Sunday, November 15, 2009

2009-2010 Season Preview

It seems like only yesterday that the Mankato State women won the NCAA D2 national title, Tayler Hill became the most prolific scorer in Minnesota high school history, and--count 'em--three boys teams won state high school championships with undefeated records.

But Hill now wears an Ohio State uniform, and has already scored 28 points in her first two games as a Buckeye. Two of Minnesota's top boys' players, Royce White and Rod Williams, have moved on to Minnesota. White is not currently playing due to legal difficulties, however, while Williams is wowing the Gopher faithful with 31 points and tremendous leaping ability through three games. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves' will be rebuilding without the help of long-time executive Kevin McHale; and the Gopher women will be without #7 all-time scorer Emily Fox.

Change is in the air, and why not? In about six weeks, we'll be entering into a new decade of Minnesota basketball, and we can only hope it has the excitement of the decade of 2000-2009.

Tubby's Turn?

Hope, of course, springs eternal, and the focus of that hope for Minnesota basketball fans, initially at least, is the #18 rated Gopher men under coach Tubby Smith. Now in his third year at the U, Tubby has assembled a deep, deep roster--even with three players, including White, on suspension as the season gets underway. Not only that but most of this troops now have had at least a year's experience in Tubby's system. Last year, as the season wore on, it was increasingly a case of "as goes Lawrence Westbrook, so go the Gophers." This coming year, more of Tubby's troops should be ready to step up when match-ups call for it: Not just returning starters Damian Johnson, Al Nolen and Ralph Sampson III, but also sophomore Devoe Joseph and the freshman Williams seem ready to do so.

In short, Tubby, his players and Gopher faithful all see the Maroon and Gold as a team that should still be standing and making some noise come March. A Big Ten title or a Final Four is probably too much to ask, but this should easily be the best Gopher team since that that bittersweet season of 1996-97. It says here the U goes 20-10 in the regular season, 11-7 in the Big Ten, and wins a couple in the Big Ten tournament. That adds up to a #6 seed and a couple more wins in the Big Dance.

The Lottery Life

On the other end of the spectrum, the only question for the Timberwolves is how bad? It will be bad, but how bad? Right now the Wolves are 1-10 with a ten game losing streak and no relief in sight. Al Jefferson's knee isn't 100 percent. And, the point guard the Wolves didn't pick in the draft, Brandon Jennings, has already had a 55-point night for the Bucks, while Jonny Flynn is overmatched every night and Ricky Rubio stayed in Italy rather than play for this team.

One almost expects to look courtside and see Jimmy Rodgers calling the shots. It says here that the Wolves will be lucky to win the 15 games that Rodgers' crew won in 1991-92. They'll have another crack at the NBA's draft lottery come next spring, but the fact is that evaluating and drafting the best available talent has never been the Wolves' forte, either.

Up for Grabs

With the exception of the Mpls. South girls, all of the 2009 state high school champions were predominantly senior teams. Three South starters return, the most of any of the eight champions, but Tayler Hill is not among them. So all of the 2010 titles would seem to be very much for grabs.

Still, it says here that the Hopkins, Benilde-St. Margaret's and Ellsworth boys, who combined for seven state titles in eleven state finals appearances during the decade of the '00s, will emerge next March as state champions. They'll be pushed by Henry Sibley, Minnetonka, Tartan; St. Paul Johnson, New Prague; and Minnesota Transitions, among others. In AA, Crosby-Ironton, New London-Spicer and Plainview-Elgin-Millville will contend. Kevin Noreen of Transitions and Cole Olstad of Plainview-E-M would seem to be the best bets for Mr. Basketball honors.

Among the girls, Lakeville North and Barnum are the favorites among the largest and smallest schools. In between, two Mpls. schools, North and Roosevelt, looked last spring like the prohibitive favorites. But several North players transferred out, and Roosevelt point guard Shakila Boler hurt her knee for a second time. If Boler can play, Roosevelt can contend. If not, New London-Spicer becomes the favorite. In AAA, DeLaSalle, Worthington and Benilde-St. Margaret's now look stronger than North. Gopher recruit Sari Noga of Parkers Prairie has the look of a Ms. Basketball.

The More Things Change....

Among the small colleges, the perennial powers are poised to remain perennial. In the D2 Northern Sun Conference, defending men's tournament champions St. Cloud State are favored in the annual coach's poll, while two-time national champ (2006 and 2008) Winona State was picked as the runner-up. Defending national champion Mankato State is favored to repeat as the women's champion.

In the D3 MIAC, the coaches picked St. Thomas to win both the men's and women's championships despite the fact that, for the first time in 95 years, the Tommies will play their home games off-campus. The Schoenecker Arena has been demolished to make way for a new athletic facility, so the Tommies will play at Gangelhoff Arena, home of D2 Concordia (St. Paul). All-America shooting guard Joe Scott leads the Tommie men, while 6-2 transfer Rachel Booth, who scored 12 ppg last year at D2 St. Cloud State, should be a dominant presence in D3.

Still, the St. Cloud men would seem to have the best opportunity to make some noise next March.

Treading Water

Finally, the Gopher women continue to search for the magic that surrounded the program earlier in the decade, but has eluded them since Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville departed for the WNBA. Now it is the sophomore class of Kiara Buford, Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt--rather than the seniors, Ashley Ellis-Milan, Brittany McCoy and Katie Ohm--who inspire hope. Third place in the Big Ten, as predicted for them in the coaches' pre-season poll, seems generous. The Gopher women have been notable in recent years for their inability to get any easy baskets in transition, and so they've had to grind it out. The result has been a series of infamous offensive meltdowns in key games.

Still, Buford has scored 20 ppg in the first three games, including exhibitions. If she can consistently get out in transition, the Gophers could surprise. But that seems a lot to ask of one skinny sophomore. And so, 9-9 (in the Big Ten) and 15-14 (overall) could be more like it.

Most Likely to Succeed

Most likely to be making noise next March:

1. Gopher men
2. Barnum girls
3. St. Cloud State men
4. St. Thomas men and women
5. Ellsworth boys

Coaches of the Year:

1. Tubby Smith, Minnesota
2. Kevin Schlagel, St. Cloud State men
3. Steve Fritz and Ruth Sinn, St. Thomas
4. Mike Dreier, New London-Spicer girl
5. Kenny Novak and Brian Cosgriff, Hopkins boys and girls

Players of the Year:

1. Rachel Booth and Joe Scott, St. Thomas
2. Sari Noga, Parkers Prairie
3. Kiara Buford, Minnesota
4. Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota
5. Kevin Noreen, MN Transitions, and Cole Olstad, Plainview-E-M

Games of the Year:

1. Ohio State (January 9), Michigan State (January 23) and Purdue (February 24) at Minnesota men

2. State high school championship Saturday, girls and boys, March 20 and 27, respectively

3. St. Ben's vs. St. Thomas women (at St. Ben's January 16; at St. Thomas February 16)

4. St. Cloud State men vs. Winona State (at St. Cloud December 4, at Winona February 27)

5. Ohio State and Tayler Hill at Minnesota Gopher women February 14

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