Coach profile: Jeff Berkhof looks to lead Falcons back to NCAA tournament
Jeff Berkhof enters his 12th season as the head coach for UW-River Falls men’s basketball. He has the second most wins in program history, only trailing his former coach Rick Bowen for career wins. Last year his team finished 25-4 and won the WIAC regular season title and WIAC tournament. The team also completed a 17-game win streak, the longest in program history.
Berkhof was named the 2017 WIAC Coach of the Year and was also named the NABC’s Central Region Coach of the Year. Additionally, he received Wisconsin’s Division III Coach of the Year by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association. The team loses captains Grant Erickson and Garret Pearson from last season, but returns a majority of the roster.
The Student Voice sat down with Berkhof to discuss the team’s upcoming game against University of Minnesota-Duluth and expectations for the coming season.
Q: What was your playing experience like at River Falls?
A: It was great. I was a junior college transfer and the first year was an adjustment to the program and the coaching. My second year we lost quite a few seniors, so I knew I was going to be called upon to score the basketball more. I worked extremely hard to develop and become a better scorer, and I worked as hard as I ever have in my life. I had a really good senior year where I was all-conference and averaged 17 points per game and had a couple of 30-point games. It was one year of adjusting and one year of performing well.
Q: Did you always plan on coming back as a coach?
A: I knew I wanted to get into college coaching, but it’s like, ‘how do you do that?’ I had an opportunity right after graduation to go up to the University of North Dakota and work a basketball camp. I got invited back up there to be a volunteer assistant. Ben Jacobsen, who’s the Northern Iowa coach now, befriended me and gave me a nice opportunity. But once I got up there I didn’t feel like it was the right place for me. Rick Bowen gave me the opportunity to volunteer with the Falcons and I jumped on it and had great timing. Assistant coach Paul Costanzo got a job with Dick Bennett with the Wisconsin Badgers, and the assistant job became open. John Walsh and myself split the assistant position here. I was very grateful that Rick Bowen gave me the opportunity to be the assistant coach when I was only 24 years old.
Q: What does it mean to honor Coach Bowen in the first game in Page Arena?
A: It’s going to be a great night. Don (Page) was an icon here at River Falls, so it’s neat to honor him and Rick Bowen, who put River Falls basketball on the map. His son Matt Bowen coaches at UMD, and being able to honor him with the court dedication is very well deserving.
Q: What events are planned for the exhibition game on Saturday?
A: We asked alumni and friends for support and they helped us raise enough money to get all the members of last year’s team a championship ring. It’s something that Rick Bowen also did back in 2004 when we won the regular season title. It’s nice we can honor the team from last year and then we can put that behind us and go on to 2017-2018.
Q: What does the coaching staff look to observe in the players during exhibition games?
A: It’s hard to simulate game-like situations, so I look forward to that. I look forward at seeing who plays well together because we have some new rotations. I want to see how the new guys are going to react when the lights are on and people are in the stands watching them.
Q: How will the losses of Pearson and Erickson affect the team in the opening weeks?
A: Grant was a tremendous leader and they knew we were in good hands. We need to fill that void and I think we can. Garret was a tremendous player and brought inside and out scoring ability and toughness. I’m confident we can replace them, but they were two really good players and it might take a little time. We have some depth at those positions and are ready to play. We’re still trying to determine at practice and the exhibition who those players will be.
Q: What steps can Alex Herink still take after being WIAC player of the year?
A: Alex has worked hard this summer. He’s hungry and last year was a feeling out process as a newcomer. But we’ve expressed to Alex that we need him to score more, and he’s definitely up to that task.
Q: What did this team learn from the NCAA tournament run last season?
A: Our guys are hungry to get there again. If you’re a competitive team in our league and you can somehow get in that NCAA tournament, there’s a bunch of teams capable of playing in the NCAA championship. It’s just a matter of a bounce the right way in the tournament format. That’s step one, and the next is to play longer into March. We have a tough road coming out. We were 10-1 in nonconference last year and that was helpful for us getting into the NCAA tournament.
Q: How long will it take for the new court to feel like a home-court advantage?
A: It’s definitely a different venue. We may find that teams dreaded coming to Karges, but now teams may be looking forward to coming to beat us. Teams will want to come in and beat us in our new, shiny home. We have a lot of home games and we tried to do that this first year. Our guys have been shooting well in practice and I hope we establish it’s a home court advantage right here on Nov. 4. We have to be fundamentally sound and play together and play with toughness, and those will be the key things to making it a home court advantage.