Thursday, December 31, 2009

"1" Is the Number at Best Buy Holiday Classic

"1" was the number at Augsburg's Si Melby Hall Wednesday night (December 30, 2009), as the #1 4A Hopkins boys (7-0) took on #1 3A St. Paul Johnson (8-0) in the finals of the 1st annual Best Buy Holiday Classic basketball tournament. That had to make this the #1 game between now and March and probably beyond, since the two teams will play in different classes come play-off time.

In the end it was the Johnson Governors and coach Vern Simmons surprising Hopkins (and me) by out-running the perennially powerful Royals 86-78 for a fast-paced, entertaining and hard-fought victory. I was surprised a second time to find afterwards that MaxPreps had had the Governors rated ahead of the Royals going into the BestBuy tournament. Smart guys. But I doubt that there were many in the sizable crowd, which included Gopher coach Tubby Smith, who were not surprised by the outcome.

But the fact is the Governors were quicker and deeper and better than the Royals, and used a pair of big runs early in each half to win. Hopkins led only twice, once early at 8-6. From there Johnson went on a 13-4 run that they then extended to 20-10 for a 26-18 lead at 8:30 of the first half.

The Royals fought back to tie at 29, then took only their second lead of the night at 44-42 early in the second half. Th Governors responded again with a 16-3 run to lead 58-49 at 12:05. Still, Hopkins would not go away and fought back to within one at 64-63 and 66-65 but the Royals never caught up and Johnson made 9-of-13 free throws inside of two minutes to secure the win.

People say that Johnson is small with two 6-5 guys. And, of the five players who scored in double figures for the Governors, all but 6-4 forward Jordan Pluff are listed as guards. But the fact is that Hopkins goes 6-5, 6-5, 6-3 across their putative starting front line, and 6-5 D. J. Peterson is a guard. So Johnson gave up almost nothing in size, and what little they gave up they more than made up for in quickness, scrappiness and fearlessness.

If it's just raw size that you want, that's the visitors from Christian Faith Center Academy in North Carolina at 6-9, 6-8, 6-6, 6-6, and the Royals had already dispatched them the night before. So if you want to compete with Hopkins (or anybody), quickness may get you more than size.

My unofficial rebounding numbers, which I had at 42-42, bear that out. On the Governors' end, Hopkins had 24 defensive and Johnson 15 offensive rebounds, and on the other end, Hopkins had 18 offensive and Johnson 27 defensive rebounds. Both teams really got after it on the offensive glass, but as these numbers show, there were also six more misses on the Hopkins end and that, my friends, is the old ball game.

But first, about that pace. At 11:10 of the second half, Peterson scored for Hopkins. At 11:06, Johnson's Estan Tyler was fouled while driving the far baseline. A minute-and-a-half later, at 9:30, Demitri Conwell scored for the Governors, with an assist from Anthony Lee. At 9:24, Hopkins' Zach Stahl scored on the other end. And, yet, playing at the kind of pace, I had the turnovers at Johnson 12 and Hopkins 10. So, there were a few turnovers that led to some transition offense, but mostly the pace was being forced off of the defensive glass and even after made baskets.

Hopkins took the early 8-6 lead by getting the ball to Marvin Singleton inside. Singleton scored 3 of the Royals' first 4 and 4 of their first 6. Singleton finished the first half with 14 points, but scored only 4 in the second as Hopkins seemed to stop looking inside.

Johnson came back with that first, confidence-building 20-10 rush, and showed that they can score a lot of different ways. Out of 9 baskets, 3 came off the offensive glass, 2 in transition and 1 on the 3. Tyler had a 3, 2 put-backs and an assist during the rush and 6 other Governors scored.

It was more of the same after Hopkins came back to lead 44-42--four free throws, then a pretty baseline drive by Anthony Lee. Then, transition lay-ups by by Roosevelt Scott and Lee, the former coming off a made Hopkins basket, sandwiched around a throw by Marcus Marshall also coming out of a transition rush. Finally Scott hit a 3 ball and Tyler a 2 to force a Royals' timeout.

Hopkins responded with a 14-6 run to get within one, as they looked inside to Singleton for a couple of buckets. But Johnson then scored on 4 straight possessions and 6-of-8 to force the free throw shooting contest.

Tyler led Johnson with 20 points, whereupon the tournament committee ratified the obvious by naming him MVP. Lee, with 10, and Donte Warlick, with 6, were also instrumental in protecting the ball and getting Johnson into their offensive sets. Jordan Pluff and Roosevelt Scott played big inside and scored 16 and 12.

Singleton and Joe Coleman led Hopkins with 18 each, but Singleton was not much of a factor after the 4:00 mark of the first half. Coleman, who scored 43 in the Royals' season opener and came in averaging 28, got off just 9 shots. So it appears that Johnson took away a couple of Hopkins' preferred options on offense. The Royals' other guards, Peterson and sophomore Siyani Chambers, added 22, while Jeremiah Tolbert, freshman Riley Dearring and sophomore Zach Stahl, who play more on the inside, added 19 among them.

So Hopkins had nice scoring balance. Except that nobody could hit the 3 ball. If you're one of those folks who are inclined to celebrate the Royals' loss, it really came down to 2-for-16 shooting from behind the arc. Whether that is easily addressed remains to be seen, but Hopkins and Johnson matched up pretty much dead even other than that.

On 2s, for example, Johnson made an unofficial 28-of-53 and Hopkins 25-of-51.

Faith Academy 78 Henry Sibley 74

Sibley pretty much had this 3rd place match-up in the bag, leading 59-52 at the 3:36 mark, when 7-foot Jake Kreuser fouled out. Faith scored the last 7 points of regulation and the first 4 of overtime and Sibley never got within 3 points again. Kreuser scored 13 and 6-8 Mike Rostampour added 10 and both were very impressive against and equally tall opponent. Kreuser in particular has come miles from the awkward sophomore I last saw. He has increased his strength and, especially, his agility. From the waist down he's terrific. If there's a problem it might be the hands. Rostampour's only problem is that his one-handed jumper didn't go down. Whether that was unique to tonight's game or a recurring problem, I don't know, but it's an awkward little shot. Still, both will be playing D1 ball at Lafayette and Valpo. Both will do well.

The real news was Sibley's new guard tandem of Jordan Jackson, a transfer from St. Paul Como Park, and sophomore Dante Grant. Jackson vastly outplayed the Faith guards and in scoring a game-high 30 points while Grant added 11.

But, no, the real news was Faith 8th grader Andrew Wiggins. Some Minnesotans have heard that Apple Valley's Tyus Jones may be the best 8th grader in the country, but anybody in the crowd last night knows different. Besides, I'm told that Jones has "8th grade legs." The 6-6 Wiggins, meanwhile, doesn't have 8th grade anything. His dad, Mitch, was a first round NBA draft pick in 1984 and played 6 NBA seasons. His mom ran track in the 1984 Olympics. Wiggins led Faith with 22.

Chicago Julian 72 Milwaukee Marshall 51

Julian hammered Marshall 72-51 for 5th place as senior guard Walter Lemon, Jr., scored 20 for the winners. He's rated the #21 player in Chicago-land,so you'll be hearing more from him. Still, while the best guards of the day--Tyler of Johnson, and Coleman of Hopkins--are juniors, Lemon's got nothing on the completely unheralded Jackson of Henry Sibley among senior guards who took the court at Si Melby yesterday. Jackson may have put himself into the running for a D1 scholarship with last night's performance.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Fillies at the First Turn

I've spent the first one-third of the 2009-2010 basketball season focused on the high school girls, mostly the better AAAA teams. I've seen 8 teams that have been ranked among the AAAA top 10 at one time or another and, arguably, 12 of the current top 20. I've also seen about half of the top 50 rated girls in the state, since they're concentrated to some degree among the large metro schools. Here are my ratings going into the second (conference) and third (play-offs) seasons.

AAAA Top 10 and Contenders

1. Lakeville North Panthers (10-0). Tongues were sent a-wagging at a newspaper article in which the Lakeville girls proclaimed their goal of being the best team ever in Minnesota girls ball. It seems a little premature, not to mention foolhardly. Such claims are sure to be used against them in every locker room in the Lake Conference. I saw the Panthers out-score Eastview 29-4 in the second half of one game last year, then lose to the Lightning in the section final. Lakeville needs to show it can excel consistently before talking much more than it already has. Still, having the #1 rated players among the 2010s (6-4 post and Wisconsin Badger recruit Cassie Rochel) and 2011s (point guard Rachel Banham, a Minnesota Gopher recruit), would seem to be a pretty good start toward a state championship. And given the travails that most of the other contenders have experienced already this season, they're the prohibitive favorite. They wrapped up the "first season" by winning 3 games down in Rochester by an average of 78-24.

2. Edina Hornets (10-0). Point guard Katybeth Biewen, a sophomore, and swing man Taylor Young, a senior, lead the Hornets, but Grace Veker and Jamie Bresnahan are solid, too, especially on defense. Young was prone to passivity in the past but she's been much more aggressive this year. Biewen, a first-year starter, has been aggressive on both ends of the court from the get-go. I saw her get 11 steals against Hill-Murray. The Hornets wrapped up 2009 by beating highly rated White Bear Lake with surprising ease, 64-48

3. Eden Prairie Eagles (8-2). Eden Prairie looked unbeatable early on, then lost 2 games by a total of 3 points at the Hopkins holiday tournament. The Eagles run like the wind and out-score people. Slow 'em down and you've got a chance. 6-3 sophomore post Jackie Johnson is a stronger version of Cassie Rochel, but she needs to stay out of foul trouble because the Eagles are lacking in depth.

4. White Bear Lake Bears (9-2). The Bears have the best mix of inside and out, and starting five and bench strength this side of Lakeville North. But they may lack the go-to, superstar player that the truly great teams have. Their losses are to the last two AAAA unbeatens, and the facts that Edina beat them by 9 more points than Lakeville North did is interesting.

5. Eastview Lightning (7-3). Started slowly, losing to Eden Prairie and White Bear Lake early on. Then, they impressed by surviving the cut-throat bracket at the Dick's Sporting Goods tournament in Hopkins, only to get clobbered by the host Royals by 21 in the final. The catch is that point guard Haley Thomforde missed that game with an ankle injury. When Thomforde is at full speed, the Lightning's 4 and 5-guard sets run like a top and Eastview always seems to get the shot they want.

6. Chaska Hawks (7-1). Chaska won the second best holiday tournament at Hill-Murray, though it took a 2OT effort in the semis to get past Centennial. Still, the Hawks probably have the best 3-deep bona fide frontcourt among the elite teams, and they're one of the few that aren't going to throw a 4-man guard set at you. They man-handled a good Prior Lake team in the final.

7. Bloomington Kennedy (8-2). The Eagles took a pair of surprising losses to Prior Lake and Rochester Lourdes after a great start. They're a lot like Chaska in that they'd be a lot better if basketball was played 4-on-4 instead of 5-on-5, and junior point guard Aubrey Davis is the real deal.

8. Hopkins Royals (7-5). Just when you think the Royals are really down, they get point guard Brianna Williams back and win 3 straight at the Dick's Sporting Goods tournament. Of course, it's also true that the lower bracket at Dick's came in with a record of 16-17 while the upper bracket was at 24-4, and it's also true that Eastview's Haley Thomforde wasn't able to play in the final. Still, Williams makes the Royals a whole new team and there is substantial size and strength inside with Hana Potter and Tori Joranson.

9. Maple Grove Crimson (7-2). Like Eden Prairie, Maple Grove came into the Dick's Classic unbeaten and left with 2 losses--and, in their case, despite beating the other unbeaten themselves. So, will the real Crimson please stand up? Senior post Julie Kruse had a great tournament, but guards Stephanie Davidson, Ellen Edison and Jen Field only had one great game. The loss to 6-4 Osseo especially hurts because they're a fellow resident of Section 5AAAA.

10. Centennial Cougars (6-4). The defending state runners-up are also Section 5AAAA residents and have what looks like an easy choice for Ms. Basketball finalist in Megan Waytashek, who scored 86 points in 3 Hill-Murray tournament games. Other than point guard Kahla Becken, however, Waytashek doesn't have a lot of help.

Honorable Mention. In alpha order, the following teams could cause trouble at least for the second 5, whether in sectional or state tournament play: Burnsville (5-1), Mpls. South (4-4), Minnetonka (7-3), Mounds View (7-2), Osseo (6-4) and Rosemount (8-1).

Classes AAA, AA and A

I have not seen most of these teams but based on what I've read and heard, there are clear favorites in each class. In AAA, it is DeLaSalle under new coach Faith Patterson, especially now that Benilde-St. Margaret's has taken its first loss. In AA, it's New London-Spicer, and in A it's still Barnum.

Ms. Basketball

Among girls I've seen this year--and, now, in any class--5 top Ms. Basketball contenders are:

Suriya McGuire, Mpls. Roosevelt
Hana Potter, Hopkins
Haley Thomforde, Eastview
Megan Waytashek, Centennial
Taylor Young, Edina

Among girls I haven't seen this year (but I've seen all of them last year and over the summer), based on what I've heard, the top 5 contenders are:

Angela Christianson, Alexandria
Ameshia Kearney, Mpls. South
Katrina Newman, Barnum
Sari Noga, Parkers Prairie
Cassie Rochel, Lakeville North

If I had to pick just 5 today it would be (again, in alpha order) Newman, Noga, Rochel, Thomford and Waytashek. And Ms. Basketball as of today would be Waytashek, who passes up Noga and Rochel based on her (Waytashek's) 67 points against Chaska and Hill-Murray in the Cougars' final two games at Hill-Murray.

Coach of the Year

The early favorite for Coach of the Year is Mike Dreier of AA #1 and perennially powerful, machine-like and fun to watch New London-Spicer.

Behind Mike are Andy Berkvam, Lakeville North in AAAA; Eric Lindner, Worthington in AAA; and Mike Kelly, Cedar Mountain in A. Hawley's Bill Gottenborg rounds out a Top 5.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Northern Sun Takes a Break

Like the MIAC, the Northern Sun takes a break from conference action during the second half of December, and so we know that the NSIC will enter the new year with the Minnesota State-Mankato men and the Concordia women holding down first place in their respective divisions.

Mav Men

Among the men, the Mavericks are the only remaining unbeaten at 3-0. Seniors Travis Nelson, a 6-11 center, and Jefferson Mason, a 6-6 guard who played his high school ball at Armstrong, are leading the way with 33 points per game between them. Mason leads the team in rebounding with 9 per game, while Nelson also contributes a team-high 2 blocks per outing.

St. Cloud State, Winona State and surprising Upper Iowa share second place at 3-1. The Warriors guard tandem of David Johnson, the 6-2 senior from Hayfield, and Ben Fisher lead the conference with 23.9 points and 7.9 assists, respectively. Winona rebounded from an 88-87 overtime loss at Bemidji last Friday night by blasting Minnesota-Duluth 120-78 on Saturday. Johnson scored 35 points while Fisher had 12 points and 14 assists, and the Warriors tied the school record for points in a game.

Meanwhile, Anthony Moody of Mary is doing it all--leading his team with 17 points, 5-and-a-half rebounds and 3-and-a-half assists, while playing a league-high of 36 minutes per game.

Mankato, Winona and St. Cloud State all appear in the second ten of the national D2 rankings. The next really big game on the NSIC men's schedule has Mankato at Winona on Saturday, January 9.

Among the Women

Meanwhile, the Concordia women holds first place at 4-0 after surprising previously unbeaten Minnesota State-Moorhead at Moorhead on Saturday night, 77-65. Augustana and Mankato State but a half-game back at 3-0.

The Bears are led by Jineen Williams with 16 points and 4 assists per game, while Jennie Noreen, sophomore guard from Albany, has wasted no time in becoming the Mavs go-to player with 16.8 ppg while shooting .552 from the floor (.475 from behind the 3 point line) and adding 2 steals per game. Moorhead is led by inside players Alison Nash-Gerlach and Meghan Rettke, seniors from Roseville and Hutchinson, respectively, with 28 points and 19 rebounds between them. The early favorite for MVP honors, however, would be Jheri Booker, Minnesota-Duluth, with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 4 steals.

The big game coming back from the holiday break looks to be Mankato State at Moorhead State on Saturday, January 3.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cardinals and Scots Movin' Up

"Three" was the theme in the MIAC, at least until tonight (Wednesday, December 9, 2009). After three rounds of play, three men's teams were off to a better than .500 start and three women's teams remained undefeated. In each case, the leaders include a couple of perennial powers and a surprise, and both of the surprise teams were scheduled to face off against their perennial oppressors.

Cardinal Men Take Flight

On the men's side, the surprise is St. Mary's. The Cardinals haven't had a winning record in the MIAC since 2000, and the past two years they've won 9 games and lost 41 overall. But junior guards Lukas Holland and Will Wright are both scoring more than 18 points per game and freshman Chris Palmer, who hails from my alma mater in Faribault Bethlehem Academy, is coming off the bench to kick in 12 points and 7 boards. Coach Todd Landrum, in his second year at St. Mary's, didn't recruit his dynamic guard duo but he's clearly got this team playing with spirit and confidence--no more so than in a recent 80-77 loss at Gustavus Adolphus.

Gustavus led St. Mary's 47-24 at half-time, but the Cardinals stormed back within 76-75 on a Palmer bucket on a Wright assist at 0:21. St. Mary's ran out of time, but the result raised more than a few eyebrows around the MIAC.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals' scheduled visit to St. Thomas was postponed tonight due to the weather, so we'll have to wait until January 11 to find out just how "for real" St. Mary's really is.

Scots Women Back on the Map

Among the women, the surprise team is Macalester, whose season was suspended after 6 games in 2005 due to a lack of healthy players. Coach Ellen Thompson, captain of St. Thomas' 1991 national champions, was brought in to rebuild the Scots' program, and that's just what she's done. Led by (now) seniors, Ann Baltzer, Eartha Bell, Danielle Johnson and Trina PaStarr, Macalester has improved its record every year that Thompson and the senior class have been on board.

It's true, of course, that the biggest games thus far have featured not Macalester but Concordia (Moorhead). The Cobbers shocked pre-season championship fave St. Thomas 63-45 on opening night, then turned around and lost at Gustavus 66-61. It's also true, however, that those games now have been overshadowed by tonight's visit of perennially powerful St. Ben's to the up-and-coming Scots.

And for the moment, the Scots will have to content themselves with sole possession of 3rd place in the MIAC (3-1) after a 75-65 home court loss to the Bennies. The game was last tied at 19 before the Blazers ran out to a 42-27 half-time lead. It was still 73-57 St. Ben's at 1:28. Heather Gillund, a 6-1 junior post from Blaine, led the way for the Blazers with 17 points, 11 rebounds, 5 blocks and 2 steals. St. Ben's remains tied for first place in the MIAC with Gustavus Adolphus.

Gustavus Remains Adolphus

The Gustavus men and women both remain unbeaten at 4-0 after both defeated Augsburg tonight. The women, playing at home, trounced the Auggies 80-39, dashing out to leads of 8-0, 23-7 and 38-14 at the half. 6-2 freshman post Abby Rothenbuehler from Mankato West led the way with 19 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.

The men, playing on the road, needed an overtime to avoid the upset, 77-72. Gustavus led early 18-8, but only 24-23 at the half. Augsburg took its first lead since 4-2 at 28-26 and eventually led 54-47 at 5:38. Gustavus didn't lead in the second half after 35-34 but tied the score at 61 with just 11 ticks left on the clock. In overtime, it was all Gustavus. Sophomore guard Seth Anderson came off the bench to score 18 points.

A Long Way to Go

After tonight, only three more conference games remain to be played before next January 2. Still, it's probably not too early to say that it seems unlikely that upstarts Macalester or St. Mary's will be able to wrestle an MIAC championship away from the perennial powers Gustavus, St. Ben's and St. Thomas. Those would represent upsets of historic proportions. But it's probably not too early to make coaches Landrum and Thompson the front-runners for coach of the year honors in the MIAC.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Get 'Em Next Year

It's that time of year again when the thoughts and hopes of Timberwolves fans begin turning toward next year. It's December. And optimism is running high.

I know. I shouldn't joke. The Wolves have already taken care of that.

Still, the season is barely a month old and the Timberwolves are in good shape. We mean, of course, in the only race that matters for the Wolves of 2009-2010, that is the NBA draft sweepstakes. As of today, at 3-17, they're in second place. With the return of Kevin Love from a broken wrist, of course, the Wolves are at risk of dropping in the standings, judging by their 1-1 record and Love's 29 points and 21 rebounds in two games back.

So let's split the difference between 3-17 (.150) and 1-1 (.500) and go out on a limb here, and say that the Wolves play .325 ball the rest of the way. That's another 20 wins for a final record of 23-59 (.280). That's one win less than last year, and one more than two years ago, and those records (24 and 22 wins) tied for the sixth and third worst in the NBA, respectively. Over the past 3 years, 23 wins would have been tied for fourth, tied for fifth and second in the NBA draft sweepstakes. Right now, a .280 winning percentage would only move them up (or, rather, down) a couple of spots from second to fourth place in the preliminary draft lineup.

So, for the moment, let's say that the Wolves have the fourth draft pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Of course, that's assuming something less than the worst, because more often than not, the Wolves have picked below their preliminary position. And, in 20 years of NBA drafts, most of which the Wolves have spent among the lottery participants, Minnesota has never improved its position. But since we're speculating anyway, let's stick with fourth place.

First, of course, would be better. The mock drafts are almost unanimous (17 out of 20 that I checked) in slotting Kentucky freshman 6-4 point guard John Wall as the #1 pick. Early indications are that he'll be better than most of the top point guard picks in recent drafts, such as, er, Jonny Flynn (#6, Minnesota, 2009), O.J. Mayo (#3, Minnesota, 2008), Mike Conley (#4, Memphis, 2007), Randy Foye (#7, Boston, 2006) and Raymond Felton (#5, Charlotte, 2005). Three of these five have ties to the Wolves, which speaks to their ineptitude over the years in finding the right point guard to run the show.

On the other hand, you can't expect Wall to be better than Chris Paul (#4, New Orleans, 2005), of course, or Deron Williams (#3, Utah, 2005), and it's too early to tell, but Wall may not quite be the equal of Derrick Rose (#1, Chicago, 2008) and Tyreke Evans (#4, Sacramento, 2009). Still, Wall is thought to be closer to these guys than to the Flynns, Mayos and Foyes.

Okay, now forget about Wall, because there's no reason to think the Wolves are going to get a crack at him. Nor are the Wolves going to get a crack at Georgia Tech 6-9 forward Derrick Favors with a #4 pick. Favors, who reminds observers of Josh Smith and Blake Griffin, is pretty widely regarded as the likely #2 pick.

By the time you get down to #3, much less #4, the consensus pretty much dissolves, and three players stand out, or not. And, here's where the Wolves' history as bad talent evaluators and of bad draft picks is worrisome. If there are three players regarded as next best, one is probably going to exceed expectations, one is going to meet expectations, and one is going to bomb out. Which is which, and which one are the Wolves going to pick? The options would appear to be:

• Ed Davis is a 6-10 power forward, now a freshman at North Carolina. He's described as "polished" and a player "who can do a lot of things in the paint.... Think Chris Webber/Rasheed Wallace."

• Greg Monroe is also a 6-10 power forward and a freshman (Georgetown). He's "smooth with a a variety of skills (though) jumping is not one of them."

• Donatas Motiejunas is a 7-foot Lithuanian power forward, a "silky smooth ball handler, good passer, (with) a nearly flawless release on his jumper.... More athletic than Nowitzki or Bargnani," according to one mock draft. He "may be one of the best players in the NBA."

In addition to identifying the right guy (or, even just the wrong guy), the other problem is that the "best available athlete" when the Wolves' pick comes up plays a position where the Wolves already have a pretty good ballplayer in Love. What the Wolves really need is a guy who can just flat-out fill it up from the perimeter, with the "j" or on the drive or, preferably, both. Who could that player be?

• Well, unfortunately, that guy has a broken back. That would be Evan Turner, 6-7 small forward and freshman at Ohio State, who reminds folks of Paul Pierce.

• Then there's Willie Warren, 6-4 off guard at Oklahoma. "He can shake and bake and create his own shot," but at 6-4 "he cannot attack the rim" in the NBA. "If he develops an ability to pass he could become one of the top prospects." That doesn't sound like the man.

• And the third option on the perimeter is thought to be Devin Ebanks, a 6-8 small forward at West Virginia, who is described as a "high flyer..... He can hammer from anywhere (but) he cannot do much else."

The good news is there's a long way to go and these draft prospects will do more to sort themselves out, as perhaps Turner has already done--i.e. sorted himself out. But right now, if the Wolves don't have the first or second choice in the 2010 NBA draft, it looks like it again will be a tricky affair. Of course, a free agent signing could also overshadow the Wolves' draft pick, which would be a first. Later on we'll speculate about that, and you can assume that we'll drop names like Joe Johnson, Luke Ridnour, David Lee and Travis Outlaw. LeBron James, Chris Bosh or Dewayne Wade, not so much.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dahl-mania Hits East Lansing at Last

It's not every day that Isaiah Dahlman is the story line for a Michigan State Spartans basketball game. The former Minnesota high school superstar has had a disappointing ride at MSU, playing in just 66 of the Spartans' 116 games over the past 3+ seasons, and averaging under 8 minutes and just over 2 points in those 66 games. More was expected of the state's all-time top high school scorer at the time of his graduation from Braham High (since eclipsed by Cody Schilling of Ellsworth).

But it's not every day that the Spartans go up against the Wofford Terriers or any team whose star is the brother of an MSU player. But the Terriers are indeed led by Isaiah's younger brother Noah who leads Wofford in scoring (18 ppg), minutes (28) and rebounds (7 rpg), and who shoots 59 percent from the field, none of which Isaiah has ever done in four years in East Lansing.

But of course the Spartans are top ten and play in the Big Ten, while Wofford is, well, they're the Terriers and they lose to people like Appalachian State, Chattanooga and Western Carolina in the Southern Conference.

Still, modesty never having been much of a burden to me, I can say (and my hoops fanatics friends can corroborate) that it was always obvious to me that Noah would be the better college player. Why it wasn't obvious to anybody else, I don't know. But Isaiah was the skinny 6-7 scorer who took it to the rim and put it in the hole. As a senior he was 6-7 and maybe 165 pounds. Now he's listed at 195. Either way, I'm sorry, he's not getting to the rim in the Big Ten. Noah, meanwhile, was a year younger, an inch shorter and 30 pounds heavier (now, 25). Mostly, it was his good fortune that the role of scoring star on his high school team was already taken when he got there. So he learned to use his muscle and to do other things, things that his older brother was never asked to do.

The result of all of that is that if the roles were reversed--if Noah were at Michigan State, say, or Minnesota, and Isaiah were at Wofford--well, in that scenario they'd both be stars. As it is, only one of them gets to play that role anymore.

On the other hand, Isaiah is going to shower up tomorrow night with a W under his, er, well, with a W, and Noah isn't. The Spartans have lost 2 out of 3 after a 4-0 start, and they've fallen from #2 to #9 in the polls. They're ticked off, and they're going to take it out on Noah and his Terriers, brother or no. 87-55 feels about right. But it says here that Noah gets into double figures at maybe 12 points while, assuming MSU coach Tom Izzo honors his ever-patient senior with a shot at his brother--which might mean doubling his season's average of 6 minutes per game--then might Isaiah get half of that, or 6 points. Even that would probably salve the disappointment of riding the pine for the better part of these past 4 years.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bostick, Mbakwe, White and the U of M

Much has been made of Devron Bostick, Trevor Mbakwe and Royce White's absence from the lineup of Tubby Smith's Minnesota Gophers. Mostly, the focus is on how their absence affects the team's chances for success in 2009-2010.

That, of course, is the wrong question.

Still, let's pause to say that, for the most part, the impact of their absence has been vastly overstated. One early report said that the loss of Mbakwe alone would relegate the Gophers from a third place team in the Big Ten to sixth. This, of course, is nonsense. No one player is going to have that sort of an impact on the Gophers' success. Maybe in the days of the Iron Five (1973 or 1986, take your pick), but not when Tubby is already rotating 10 guys.

The Gophers are essentially two platoons worth of guys who can match up a lot of different ways, and maybe wear somebody out now and again, and go cold at the most inopportune times. After a 4-0 start, they've lost three in a row while shooting 33, 39 and 43 percent. And, in the latter case, tied at 53 at Miami, Fla., Minnesota failed to score from the 2:52 mark until just 26 seconds remained in the game and the Gophers trailed 61-53.

I am not down on Tubby's Gophers. Miami is 7-0. I said in my season preview that the Gophers are a 20-10 team, and I still believe they're a 20-10 team. All I'm saying is bring back Bostick, Mbakwe and White, and they're still a 20-10 team.

But my real point is that doing what's best for the Gopher basketball team isn't even on the radar, and shouldn't be. Doing what's best for the kids is important. But what matters most to those who call the shots, and should--though they've been fairly tight-lipped about it--is doing what's best for the University of Minnesota, and the public. The U is a public institution and a corporate citizen. It has an obligation to support good public values. And it has a reputation to protect, one that has been tarnished by its basketball program so many times in the past that a substantial dollop of extra care and caution is warranted.

Some say it all began with Bill Musselman, but I remember the Gophers' starting point guard, a Minnesota kid, getting booted off the team in December 1964 for sending a buddy into class to take a test under his name. That team went on to finish second in the Big Ten and #7/8 in the national polls.

But, yes, all hell broke loose under Musselman. The intense, win-at-all-costs, bullying fellow that he was, he intimidated the U administration into looking the other way, and illegal inducements were handed out to the players like Halloween candy. As a result, the Gophers' trip to the 1972 NCAA tournament later was voided by the NCAA. Also, in 1973, Musselman's Gophers got into a bit of a brawl with the Ohio State Buckeyes at Williams Arena. Several Gophers were suspended in the aftermath, and an Iron Five guys played almost every minute of every game throughout the rest of the season, and won a tainted Big Ten title.

Musselman left town in 1975 just ahead of NCAA sanctions, saying, "The (NCAA) investigation is of the university, not a single individual. And I am no longer a member of the University of Minnesota."

Jim Dutcher moved in as Gopher coach in 1975. His 1976-1977 team was probably Minnesota's greatest ever. Because of Musselman's transgressions, however, the NCAA lists the Gophers' record that year not as 24-3, as it appeared at the time, but as 0-27. Still, his 1982 team won Minnesota's only untainted Big Ten title since 1937. But, then, on January 23, 1986, after a dramatic 67-65 win at Wisconsin, three Gopher players were picked up by Madison, WI, police for raping an 18-year old woman. The three never played for the Gophers again, though they were acquitted of the rape charge. When Dutcher failed to quietly accept a decision to forfeit the Gophers' next game, he was asked to resign and he did. Missing the three players, a second Iron Five remained, but this time the Gophers won only one more game the rest of the way.

He was replaced by Clem Haskins, and by now everyone knows that Clem also left the U under a cloud. Clem orchestrated an elaborate academic fraud--well, okay, it wasn't so elaborate but, again, the administration had determined that it would look the other way--in order to keep All-American guard Bobby Jackson eligible. It (the scheme) was successful, and so were Clem's Gophers, earning the U's only men's Final Four appearance ever. But, of course, like the 1972 NCAA tournament appearance, this one also never happened because it too was vacated by the NCAA when the scheme finally became public in 1999.

This is not a record of which Minnesotans can be proud and, as a result, the basketball program, the athletic program and the U administration have to aspire to a higher standard of conduct than other schools. If this frustrates efforts to compete on the basketball court, well, we've got Haskins and Musselman and some of their peers and superiors to thank for that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

2008 Season Recap

There have now been four basketball seasons completed since Minnesota Hoops was published. I've recapped 2006, 2007 and 2009, but neglected to recap 2008. So here goes.

2008 Season Recap

#1 Story: Winona State wins 2nd national title in 3 years

The Winona State men started the 2007-2008 season inauspiciously enough, with an 83-82 overtime loss to D3 St. Thomas that ended a 36-game home winning streak. Four months later, the Warriors found themselves trailing Augusta State 53-37 with 17:25 remaining in the D2 title game. But Jonte Flowers scored 25 2nd half points and Winona State came back to win their 2nd national title in 3 years by a score of 87-76. Senior center John Smith was named national D2 player of the year for the 2nd straight year, as the Warriors’ ran their 3 year record to 105-6.

#2: St. Paul Central repeats as girls AAAA champion

After losing to Mpls. South and guard Tayler Hill in the Twin City game, defending state champ St. Paul Central came into the state final as a decided underdog. Yet, Central took an early 14-6 lead against South. But the Tigers roared back to a 19-18 half-time lead, and opened up a 33-24 lead at 13:23. Central stormed back to tie at 34, and it remained tight through 44-all. At 1:00, Kyana Johnson scored her only 2 points of the night to give Central the lead for good. Reserve guard Cyonna West held Hill to a career low of 9 points. The final was 49-44.

#3: Jordan’s Brittney Chambers explodes for 47

Chambers electrified girls hoops fans with a historic 47 point effort against favored Crookston in the semi-final, leading the Jaguars to a an upset 79-74 win in the highest scoring game in girls tournament history. But Chambers and Jordan had nothing left to give on Saturday afternoon (after the Friday night semi) and fell to underdog Albany in the final, 62-50. Ironically, the 47 points broke the tournament single game scoring record of 45 set by Albany’s Kelly Skalicky in 1981.

#4: Minnetonka takes boys AAAA title

For the second consecutive year, Hopkins was derailed by Minnetonka in Section 6AAAA—this 74-71 score in overtime. But unlike 2007, the Skippers (25-3) themselves made it to the state tournament. In the final, Henry Sibley shocked Minnetonka by running out to 12-0, 30-9 and 33-11 leads. But an Andy Burns 3 at the buzzer brought the Skippers within 33-20, and the second half was all Minnetonka. They took the lead at 43-42 on back-to-back steals leading to a breakaway stuff by C. J. Erickson and a 3 by Anthony Tucker. The final was 68-59 as Tucker led ‘Tonka with 27 points.

#5: Minnesota Gopher women contend for Big Ten title, but fade down the stretch

Led by junior all-Big Ten guard Emily Fox, the Gopher women surprised their fans by contending for the Big Ten title. Iowa tied Ohio State for the Big Ten title at 13-5, and the difference between the Hawkeyes and the 11-7 Gophers was 2 Iowa wins by 3 and 2 points, the latter in overtime. Poor shooting haunted the Gophers all year, however, and the Gophers finished 20-12. In the Big Ten tournament, Minnesota made 1 of its first 23 shots and lost to Michigan State 56-51. In the NCAAs Texas did the honors 72-55 as the Gophers shot 5 of 28 (17.5 percent) in the first half.

2007-2008 Minnesota Hoops Awards

Top Hoopsters

1. John Smith, Winona State men

2. Cody Schilling, Ellsworth boys

3. Emily Fox, Minnesota Gopher women

4. Tayler Hill, Mpls. South girls

5. Brittney Chambers, Jordan girls

Coach of the Year

1. Paul Fessler, Concordia (St. Paul) women

2. Mike Leaf, Winona State men

3. Willie Taylor, St. Paul Central girls

4. David Smart, Ada girls

5. Fred Kindschy, Hayfield girls

Top Teams

1. Winona State men 38-1

2. St. Paul Central girls 28-4

3. Minnetonka boys 28-3

4. Concordia (St. Paul) women 29-4

5. Minnesota Gopher women 20-12

Game of the Year

1. Brittney Chambers scores a record 47 points as Jordan surprises #1 ranked Crookston 79-74 in AA semi-finals in highest scoring game in girls tournament history

2. St. Thomas surprises Winona State 83-82 in OT, ending the Warriors’ 36 game home winning streak

3. Minnetonka won the rubber match over Hopkins 74-71 in OT in the section 6AAAA boys final, en route to its 3rd state high school basketball championship

4. The Minnesota Gopher men upset Indiana 59-58 in the Big Ten tournament, as Blake Hoffarber hits the buzzer-beater after catching a three-quarter court pass from Travis Busch

5. New London-Spicer edges Maple River 50-49 on a put-back by Wade Powers, who then blocks Maple River’s final shot at the buzzer