Best in the nation: Two Minnesota schools take top spot in NCAA D-II

Putting together a list of the hottest Minnesota hoops teams this season, regardless of level, would surely include the Timberwolves, the Gophers and St. Thomas. They've all had lengthy win streaks at one point.

Getting lost in the attention gained by the local NBA franchise and with the state's two Division I basketball programs, Minnesota State Moorhead and MSU Mankato soared to heights in Division II not seen in more than a decade.

A week ago, Moorhead earned the program's first-ever No. 1 ranking, the first men's team from Minnesota to achieve that distinction since national champion Winona State in 2008.

There was a new No. 1 team in the country Tuesday after 15-1 Moorhead dropped to No. 5 following a 70-68 to Sioux Falls loss over the weekend. Mankato moved into the top spot after improving to 16-0 this season, the program's first No. 1 ranking since 2005.

"It just shows how good our league is and how good Minnesota basketball is," Mavericks coach Matt Margenthaler said about the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which had four top-25 teams last month.

The Minnesota Duluth men and women reached the NCAA DII Elite Eight last season, and the women finished national runner-up. The NSIC never previously had one school with two teams in the Elite Eight in the same year.

How did this recent surge in hoops success happen in Division II?

Minnesota might be called the state of hockey, but it's also a basketball hotbed that shouldn't be overlooked. There's more talent available, not only out of high school, but from experienced players who hit the transfer portal with an extra COVID year of eligibility.

NCAA Division II basketball rankings

Mankato has seven players from Minnesota on its roster, most notably leading scorer and senior guard Malik Willingham from Waseca. The Mavericks have four Division II transfers, including three players from Truman State in Missouri.

"We have a good veteran group who have been with this program for four or five years," Margenthaler said. "We added a few really good transfers. The chemistry and connectiveness early on really developed. It happened faster than I thought it might."

Moorhead has nine players from the state, including its top scorer and junior guard Jacob Beeninga from Maple Grove. The Dragons beat Duluth for the NSIC tournament title and won 25 games in Tim Bergstraser's first year as head coach last season.

Needless to say, their 15-game winning streak and journey to the No. 1 ranking to start this season was another fun ride for the program — and not without suspense along the way.

Beeninga, who averages 19.6 points, nailed a jumper with under three seconds left last week vs. Southwest Minnesota State to help seal Moorhead's second overtime win this season.

A 31-point performance from Beeninga on Saturday wasn't enough to keep the Dragons undefeated against Sioux Falls. That was their 10th game this season decided by single digits. They didn't take the rise to No. 1 for granted.

"It was a pretty big deal," Beeninga said. "It's really satisfying for Tim, for the program he's built, for the fans that we have up here. It brings the community together. This weekend we had two home games with great crowd support. It's cool to get that ranking for all of the people who have followed Dragon hoops for the last 20 years."

Margenthaler took over Mankato's program in 2001. He's now at 468 wins and counting. There was a magical run to the Final Four in 2010-11 and a 30-win season in 2013-14.

"We've been very successful here, but we hadn't had the success the past couple years out of COVID like we wanted," Margenthaler said.

The Mavs are the last undefeated team in Division II. If they defeat No. 21 Minot State on Friday, they'll set a program record with an 11-0 start to NSIC play.

Willingham, who averages 19.2 points, couldn't imagine being in this position after finishing 17-12 last year. He's trying to enjoy the moment and starting alongside his younger brother, Kyreese.

"It feels amazing to get the recognition," Willingham said. "We work so hard throughout the offseason just to be one of the top teams in the nation. These group of guys are so special to be around. Everyone is so unselfish. Since the beginning of the year, we talked about what we wanted to do."

Neither Mankato nor Moorhead set goals to be ranked as the No. 1 team during the regular season. Time will tell if either team is still near the top when they meet Jan. 27 in Mankato.

Whatever happens, the hope is the hot start by Minnesota's Division II powers was the beginning of something potentially more rewarding in March.

"We had a stretch where if you came here, you were playing in the NCAA tournament," Margenthaler said. "Right now, we have some veteran guys who have been here four or five years, but they haven't been to the NCAA tournament. That's where we want to be. That's where we expect to be."


Five Minnesota ballers who stood out:

Aaliyah Crump, Minnetonka

The state's top junior had 38 points in a win Saturday vs. DeLaSalle and 27 points in a comeback win vs. St. Michael Albertville last Friday after trailing at halftime.

Daniel Freitag, Breck

The Wisconsin recruit had consecutive 30-point games, including a 37-point effort in the No. 1 team in Class 2A's 95-63 win against No. 10 Holy Family.

Maddyn Greenway, Providence Academy

The state's top sophomore scored a combined 92 points in back-to-back wins recently, including a season-high 49 points vs. Edina.

Jade Hill, St. Thomas

The Minneapolis native came through in the clutch with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists, including a game-winning three in a 73-72 victory against Oral Roberts.

Ayoka Lee, Kansas State

The 6-6 senior from Byron led the Wildcats to their 10th consecutive victory Saturday with 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in a 61-58 upset against No. 10 Texas.


6 Division III national ranking for the Gustavus Adolphus women, undefeated in the MIAC at 10-0 through Wednesday.

9 Win streak for Southwest Minnesota State women, longest for the program since 2001-02.

3-1 Summit League records for both St. Thomas men and women to be in early contention for the title. Tommies men won 10 of 12 entering Wednesday.

20-10-10 Triple-double for North Dakota's Kacie Borowicz last week with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a win vs. Omaha.

600 Career coaching wins by Minnetonka girls coach Brian Cosgriff after Tuesday's win vs. Prior Lake. Walker-Hackensack-Akeley girls coach Jim Lien reached that milestone last week.

3,000 Career points for Mountain-Iron Buhl's Jordan Zubich, a North Carolina recruit, after a 33-point performance Thursday against North Woods.

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