There aren't too many teams that get to finish the season with a win, especially one as convincing as the Minnesota, Morris men's basketball team's 83-49 victory over St. Scholastica in the 2010 UMAC Championship game.
The tournament title was a great way to cap the season, but in 2011 it will mean a trip to the NCAA Tournament, as the UMAC now owns an automatic qualifier.
"Coming off the tournament title - it was a great way to end the season," Cougar head coach Paul Grove said. "The expectations are high now. With the automatic qualifier, we want to make sure that it's us and we have to ask ourselves, what do we have to do to get it?"
The Cougars have always been able to lay claim to one or two very talented players, but this year's team has a depth not seen in recent years, and a breadth of talent to compete for a championship. Three players return who averaged over eight points per game last season, as well as four players who played over 20 minutes a night.
Add to that mix a talented group of new comers and the Cougars will also have more options than in the past.
"We have bigger wings this year that can help against bigger or smaller teams," Grove said. "They can help the offense work from the nonconference season into the UMAC schedule. Overall, we're deeper and will have fresher bodies."
One of the main pieces is senior Eric Dalbey (Mora), a returning all-conference player who averaged over 14 points per game and surpassed 1,000 career points as a junior. The Cougars will have to be without his services for the early part of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery.
"We'll miss him early, and his impact will depend on when he returns," Grove said. "But he'll be an impact player."
In conference play last season he was an impact to the tune of 15.4 points per game, good for third in the league. From behind the arc his three per game were second in the conference, while his 89 percent clip at the stripe was a UMAC best.
Another all-conference returner is fellow senior Daniel Fragodt (Benson), a team MVP in the past, and as a junior a member of the UMAC All-Defensive team.
"He does all the things that don't appear in the stats," Grove said. "The things that the casual fan might miss, but we are aware of them."
What the fans did not miss last season was Fragodt's three games with over 10 points - all Cougar wins - his 54 percent mark from the floor, 5.1 points per game, and 46 steals in his 22 starts.
The lone two seniors on the team, Dalbey and Fragodt are joined by returning juniors Kyle Bruns (Brandon), Clay Fischer (Pine City), and Zach Meyer (Cottonwood).
Meyer started 10 games last season and finished among the team scoring leaders with 8.5 points per game.
"He's a great low post player and is expected to be a team leader," Grove said. "He definitely has the ability and we want him to step up into that role."
Bruns and Fisher scored 5.1 and 2.0 points per game respectively last season and will be counted on for more production as upperclassmen. Bruns has good potential in the low post and Ficsher has the potential to play multiple guard positions.
At the head of the class for the underclassmen is Derek Schmidt (East Grand Forks), who in just his sophomore season returns as a starter after finishing second in the UMAC in rebounding at 6.0 per game. The team leader in rebounds, he was also second in scoring at over nine points per game while shooting 53 percent from the field, good enough for fourth in the conference.
"He has a lot of athleticism," Grove said. "He is a great rebounder, but is also very capable of scoring. He can play in different spots and should be a match-up problem for opposing teams this season."
Also returning are Ben Hoidal (Forest Lake) and Logan Orazem (Mora) after seeing time in 15 and 14 games respectively in their rookie campaigns. Hoidal is a smart player and good one-on-one defender while Orazem has added strength to his 6-4 frame which will benefit the Cougars in the low post. Hoidal in the backcourt and Orazem up front, each will be looked upon to make a bigger impact as sophomores.
New to the squad in 2010-11 is a talented group of transfers in juniors Steve Birman (Duluth) and Ben Lindberg (Superior, Wis.), and freshman Tom Barrett (Red Lake).
"Everyone in this group can make an immediate impact," Grove said. "They can all score - but we have it all covered - they can score, they can rebound and they can defend."
Birman is slated as a guard, with Barrett as a forward and Lindberg in the post.
Also new to the Cougars are five freshman in Brendon Foss (Hancock), Austin Pinke (St. James), Brodie Raymond (St. Peter), Evan Reller (Melrose), and Charlie Warnes (Alexandria). It is a talented group of freshman that makes an already quality roster just that much deeper.
The Cougars will have a tough battle in the non-conference season, before they open up UMAC play on Jan. 11, hosting Presentation. Before settling into the conference season, the Cougars will match up with seven NAIA teams, as well as Division II Southwest Minnesota and the MIAC's Concordia.
Coach Grove described that a difficult non-conference season is by design.
"We have a tough preseason to see if we can play well and see if we can compete. Hopefully it is then that we start to mesh. We'll see if we can compete with those teams, and I think we have the talent to win those games."
From there it's on to the always tough conference schedule, where the Cougars must finish with four straight on the road to close out the season. Ending on the road, means a strong start is key.
"It's a tough end to the season," Grove said. "We've got to get a good start to set ourselves up, and be in position at the end to get to the championship game and get the auto bid."