The UW-River Falls men’s basketball team will miss the WIAC tournament for the second straight season, following back-to-back WIAC championship appearances.
The team may be mathematically eliminated from WIAC playoff contention, but Falcons head coach Jeff Berkhof elects to stay positive.
“We have a great group of guys,” Berkhof said. “It’s mid-February and they come to work every day, and continue to get better each day.”
The Falcons have withstood a difficult season. They are 7-15 overall and 2-11 in the WIAC. Last place in the conference is somewhere no coach, especially a former WIAC Coach of the Year, expects his team to be in mid-February.
“We’ve been too inconsistent,” Berkhof said. “We’ve had moments of real greatness, but came up with the short end of the stick in too many games.”
The WIAC has been a ruthless conference this season. The Falcons have lost three conference games by two points or less, and Berkhof knows how miniscule the difference between winning and losing can be.
“It has often come down to a possession or two this season,” Berkhof said. “There’s such a fine line in each basketball game.”
Three games remain for the Falcons, with only one home game left on the schedule. The Falcons clash with the UW-Stevens Point Pointers on Senior Day at the Karges Center on Saturday evening at 7 p.m. The Pointers are the number one team in the nation, according to d3hoops.com, and Berkhof knows his team is up for the challenge.
“We have a week of practice, which will help their bodies rejuvenate,” Berkhof said. “This final game will have a lasting memory for these seniors.”
The five graduating seniors are Justin Behnke (Rochester, Minn.), David Berthene (Lakeville, Minn.), Ben Gresmer (Hudson, Wis.), Zach Smith (Rochester, Minn.) and Ollie White (Minnetrista, Minn.).
“They’re all going to get degrees,” Berkhof said. “They’ve done a great job providing leadership; four of five have been here for five years. I’m happy for them.”
White, who has had a phenomenal season by any standards, is coming off the best game of his career against UW-Eau Claire on Saturday night where he scored 28 points. White has finished in double digits in all but three games this season.
Gresmer, meanwhile, has had great success shooting three’s this season. Not only is the Hudson native averaging 11.9 points per game, but he is also hitting over 50 percent of his three-point attempts.
The five seniors collectively average 37 points per game this season, which is 58.3 percent of the Falcon offense. Look for freshman point guard Grant Erickson to improve upon his 7.2 points per game next season as he emerges as a team leader.
“It’s always nice to have good point guard play,” Berkhof said. “I’m excited about (Erickson’s) future.”
Erickson is not the only freshman with a bright future, according to Berkhof. He believes the freshman have all done a nice job, and will have good careers as Falcons. “They all want to improve and put in the time,” Berkhof said.
Next season the Falcons will likely rely heavily on Erickson and junior guard Jay Sewer, who continues to improve week-byweek, for offensive support. Sewer and Erickson both have 76 assists this season, which accounts for 53.9 percent of the team’s total. They are also two players who can generate a lot of turnovers in the defensive zone. Freshmen guards Devin Buckley and Joe Deppe should be called upon to hit perimeter shots with the loss of Gresmer’s deep presence. Inside the paint, look for sophomore center Connor Goodwin to continue to get stronger, as well as more confident under the rim on both ends of the floor.
Replacing 37 points per game will not be easy, but it is something Berkhof and his staff will have the offseason to address. “The offseason is big going forward,” Berkhof said. “We’re gonna need to bring in new players who are going to help us.”
If anyone is capable of turning the Falcon program around it is Berkhof, who led his team to back-to-back WIAC championship games after six straight seasons without a tournament win. As a player, Berkhof averaged 17.4 points per game in a Falcons uniform from 1992-1994.
As far as the immediate future is concerned, Berkhof is 100 percent focused on the last three games of the season. “Our thought is to win the next three games,” Berkhof said. “We’re going to do everything we can to do so.”