GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A memorable and historic 2016-17 season is now in the rearview mirror for the North Dakota men's basketball team. The focus shifts toward the 2017-18 season and defending the program's first Big Sky title in what will be the last season for the Fighting Hawks as a league member.
Head coach Brian Jones and his 15-member squad held its first offical team practice last Saturday and wrapped up their sixth session of the preseason with a Friday morning session at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center and so far, the 11th-year head coach is pleased with what he has seen from a team that returns six active players from last year's NCAA Tournament squad.
"I love our energy," Jones said. "We have a lot of new faces and we're getting better each day and that's all you can ask for at this point. I'm excited though. There is a lot of talent on our roster. Now, we just have to work hard to make sure we're ready to go a month from now."
IN THE PAINT
• After leading North Dakota to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament in five of the last six seasons, head coach Brian Jones took the next step and guided his program to the 2017 NCAA Tournament. For his efforts, he was named the Big Sky Coach of the Year and the NABC District 6 Coach of the Year.
• The berth in the Big Dance cemented the team’s transition from the Division II ranks to the Division I ranks that started with the 2008-09 season. Jones led the Fighting Hawks to a DI program-record 22 wins and first Big Sky regular season title.
• UND clinched its ticket to March Madness by rallying for a 93-89 overtime victory against Weber State in the Big Sky Championship game. The Fighting Hawks beat the Wildcats in all three meetings a season ago after starting just 1-9 against the perennial Big Sky power in their first four seasons as a league member.
• The 2017-18 season will be the final one for UND in the Big Sky as the program will relocated to The Summit League next year. The Fighting Hawks are 54-40 in five Big Sky seasons and have advanced to at least the Big Sky Semifinals in four of the last five seasons.
• Jones’ 2017-18 lineup will feature three new starters after the departures of Corey Baldwin, Drick Bernstine and Quinton Hooker. Hooker’s hole will be the biggest to fill after he garnered Lou Henson All-America honors for the second-consecutive season after averaging 19.1 ppg and earning Big Sky Tournament MVP honors.
• Baldwin graduated after putting together his best season at UND when he averaged 10.4 ppg and shot 42.3 percent from 3-point range. Bernstine left the program with a year of eligibility remaining and is using the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule to play at Washington State this season. He averaged 8.3 ppg and a team-best 7.5 rpg in 2016-17.
• Juniors Conner Avants (9.5 ppg and 4.8 rpg) and Geno Crandall (15.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 4.4 apg) are the two returning starters back for the Fighting Hawks. Both put together solid sophomore seasons, shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and starting 30 or more games.
• Crandall was also one of the premier defenders in the Big Sky, racking up 64 steals and 10 blocks from his point guard position. The 64 steals left him just outside UND’s career Top 10 list with 113 total and were second most in the Big Sky a season ago. He was named to the All-Big Sky second team for his efforts.
• Classmate Cortez Seales was named the Big Sky Reserve of the Year and shift into a starting position as an upperclassmen. Seales averaged 8.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg off the bench a season ago. Fellow junior Josh Collins is poised to see his role expand as well after appearing in 30 games and averaging 11.1 mpg. He averaged 2.3 ppg and 1.5 rpg.
• Also returning for Jones are sophomores Billy Brown and Kienan Walter, who saw limited action off the bench during their respective true freshman seasons. Brown played in 23 contests and averaged 2.0 ppg, while Walter added 2.5 ppg in 18 contests.
• Two players expected to make an impact this season that sat out the 2016-17 season are guards Jafar Kinsey and Marlon Stewart. Kinsey redshirted after transferring from Des Moines Area Community College prior to last season. He is a 6-foot-2 guard that started his collegiate career at Robert Morris before averaging 17.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg at the JUCO level last season.
• Stewart sat out due to NCAA transfer rules after spending his first collegiate season at Creighton. Stewart and Seales were high school teammates together at North Scott, leading the Lancers to their first state title in 2015.
• Jones also welcomes seven newcomers to the roster and replaced Bernstine and Shanks with his own graduate transfer in Dale Jones from Iowa. A Waterloo, Iowa native, Jones spent the past two seasons with the Hawkeyes where he was limited to just 11 games due to a various injuries. He also lost a season of play at Tyler Junior College and has been granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA. His best game as a Hawkeye was a 16-point, 7-rebound outing against Coppin State early in the 2015-16 season.
• Jones is one of three new transfers on the roster. Jaqwan McCauley also spent time at Tyler where he averaged 8.4 ppg as a freshman and upped that to 12.1 ppg and 5.1 rpg as a sophomore. He prepped in North Carolina and averaged double figures in all three of his varsity seasons.
• Carter Brooks also joined the program after spending his first collegiate season at Concordia-St. Paul. He averaged 3.1 ppg in 10 starts and 29 appearances as a freshman for the Bears. He will be joined by former Lakeville North teammate Ethan Igbanugo, who is one of four true freshmen on the roster. He’s the latest add to the roster after agreeing to walk-on this past summer.
• Igbanugo joined the trio of Tray Buchanan, Garrett Franken and Aanen Moody, who all signed NLI’s to play for the Fighting Hawks in November of 2016. Buchanan, a 6-foot-1 guard, was a two-time, all-state performer in Illinois after being named to the Associated Press First Team as a junior and AP Second Team as a senior for United Township in East Moline, Ill.
• Franken, a 6-foot-7 forward, was named to the Des Moines Register Class 3A All-Iowa First Team last season after averaging 23.8 ppg, which was second among Class 3A players. He added 8.9 rpg, 3.6 apg and 2.2 spg to go with 1.9 bpg and finished his prep career as Atlantic’s all-time leading scorer with 1,543 points.
• Moody, a 6-foot-3 guard, wrapped up his prep career as North Dakota’s Class A all-time leading scorer with 2,192 points and was named North Dakota’s Mr. Basketball in 2017. The Dickinson native averaged more than 30.0 ppg as both a junior and senior en route to earning Class A All-State honors and North Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year accolades after each season.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff is the only first-time opponentamong the 22 programs UND will play during the 2017-18 season.
15 x 15UND will open the 2017-18 season in Hawai’i against Troy on Nov. 10. The Trojans and Fighting Hawks were both No. 15 seeds in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Duke defeated Troy 87-65 in a first-round game played in the East Region in Greensboro, while Arizona knocked off UND 100-82 in the opening round of the West Region played in Salt Lake City. These two programs have met only once before with Troy posting a 112-88 victory in Grand Forks during the 1992-93 season when both teams were still playing at the Division II level.
UND will make its second trek across the Pacific Ocean in six seasons when it opens the 2017-18 season at the Outigger Resorts Rainbow Classic (Nov. 10-13). The Fighting Hawks will play the host Rainbow Warriors in the middle tilt of the three-game tournament. Hawai’i won the single-game matchup back on Thanksgiving Weekend in 2012, posting a 71-66 victory over UND. The only other meeting between the two teams was a 70-53 UND victory at the 1949 NAIB National Tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
LONG TIME, NO SEE
Creighton and Gonzaga are both on the UND’s schedule for the first time since the 1970’s. The Fighting Hawks last played Creighton during the 1975-76 season and picked up a 69-64 win at home. The Bulldogs were last on UND’s schedule during the 1972-73 season. Gonzaga has won the four previous meetings with UND and is 2-0 in Spokana.ONCE UPON A TIMECreighton head coach Greg McDermott started his coaching career at UND as an assistant coach back in 1989. McDermott spent five seasons in that role and was part of the 1989-90 staff that has been enshrined in the North Dakota Athletics Hall of Fame. UND won 20-plus games during each of his five seasons in Grand Forks and that 1989-90 team reached the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
FOUR OF A KIND
UND has four opponents on its 2017-18 schedule that also appeared in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Besides Troy, Creighton, Gonzaga and South Dakota State all participated in March Madness along with the Fighting Hawks.
Gonzaga was the only one of that quartet to advance out of the first round and the Bulldogs will be the second national runner-up to face UND in the past three seasons (Wisconsin; 2015). The Bulldogs actually played 16th-seed South Dakota State in the opening round of the Midwest Region in Salt Lake City.
ON THE HORIZON
This is the last season for the Fighting Hawks in the Big Sky Conference and the team’s 11-game, non-conference schedule will give them a little taste of what their new league -- The Summit League. UND has a game scheduled at South Dakota State and a home-and-home series with in-state rival North Dakota State on tap in non-conference play.
Utah Valley is back on UND’s schedule for the first time since the two programs for Great West Conference foes. The teams split six all-time meetings, but never met in the conference tournament. The Wolverines will visit Grand Forks for a Saturday afternoon tilt on Thanksgiving Weekend.
UND set a Division I-program record with 22 victories a season ago and 14 of those came in the Big Sky play as the Fighting Hawks won their first league title. UND’s title defense will begin at home when Idaho, a team the Fighting Hawks beat twice last season, including a semifinal-win in Reno, visits Grand Forks on Dec. 29.
UND tripled its all-time win total against Weber State last season by defeating the Wildcats in all three contests, which included a 93-89 overtime victory in the Big Sky Championship game.
LAST ONE STANDING
Montana is the only Big Sky program yet to lose at home to the Fighting Hawks in league play. UND is 0-4 in Missoula since joining the league and will get their last crack on the Grizzlies’ home court on Jan. 4.
All-time Records vs. 2017-18 Opponents:
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (First Meeting)
Eastern Washington (7-3)
Montana State (13-11)
Idaho State (11-1)
Northland College (1-0)
North Dakota State (160-133)
Northern Arizona (5-4)
Northern Colorado (45-24)
Portland State (8-4)
Presentation College (3-0)
Sacramento State (6-6)
South Dakota State (106-82)
Southern Utah (8-3)
Utah Valley (3-3)
Weber State (4-9)
-- UND --