Men’s basketball takes on preseason GLIAC North favorite Ferris State with rivalry implications

WILDCATS+TRAVELING+TO+BIG+RAPIDS%E2%80%94After+knocking+off+Ferris+State+in+last+years+GLIAC+Tournament%2C+the+Cats+look+to+extend+its+win+streak+against+the+Bulldogs+this+weekend.+Travis+Nelson%2FNW

WILDCATS TRAVELING TO BIG RAPIDS—After knocking off Ferris State in last year’s GLIAC Tournament, the ‘Cats look to extend its win streak against the Bulldogs this weekend. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

Coming off a “positive weekend” in the words of NMU Men’s Basketball Head Coach Matt Majkrzak, the Wildcats will hit the road again to take on the Ferris State University Bulldogs.

Majkrzak’s team is 2-2 through its four games after splitting its second consecutive series with a talented Saginaw Valley State University team. The Cardinals took the first game on Friday, Jan. 15, 83-73. NMU stormed back in the second game on Saturday, Jan. 16, to earn the split with a 69-57 victory. It feels better to end a series with a win than with a loss (like it did to UW-Parkside in the first series of the year), Majkrzak said. After SVSU gave the ‘Cats its best shot on Friday that resulted in a win, Majkrzak felt his team played good enough to win that game, and overall played better against a good SVSU team, he added.

“Overall, I thought we were a lot better, a lot tougher,” Majkrzak said. “We got back to defending the way we want to defend, and I thought we were in better shape week two than we were in week one as well.”

Starting at 2-2, Majkrzak thinks NMU’s record is a fair assessment of how the season has went so far. He felt that they’ve been average, but have shown glimpses of looking good offensively and defensively after stepping up on that end against SVSU.

“I think the key for us now is as we’ve made these steps, is not pleateauing or getting worse,” Majkrzak said. “But keep growing because we’ve got a lot of room to grow if we’re going to reach the top-half of the league and obviously, I think that’s the goal.”

Another good team and a challenger of that goal awaits the Wildcats in Ferris State, and it’s no secret to anyone that FSU has ran the GLIAC for some time. The Bulldogs have dominated in the regular season and won four consecutive GLIAC Tournaments from 2015-18, including a 38-1 national championship-winning 2017-18 season. However, the past two years, it has been the Wildcats that’ve owned FSU when it counts in March. Last season, the Wildcats snuck into the GLIAC Tournament as the eighth and final seed, and walked out of Big Rapids with a 70-69 win over the top-seeded Bulldogs. 

Two back-to-back road trips is one of toughest things to do at NMU, and two games against Ferris State as the second series is as tough as you can ask for, Majkrzak said.

So far, the Bulldogs haven’t been themselves, despite being the preseason GLIAC North Division favorites. Ferris State sits at 3-4 (1-3 in conference play) after dropping two games to Ashland, and winning one of two match-ups against Wisconsin-Parkside. Similar to the Wildcats, FSU has been limited with practice time due to Michigan’s restrictions, and are missing shots that they typically make, Majkrzak said. 

“We just have to kind of hope that they have one more weekend of not shooting the ball well, and hopefully we can get our shooting fixed,” Majkrzak said. “I know they’re going to come out of their slump at some point, and we just have to make sure that it’s not against us.”

FSU has been up and down this season, and has struggled more this year than in the past, Majkrzak said. However, the Bulldogs have the firepower to snap out of any season-opening slumps. Senior guard Walt Kelser, the nephew of former Michigan State All-American and NBA pro Greg Kelser, has averaged 24.8 points per game through the ‘Dogs first seven contests. Senior forward Michael Peterson and junior center Mason Pline round out FSU’s top scoring, averaging 12.5 points per game and 9.4 points per game respectively. So going back to Ferris’ struggles, Majkrzak is aware of what his team will be walking into.

“With that being said [about FSU’s struggles], I think we’re going to get their absolute A effort at home. It’s their first home weekend, they’ve been on the road too,” Majkrzak said. “I think we’re going to get a very intense Ferris team, they’re always well-coached, they have a ton of talent.”

NMU has talent of its own in junior guard/forward Dolapo Olayinka, who leads the team in scoring with 16 points per game. Basketball is all about getting reps, and the Wildcats are slowly practicing more and more and getting the proper reps, Olayinka said. This has also led to Northern getting better and better each week of practice, and it’s shot-making has continued to improve also. In this series with FSU, making shots to defeat the Bulldogs’ pressure and set up a slower pace will be important, Olayinka added.

“Playing Ferris State, it’s always a test of how tough we can be, because of how the game’s set up, they [Ferris] pressure and all that,” Olayinka said. “So playing against them, as long as we can try to keep the turnover level down and rebound the ball and take care of the ball, we’ll always have a chance against them.”

Holding down Ferris State defensively will give the ‘Cats the best chance to get another road win against them, Olayinka said. With the defense getting better day-by-day, that could very well happen.

“Defensively, knowing us from last year, that was our image. We took defense to heart and we made sure that we’re going to keep the other teams’ scores as low as possible,” Olayinka said. “This year, we started the first two games off a little shaky. But, we’re starting to figure out our identity as a defensive team.”

To be the best, you have to beat the best. There’s no question who the best has been in this conference over the years in FSU. The Wildcats have had considerable success in the postseason the past couple of years, but NMU now wants to pick up a regular season over the Bulldogs. 

“I think we’ve won there now [two years in a row], we won there last year, and the year before they [NMU in the season before Majkrzak arrived] beat them in the conference tournament also at Ferris. I definitely think that Ferris won’t take us for granted, I think they’re going to be ready to play. Playing three times in a row the past two seasons, I definitely think it’s become a little bit of a rivalry because we have had some success,” Majkrzak said. “You hope that the best program in the league has a little bit of rivalry with you, it means you’re doing some things right. Hopefully for the third year in a row, we can go down there and get a win in their gym. It’s going to take our best effort, but knowing that we’ve done it before definitely gives us a little confidence going into it that it can be done.”

A rivalry means against each other, both teams have success. If NMU is starting to form one with the class of the league, they’re in a good spot. The Wildcats and Bulldogs will battle in Big Rapids on Friday, Jan. 22 and Saturday, Jan. 23, with both games tipping off at 5 p.m.