve had to spend a good chunk of our time preparing for their motion offense, where in the past you would already have kind of your stuff in and you wouldn’t maybe have to spend as much time on them compared to what you’re spending on your own stuff.

“But just with the limited amount of time, I feel like we’ve focused an awful lot on what they’re going to do and getting ready for them.”

Majkrzak said Parkside will be a tough matchup as the Rangers like to play the opposite style of pace to what he wants the Wildcats to play.

“They have two of the better players in the league back,” he said. “When we played them last year, one of the guys was out for both games, but he was actually the national player of the year in junior college in Tray Croft.

“And he was averaging about 18 (points) a game before he got injured last year, so that’s going to be a major change. And he’s probably one of the most talented guards in the whole league and if he was a Player of the Year candidate, it wouldn’t shock me.

“They’re always really sound defensively, they’re very well coached, they’re tough. They like the games kind of the way we liked the games last year — low scoring, kind of grind it out, really defend you.

“We’re trying to play a little bit quicker this year, so for the first time, we’re going to be kind of trying to push the tempo where the other team might be trying to slow it down a little bit.

“So in a lot of ways, there’s a little bit of role reversal where I felt like last year, we always were playing less guys than the other team and trying to play slow, where this year we’re trying to play faster and they’re trying to slow it down.

“So the comparison-contrast of our games last year should be kind of interesting for our new group, and just how we handle that, I think, is going to be an important part of the game.”

Playing league games in the practice gym instead of the Berry may seem like a big change, but Majkrzak said it won’t be as jarring as one might think.

“Well, the atmosphere was going to be different either way with no fans in there and not having a crowd,” he said. “It was going to be something different.

“I actually think atmosphere-wise, playing in the practice gym is probably a really good thing for us. It’s a little bit tighter. The noise will be louder in there. Things echo a little bit.

“So if we’re not going to have fans, I actually think it’s a great set-up for us where we kind of have the bubble-like feel in there, kind of the way the NBA had stuff. The colleges that have played in the giant arenas, they’re trying to shrink those arenas anyway with some artificial walls and some banners.

“So in a lot of ways, I actually think it’s a perfect set-up for us and they’ve done a lot of renovations to the practice gym. It’s looking really, really nice and I’m excited about it. I think it was a really good idea by everybody here.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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