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Cougar men are coaches' pick to win UMAC

The University of Minnesota, Morris won the 2010 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) Tournament in February and has hoped to carry that momentum over into the upcoming 2010-11 season. The Cougars took first place in the preseason coaches' poll, earning six first-place votes in the process.

A deep team with a broad base of talent takes the floor this winter as UMM features three returning starters from last year's tournament championship team. UMAC First Team All-Conference award-winner Eric Dalbey will lead that core along with all-defensive team member Dan Fragodt.  Dalbey, one of the league's top scorers and three-point shooters, led the Cougars in scoring last season, surpassing the 1,000 career point mark in his junior campaign. Fragodt, Dalbey's fellow senior, led UMM in starts and swiped nearly 50 steals, while also averaging five points per game on the offensive half of the court.  The Cougars ended last year's campaign with nine wins in their last 11 games, including an impressive 83-49 win over the College of St. Scholastica to claim the UMAC Tournament title. Head coach Paul Grove's crew finished the season with the league's best offense, scoring over 75 points per game while outscoring opponents by nearly six points per game.

Last year's UMAC regular season champion, Northwestern College, finished second in the poll, earning a pair of first-place votes. After a year off the UMAC Championship platform, Northwestern returned to capture the conference title again in 2010, the Eagles' third in the last five years. In addition to its UMAC championship, Northwestern went on to win the NCCAA Division I tournament, beating three fully-funded scholarship schools along the way. Some parts of the 2010-11 squad will look different for head coach Tim Grosz, while others will remain the same. The Eagles lost three starters from a year ago including first-team all-conference forwards Stephen Hanson and Reid Berens. Brian Lecheler, the UMAC Honorable Mention All-Conference player, returns for his senior year in the 2010-11 campaign to lead the Eagles' charge. Junior Gabe Jefferson is another veteran who started most of the team's games last year. Aaron Reep, another junior, played in every game last season.

The College of St. Scholastica finished the poll with third place. After losing a lot of senior leadership the year previous, head coach David Staniger's team struggled in the 2009-10 season, but still managed to pull a couple of upsets in the conference tournament and made its seventh conference tournament championship game in the last 10 years. The Saints are a year older for the 2010-11 campaign and are poised to make another run for the conference championship this season. Last year's UMAC Freshman of the Year in Brett Tester returns, as well as second team all-conference selection Danny Schmitz. Joining Schmitz in the backcourt will be sophomore Jonah Dahlman. Coach Staniger also picked up highly touted New York recruit Nick Biedakiewicz. In the front court, seniors Logan Schultz and Derek Anderson will look to improve their game and lead the Saints to the conference tournament and beyond in their final go-around.

Earning fourth place was Bethany Lutheran College, who finished the 2009-10 season with a 10-4 conference record after suffering 12 straight losses. This year's Vikings squad returns three solid starters and impactful bench players who will be crucial to the team's success. The Vikings return Derek Peterson, who was voted to the UMAC All-Defensive team in his freshman campaign. His return, along with the team's leading rebounder Trevor Bartelt and Patrick Garvin will provide a solid backbone for head coach Rick Jeddeloh. The Vikings will miss last year's UMAC Player of the Year, Tommy Saffert, and a strong presence under the hoop in the now graduated Stephone Frederick.

Martin Luther returns to the court this season picked to finish fifth in the conference after wrapping up last year's campaign with a disappointing 4-10 mark in UMAC play. The 2009-10 season saw a number of Knights underclassmen gain experience for the first time. MLC returns all of its perimeter players, led by senior all-conference performer Greg Holzhueter, who led the team in points, assists and steals a season ago. Nathan Bauer returns as Holzhueter's back court partner, while Jared Matthies and Jake Unke return on the wings. The Knights return both Justin and Josh Danell in the post, with Justin entering his second season as the starter. Head coach Jim Unke has a number of options at the power forward position, with newcomers Galen Holzhueter and Micah Plocher joining returners Justin Eternick and Scott Henrich to give Martin Luther athleticism down low.

Northland College earned 19 points in the poll, putting the LumberJacks in sixth position. After a difficult 2009-10 season, Northland has the potential to improve on recent years with a level of depth and experience that was lacking in past campaigns. The LumberJacks welcome back four returning starters including senior forward Zeb Woiak, an all-defensive team member. A tandem of seniors will team up at the guard position, with Michael Mackey and Joey Brennan expected to take on the bulk of the minutes in that role. Sophomore forward Eric Krall, a potential deep threat for Northland, will push for more minutes after appearing in all 25 games last season.

Presentation College took seventh place in the poll. The Saints are one of two UMAC teams to feature a new coaching staff this year as Jeremy Reigle takes over for the departed Matt Sevareid. Reigle's group will hope to continue Presentation's improvement in the league after an 8-6 league record earned the Saints the fourth seed in last season's UMAC Tournament. PC lost four starters from that team but is excited to return junior Shane Cunningham, who earned 13 starts. Senior Michael Babcock also returns and looks to play an even larger role this year after appearing in all 26 games. Logan Diede is another senior who played in most of Presentation's contests last year. The Saints' roster will feature eight newcomers in 2010-11 that will be heavily relied upon.

Rounding out the poll was Crown College, who took eighth place. Amidst seven new players, the Storm also welcomes a new coaching staff with Luke Herbert taking the team's reigns. After losing their top three scorers and finishing a tiebreaker away from advancing to the UMAC Tournament for the first time in school history, Crown will definitely have a new look in 2010-11. Junior Taylor Jones and sophomore Andy Harrell will lead Herbert's group of returning players. Jones led the conference with a 43 percent three-point field goal percentage. To continue the team's improvements from last year, the Storm will need to find scoring and leadership on a team that has no seniors and only 11 combined seasons of college basketball experience on the roster.

All eight UMAC teams will play their respective nonconference schedules before beginning conference action on Jan. 11. While everyone will battle for the league's regular-season title, the conference postseason tournament championship during the week of Feb. 23 will be equally important this year as the UMAC Tournament champion will earn an automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament for the first time.