Each year brings a new set of strengths and challenges at the junior collegiate basketball level, and seventh-ranked Anoka-Ramsey is not exempt from them.
The Golden Rams struggled through November (1-4) to find the right defensive mix to challenge the opposition while scoring at a strong enough rate to compete with not only the top programs in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference, but also the top NJCAA Division III programs nationally.
Anoka-Ramsey opens the December schedule at the Coon Rapids campus against Central Lakes (8 p.m., Dec. 5) and Fon du Lac (3 p.m., Dec. 6).
Last season the Golden Rams were able to utilize an offense that featured two 6-foot, 8-inch interior players to help control the paint on both ends of the floor.
This season, Anoka-Ramsey (1-4) has relied on guards and speed to create offensive chances and draw fouls in an attempt to win the game from the free-throw line.
Coach Ron Larson noted that the team that makes more free throws than the other team takes will generally win more games. The Golden Rams average the fourth highest free throws made in the nation (23.2) compared to the seventh most attempts (31.6).
“We have the ability to get to the line, and hopefully that will continue, but we have to improve our three-point shooting,” he said, categorizing his team as an outside-shooting team learning to find that offensive balance between working the ball inside the paint or settling for perimeter shots.
Trying to figure out a defensive style that will slow down the opposition is another challenge for the coaching staff. “We’re giving up too many points so far, but we’ve played some really good teams,” Larson said about averaging 83.2 points per game, 97th in the nation. Limiting second-chance points and competing harder for rebounds will cut the number, along with a scheme change.
Before a 16-day break from play, Anoka-Ramsey came up short against Dakota County Technical College 82-72 at the St. Paul Salvation Army, Nov. 19.
The Golden Rams couldn’t come back from a 49-33 halftime deficit as they shot .368 from the field, but converted 27-32 free throws (84.4 percent), led by second-year guard Trenton Pollard’s game-high 22 points. Spring Lake Park grad and first-year Golden Ram Robert Ben had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds in a team-high 34 minutes on the floor. First-year guard Kashif Hayes had 10 points in 20 minutes off the bench, and second-year post Justin Casey added 12 points and five rebounds, including a 6-6 effort from the free throw line.
Ben was a standout at Spring Lake Park High School before a illness sidelined him for half of last season at Rochester Community and Technical College.
“Ben’s a tenacious rebounder,” Larson said. He is adjusting well to his role as a member of the starting rotation in a new system.
Pollard takes over the point guard duties and has been the focus of the opposition’s defense so far this season. He averages a team-high 19.4 points, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Pollard is averaging 6-of-15 shooting from the field while converting at an 87 percent clip from the free-throw line.
Second-year guard Chris Byrgiotis, an Austrailian native, stepped into a starting role as one of three guards in the lineup.
“Chris really came on strong for us at the end of last season and is a real smart basketball player that understands his role,” Larson said. Byrgiotis averages 9.6 points and 3.4 assists per game.
A third guard in the starting rotation is Kashif Hayes. A standout at St. Louis Park High School, Hayes didn’t play at Minnesota-Crookston, but has been a solid contributor this season.
“He’s really come into his own as a solid scorer for us,” Larson said, noting Hayes’s quickness on both ends of the floor to help generate offensive chances to score (13.4 points in 25 minutes per game) or contain on defense. He is converting free throws at a high rate (82.8 percent).
Golden Rams newcomer Justin Casey is the only starting post on the team, listed at 6-foot, 6-inches. The Park Center High School graduate attended Gillette College (Wyoming) where he sat out last season. This season he is averaging 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds in five games as the featured interior player.
“He’s a versatile forward … (with a) good inside-outside game for us …. Now we’re trying to figure out how to utilize his skills, and he’s learning how to play again. He hasn’t played for a year-and-a-half,” Larson said.
The Golden Rams opened the regular season at the Tri-State Classic in Ironwood, Michigan, Nov. 7-8 with losses to Madison College 85-80 and an 82-77 loss to Milwaukee Area Tech.
Against Madison College, sophomore forward Anthony Brama had 17 points and eight rebounds while Hayes came off the bench to score 18 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field and made all seven free throws attempted.
Poor shooting in the first half against Milwaukee proved to be too much to overcome as Byrgiotis led the way with 16 points and Casey picked up the first double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Pollard’s 18.8 point per game average ranks second in the MCAC Southern Division while Casey is averaging 15 points and 7.8 rebounds (31 rebounds in four games) through four games. He’s shooting 60 percent from the field (24-60), the sixth highest rate in the division. Chris Byrgiotis converted 6-of-14 three-pointers (.429 percent).
The following weekend, Anoka-Ramsey took part in the Bayport Inn Classic in Wahpeton, North Dakota, Nov. 15-16. The Golden Rams opened with the first win of the season by way of a 96-83 result against Dakota College-Bottineau.
Anoka-Ramsey shot 41.2 percent beyond the three-point arc while out-rebounding the Lumberjacks 51-34, including 17 on the offensive side of the floor to offset 21 turnovers.
Pollard had a season-high 32 points, 27 coming in the second half. Casey picked up his second straight double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
Anoka-Ramsey closed out the weekend with an 86-64 loss to North Dakota School of Science Nov. 16.
Former Duluth East standout guard and current NDSCS guard Johnny Woodard had 42 points, and the Golden Rams shot only 30 percent from the field.