Men’s Basketball reflects on COVID-19 shortened season

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SEASON OF CHALLENGES—NMU junior guard Max Bjorklund looks to score against the Lake Superior State defense on Sunday, Jan. 31. He led the Wildcats in scoring with 14.8 points per game this season, and the campaign came to an abrupt end when the program had multiple COVID-19 cases. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

The NMU Men’s Basketball team was coming off of two wins over Davenport at home on Feb. 20-21. The Wildcats won both games by double digits and were roaring into a showdown with Purdue Northwest to close out the regular season. At the worst possible time, NMU was given a COVID-19 pause due to cases in the program, causing a quick cancellation of the Purdue Northwest series and eventually the GLIAC Tournament.

The series against the Pride was scheduled for Feb. 26-27 in the GLIAC Tournament to begin a few days later on Tuesday, March 2 in a quick turnaround. Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, their 8-8 record wouldn’t be enough to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. They needed to win the GLIAC Tournament to qualify, and with no conference tournament to play in, the season came to an abrupt end.

Looking back at the season, Head Coach Matt Majkrzak does not look at it as a negative. In fact, in a year where he will get all of his players back next season including lone senior Alec Fruin, it was a positive experience for the second year head coach and his team.

“I think it’ll definitely be a season that you never forget. I think all of the kind of twists and turns is probably the part that I probably would’ve remembered anyway, but obviously the big, giant twist at the end, that whole 24 hours is something you’ll never forget,” Majkrzak said. “But I also thought even already, the other part you remember is all the battling the guys did over the course of the year to compete and it felt like we had a lot of those kinds of moments in our season where things could’ve turned south and they never did.”

The conference this season was nearly even from top to bottom, and it showed in the conference tournament that went on with the ‘Cats as eighth-seeded Saginaw Valley State took down first-seeded Wayne State in the quarterfinals. It also ended with the fifth-seeded Ashland Eagles taking home the championship with a victory over third-seeded Michigan Tech in the championship. The Wildcats would have been right in the mix had they been able to participate, and that’s what the goal for the team was headed into this free season.

“To be honest, the whole goal was to put yourself into the tournament. Nobody in the league this year was dominant, you can beat anyone on any given night and give yourself a chance to get hot and win some games. We did that for the most part, I think we probably would’ve ended up hosting a home playoff game and giving ourselves a great shot,” Majkrzak said. “Obviously, it ends in a way that we never expected, never wanted, but all those strides and that improvement that we made to get to the point we were at. I think those are kind of the main things that we got out of it.”

Junior guard Max Bjorklund transferred to NMU after carving out success at Bemidji State. Not knowing what to expect this season with a lot of newcomers, Bjorklund led the Wildcats in scoring with 14.8 points per game. It was a physically demanding season for everyone, but especially teams like NMU that didn’t have a lot of practice time before the season quickly began on Jan. 9. However, what Bjorklund mentioned as the most challenging aspect was the demands that this season took mentally.

“We just had to really come together as a team. I mean we all had our ups and downs in our own personal ways. It was a very big mental season, taking a lot of focus and going and doing the work on days we didn’t want to,” Bjorklund said. “But being able to come together like we did, especially at the end of the season, was really a fun thing and we look forward to transitioning that into next season.”

A season ago, the Wildcats willed their way into the GLIAC Tournament semifinals with an upset win over Ferris State. This season, there was uncertainty about how it would result for NMU with the onset of transfers and recruits filing in. Northern showed its teeth on occasion with some big victories over Ferris State and Wisconsin-Parkside but had a couple of letdowns like losing at Michigan Tech by 22 points or only scoring over 52 points per game over a three-game stretch in late January. Even with the downs, the Wildcats had times where their true potential as a good basketball team showed, Bjorklund said.

“I honestly thought it went a little bit better than I expected, like I said before of bringing in like nine new guys, it’s tough to come together and get some wins right away. But we definitely had some really good wins this year and we had some bad losses as well,” Bjorklund said. “But I think we learned and almost reached our full potential this year, but knowing what we know now, we have seen our full potential a little bit and next year hopefully we can reach that.”

Nobody, including Majkrzak or Bjorklund, knows what next season will bring for NMU’s team and the rest of the college basketball landscape. Majkrzak said he feels like it’ll be close to a normal season next year, but all the Wildcats can do until then is hope the challenges of a pandemic-riddled season never come about again.

“I think we’re all hoping. I think we’re all keeping fingers and toes crossed that this will never happen again for a whole bunch of reasons,” Majkrzak said. “The biggest thing is you throw in no fans, you have everyone back and I think our team uniquely with knowing that everyone’s coming back for the most part and Alec [Fruin] being a senior, wasn’t going to go anywhere, it really did feel like the whole year like, ‘let’s just keep improving, let’s keep getting better.”

Most teams will be in the same boat with returning the majority of their rosters, but a team like NMU can really benefit. A full offseason could do wonders for the ‘Cats, and if only Majkrzak could look into a crystal ball to see how his returning leading scorer can up his points per game when he doesn’t have to arrive during a once-in-a-century catastrophe.

“I think that’ll be really big for us, especially since we had a lot of new guys coming in this year and not being able to get that full preseason definitely hindered us a little bit,” Bjorklund said. “But this year coming in, hopefully we have enough time to really get what we want to get done and get that chemistry and should be promising.”