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Alpena native Baruth leads D-II turnaround in Michigan

UNIVERSITY CENTER, Mich.--Randy Baruth's patience was tested. On some nights more than others. When the Alpena native started his tenure as the Saginaw Valley State University men's basketball coach in 2012, the Cardinals were in need of a massiv...

Saginaw Valley State University men's basketball head coach Randy Baruth, center, instructs his team during the NCAA Division II national tournament quarterfinals on March 20 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo courtesy of SVSU University Communications)
Saginaw Valley State University men's basketball head coach Randy Baruth, center, instructs his team during the NCAA Division II national tournament quarterfinals on March 20 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo courtesy of SVSU University Communications)

UNIVERSITY CENTER, Mich.-Randy Baruth's patience was tested. On some nights more than others.

When the Alpena native started his tenure as the Saginaw Valley State University men's basketball coach in 2012, the Cardinals were in need of a massive overhaul.

"When we got there, I was probably the second-best player on our roster," said Baruth, a former Dakota Wesleyan men's basketball player. "That's really scary to think about."

Baruth entered the 2015-16 season with only two players leftover from the roster he received when he first arrived on campus.

"The rest were either cut, or quit," Baruth said.

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If someone told Baruth he would eventually lead the Cardinals to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight four years after he accepted the job, it's not likely he'd believe them. Not after a combined 21-30 record in his first two seasons at the helm.

But that's exactly what his 2015-16 squad did, finishing the year with a 25-8 overall record.

"They always say hindsight is 20-20. Our first two years, to be quite frank, we were not competitive at all," Baruth said. "No question, there was many nights in the basement of watching film or just sitting in the dark, wondering if we're ever going to turn this corner."

The turnaround started with recruiting players he felt fit his system. Baruth and his assistants signed seven high school players and a junior-college transfer in their first full recruiting class. In the next class, they added three more freshmen and a transfer.

"(Rebuilding is) just about developing those guys," Baruth said. "Some of those guys develop better than we thought they would, and not one kid has transferred out, despite our first two years. That's a great sign of the culture of our program."

Once the players were recruited, Baruth knew he had to help bring players from completely different backgrounds together. For example, Cardinal junior forward Caleb Davis is from Perth, Australia. He also added Division I transfers Mitchell Baenziger (Oakland University) and Mike Wells (University at Albany).

After playing for DWU from 1997 to 2000, Baruth joined now-Nebraska head coach Tim Miles at North Dakota State University as an assistant coach from 2002 to 2004. After his time with the Bison, Baruth went on to be legendary coach Don Meyer's top assistant at Northern State from 2004 to 2009. He rejoined Miles as a basketball operations director at Colorado State University for the next two seasons. In the 2011-12 season, he spent a year as a director of player development at Utah under coach Larry Krystkowiak, before getting his head coaching chance.

"I think the biggest thing I learned from coach Miles and coach Krystkowiak was the ability to coach different personalities. Coach Meyer was very set on what he wanted as a player and a person, and he could get those things because he was Don Meyer," Baruth said. "But coach Miles and coach Krystkowiak went through rebuilding processes and had to take junior college kids, transfers and high school kids."

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Working for many renowned coaches, Baruth learned what worked and what didn't work and saw the varying and successful styles up close.

"You take a little bit from everybody. You keep developing your philosophy, and how you want to play," Baruth said. "You had to learn to mix and blend those guys and still form a healthy culture the way coach Meyer had it."

In the 2014-15 season, the Cardinals enjoyed a breakout 21-9 season and momentum carried over in the next year.

Entering NCAA Division II Midwest Regional this season, the Cardinals were coming off a disappointing Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament, where they lost as the No. 1 seed on March 1.

Baruth wasn't sure how SVSU would respond, but he quickly got his answer with a 80-65 win against Lewis. The Cardinals eventually won the regional by defeating Wisconsin-Parkside 80-65 and Ferris State 63-61, sending the school to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

"When you're on the plane getting ready to go to Texas for a game like that, you just start thinking where you've been and where you are," said Baruth, who has a record of 67-47 in four seasons with the Cardinals. "There's no question there's a self-satisfaction with that."

The regional win set up a meeting with Western Oregon in the NCAA quarterfinals on March 23 in Frisco, Texas. Unfortunately for Baruth and the Cardinals, the season ended with a 81-68 defeat to the Wolves. (Augustana University beat Western Oregon in the national semifinals and would go on to win the national championship.) But with consecutive winning seasons under their belts, Baruth feels the Cardinals have established an identity, something that was missing when he first arrived on campus.

"We have a barebones of who we are and who we want to play like," he said. "Offensively, we've been more creative. I always thought I wanted to be a motion person like (former Mitchell High School coach) Gary Munsen and Don Meyer."

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As much as Baruth admired those South Dakota legends, the small-town product is paving his own way.

"I love motion, but we scrapped motion and went into more set situations because of the area we're recruiting in," Baruth said. "Our philosophy of playing hard and being a tough-nosed and man-to-man team, we're not going away from that. We're trying to be creative with how we score and those type of things."

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