And it sure seems like the higher up you go, the weaker Minnesota basketball seems to be right now. After the Timberwolves, in other words, you've got the Gophers, then D2, then D3, and finally the high schools. The Gopher men had that great run in the Big Ten tournament, to be sure, and the St. Cloud State men made it all the way to the D2 Final Four. But, otherwise, the Gopher men and women took it more than they dished it out, and our small college teams washed out maybe faster than ever, especially at the D3 level.
Meanwhile, the best of the best was definitely at the high school level.
Story #1A and #1B--Lakeville North girls and St. Paul Johnson boys finish unbeaten and undisputed as the best of the best
And they took different routes to that goal. For Lakeville North (32-0), guard Rachel Banham (a Gopher recruit) and post Cassie Rochel (soon to be a Wisconsin Badger) made up a devastating one-two punch, and they were named co-metro players of the year by the Strib for their trouble. North finished up 32-0, and only 2 of the 32 wins were by a less than double digit margin. In the state tournament Chaska, expected to be their toughest competition, was dispatched 76-46. Their 10-point win over White Bear Lake in the AAAA final wasn't as dominating but, coming on the heels of a nearly flawless season, it was good enough to put North among Minnesota's best girls teams ever.
Meanwhile, St. Paul Johnson (32-0) went 11 deep with quick, aggressive kids who make the extra pass and sublimate their individual skills to their team as much as anybody I've ever seen. Coach Vern Simmons is Minnesota's coach of the year for getting his kids so much on the same page, and keeping them interested through a conference season in which they were barely challenged. Being a Class AAA team, the Governors couldn't prove in March that they are Minnesota's best team. So, thank goodness they had the chance to do it in December in a thrilling 86-78 win over Hopkins, one of the greatest regular season games I've ever seen. And while it was a team effort all the way, junior guard Estan Tyler was the first among equals, scoring 13 points a game but, more importantly, running the show on the floor. Their 59-55 win over Grand Rapids in the AAA final wasn't as dominating as people thought it should be, but on the heels of a nearly flawless season, it was good enough to keep them #1 among the boys of 2010.
Story #2--Three days in Indianapolis
The Minnesota Gopher men (21-14), er, struggled, shall we say, in 2009-2010. They opened the season ranked 18th and 25th in the nation, and were ranked as high as #16 when they defeated #10 Butler, which in the end went all the way to the Final Four, on November 26. But rather than the upset of Butler, it was 3 subsequent losses to Portland, Texas A&M and Miami that proved prophetic. More bad losses to Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan (twice) relegated the Gophers to 6th place in the Big Ten at 9-9.
Then came 3 days to remember, or 3-and-a-half, maybe. First came a 76-55 blitz of Penn State as Devoe Joseph scored 15 with 3 assists and 3 steals. Then a 72-67 overtime shocker over #11 Michigan State as Joseph again led the way with 17 points and 4 assists. Third was a 69-42 demolition of #6 Purdue as Minnesota ran out to a mind-boggling 37-11 half-time lead. Finally came the Big Ten title game against #5 Ohio State. The Gophers stayed within 42-40 at 13:41 but got completely overwhelmed down the stretch as the Buckeyes made 12 shots in a row to win going away 90-61. Joseph and Lawrence Westbrook combined for 31 points for Minnesota.
The turning point seemed to be when the sophomores Joseph, Ralph Sampson and Colt Iverson decided that they would just have to do it themselves. No more waiting around for the seniors to do it. Which bodes well for the future of Minnesota Golden Gopher basketball.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the 2010 season went more to the form of the season as a whole rather than of those 3 days in Indianapolis. The Gophers exited the NCAA tournament quickly at the hands of Xavier, 65-54.
#3--Double Day not a myth after all
Friday, March 26, was Double Day at the state tournament, as 3 of the 4 Class AAA and AAAA semi-finals went into extra innings, er, overtime--and not one but two of 'em in each case. First up was unseeded Grand Rapids versus #2 seed DeLaSalle in Class AAA. The Islanders led most of the way until a Michael Johnson 3 gave the Thunderhawks a 38-35 lead at 4:05. DeLaSalle tied it up at 40 on a Jalen Jaspers lay-up at 1:16. The Islanders took the early lead again in OT, but an Eric Stark jumper gave Grand Rapids a 47-45 lead at 1:02. A jumper by Jonah Travis tied the game for the 13th time, but Travis missed the FT, and it was on to the 2nd OT. The Islanders again took the lead but 3 Kevin Rabbers FT put the Thunderhawks ahead for good. The final was Grand Rapids 57 DeLaSalle 53. Stark led all scorers with 20, and DeLaSalle made just 13-of-29 FT.
Next up was #1 seed Hopkins and #4 Henry Sibley. This turned out to be one of the most intense and physical games you could ever want to see. The Royals ended up setting tournament records for most FT made and attempted in a single game at 39-for-58. All 5 Sibley starters fouled out, and yet it was not a particularly closely called game. There could easily have been more than 59 fouls called. Each team led 4 times and there were 3 ties in the 1st half, yet Sibley led by as many as 9 at 34-25 and 35-29 at the half. Hopkins caught up at 41-40, and led until Dante Grant hit a 3 at the buzzer to tie it up at 69. The Royals led through most of the 1st OT until a Jimmy Ryan 3 gave the Warriors a 1 point lead at 0:18. Joe Coleman made a FT at 0:07 to tie it up, but missed the 2nd. By this time Sibley was playing with 4 subs and guard Jordan Jackson, but when Jackson too fouled out at 2:07 and Hopkins ahead 82-80, the Warriors hopes pretty much died. The Royals out-scored them 8-2 the rest of the way for a 90-82 final. Coleman and Jackson led all scorers with 25 points apiece.
Finally, #2 seed Eden Prairie versus St. Cloud Tech. Eden Prairie led by as many as 11 at 34-23, but Tech caught up at 46-46 at 4:06. It was 48-all at 2:05 and neither team scored again in regulation, nor until there was 1:40 left in the 1st OT which ended at 52-52. Tech started the 2nd OT with 5 points by Scott Nystrom and 2 FT by Alex Hanks to lead 60-56, and Eden Prairie never caught up. The final was St. Cloud Tech 62 Eden Prairie 58. Nystrom and Hanks combined for 45 of Tech's 62 points.
Tech and Eden Prairie tipped off at about 9:25, almost an hour-and-a-half late, or maybe about 15 minutes before the should ordinarily have ended. It was a long night at the Target Center.
#4--St. Cloud State men get to Final Four
Minnesota small colleges fared poorly in national competition this year, especially in D3, continuing a trend of recent years. Thank goodness for the St. Cl0ud Huskies, who made it all the way to the D2 men's Final Four before bowing out. Key victories include a regional win over NSIC regular season champion and #8 rated Mankato State 83-71 on the Mavericks home court. This was followed by a thrilling 84-75 OT win over Augustana. The Huskies led the game 17 times, Augustana 12 times, and there were 17 ties. Then in the Elite Eight the Huskies upset #8 Midwestern (Texas) 92-88 as Taylor Witt scored 43 points. But the bubble burst in the semis when Indiana (Pa.) beat St. Cloud 76-70. Senior post Matt Schneck was the NSIC player of the year and also earned all-America honors for his efforts.
#5--Macalester women come back from the brink
The folks at Macalester are sick to death of hearing about the dire straits into which their women's basketball program had fallen. Still, in order to truly appreciate the 2010 Lady Scots team, you have to know that in 2005 its predecessors were unable even to play out their schedule for want of enough healthy women to don the blue and orange. And this wasn't something that just happened overnight, either. By the time the 2004-2005 season was suspended, the Lady Scots were 16-72 for the 21st century.
Coach Ellen Thompson came on board after that infamous season and recruited a class that included forward Trina PaStarr, post Ann Baltzer, and guards Eartha Bell and Danielle Johnson. Now seniors, the foursome led Macalester to a series of upset wins and an 11-2 start in the MIAC. Four straight losses derailed their title hopes, but the Scots finished the conference season at 16-6 (with as many wins as in 5 years earlier) before a play-off 60-52 loss to St. Thomas ended their season. Baltzer, who contributed 17 points and 6 boards per game and shot .569, was my pick for MIAC regular season player of the year.
Player of the Year
1 (tie). Rachel Banham and Cassie Rochel, Lakeville North girls
2. Kevin Noreen, Minnesota Transitions boys
3. Matt Schneck, St. Cloud State men
4. Estan Tyler, St. Paul Johnson boys
5. Alec Brown, Winona boys
Team of the Year
1 (tie). Lakeville North girls
St. Paul Johnson boys
2. St. Cloud State men
3. St. Thomas men
4. Macalester women
5. Barnum girls
Coach of the Year
1. Vern Simmons, St. Paul Johnson boys
2. Andy Berkvam, Lakeville North girls
3. Kevin Schlagel, St. Cloud State men
4. Ellen Thompson, Macalester women
5. Steve Fritz, St. Thomas men
Game of the Year
1. St. Paul Johnson boys 86 Hopkins 78
2. Hopkins boys 90 Henry Sibley 82 (2 OT), AAAA semi-finals
3. Minnesota men 69 Purdue 42, Big Ten tournament semis
4. Gustavus men 56 St. Thomas 51, ending record 32-game MIAC winning streak
5. St. Cloud State men 92 Midwestern St. (Texas) 88, NCAA D2 Elite Eight
How Did I Do?
My pre-season awards and predictions were the kiss of death, basically. I had the Gopher men and coach Tubby Smith as the team and coach of the year. And of my 6 pre-season player of the year candidates, only 1 made my post-season top 5.
Pre-Season 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