Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010-2011 Season Preview, Part 1: Still Golden?

In the book, Stu and I called the present era from 1997 forward "the second golden age of Minnesota basketball." People's first instinct was to say, oh, yeah, because we're in the NBA again.

Well, it's true that the first golden age coincided with the reign of George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers as the best player and best basketball team in the history of the world to that time. But it was the first golden age more because of the sheer numbers of Minnesota kids who were good enough to play ball professionally and at the college level. The success of the Hamline Pipers and Minnesota Gophers, etc., was a consequence of this great local talent, and the Lakers prominently featured Minnesota natives Vern Mikkelson and Whitey Skoog, among other. Minnesota high school ball was assumed to be played at a fairly high level--at least in certain parts of the state, Minneapolis mostly--because of the kids who went on to success at higher levels.

So it is in the second golden age. Minnesota, in fact, has more kids per capita playing youth basketball than almost any state in the union. Minnesota summer AAU teams teams are enjoying great success nationwide as a result. The Mankato State women and Winona State men (twice) won NCAA D2 national championships, and the Gopher men and women each made it all the way to the Final Four in 1997 and 2004, respectively . And, yeah, we're in the NBA again.

Still, I wonder if the second golden era isn't coming to an end, or already has. If Minnesota youth ball is so good, shouldn't the Minnesota Gophers--both men and women--continue to enjoy some success? It's been 14 years, now, since the men went to the Final Four, and 7 years for the women. The latter, in fact, slumped into last place in the Big Ten last year despite a seasoned, senior-dominated lineup.

And, while this golden age talk never depended on the Timberwolves--or the Lynx, certainly--you've got to admit that the two of them have become more of a liability than an asset as far as Minnesota's hoops reputation is concerned.

So how about it? Is the golden age really over? What do Minnesota basketball teams have to accomplish in order to keep the golden age going?

The Pros

As noted, the Timberwolves and Lynx have done little to boost Minnesota's reputation. Ten years with arguably one of the best players in the world in his prime, and the Wolves could manage to win a playoff series in only one of those years. The Lynx have now stockpiled a total of 5 WNBA all-stars, and they won one less game than the previous year.

A worthy contribution to golden status would be for one or both of them to not only make the playoffs, but to win a playoff series or two as well. The Lynx still seem poised to make some noise, but clearly they're going to have to harness all of that talent and get it pulling in one direction. It is utterly unclear that the management, all the way from owner Glen Taylor to coach Cheryl Reeves, has the smarts to do that. If 2011 is another lost year, then I seriously believe the franchise will be lost, perhaps immediately. I mean, attendance failed to increase despite the acquisition of Lindsay Whalen. They've already prolonged the agony about as far as it can go, they've got to win and, probably, win now, or they're lost.

As for the Wolves, either Ricky Rubio is going to save the franchise or, like the Lynx, it can't be saved.

So here's the early line. David Kahn says the Wolves are improved, but I don't see it. Maybe they win 20 this year, but not much more, and the playoffs are out of the question. But, next spring, the Lynx turn it around, going from 13-21 to 21-13 and home ice advantage in August. Lindsay Whalen is the toast of Minnesota once again.

The Gophers

You've got to admit it doesn't look good. Tubby still has a solid starting 5 for 2010-2011, but beyond that the cupboard is damn near bare--including the bench now, and future prospects beyond 2011 and maybe 2012. A run at the Big Ten title would probably fix everything but a vastly better recruiting class in 2011 than this year's bunch is even more essential. It's just that that's not going to happen unless the kids who are already wearing the M create some excitement first.

As for the women, it must be admitted that coach Borton is deep into rebuilding mode. It's just as well that last year's senior class has moved on, having closed out their checkered careers with an utterly unexpected last place finish. There's some experience back and that's a good thing. But for everything the juniors and seniors have shown, it is going to have to be the sophomores and freshmen who create a renaissance in Gopher women's hoops. And this year's freshman class, though large, is not highly touted. Yes, Rachel Banham is coming in 2011-2012 but who among the current roster is going to be able to keep up with her?

Once again, here's the early line. The Gopher men finish one win above .500 in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, and they make some noise in the conference tournament. They make the NCAA and win one game. That's as optimistic as I can get. Sorry.

But the women will struggle again. 6-and-12 is about as good as I can imagine in the conference, and the NCAA tournament is not in the realm of possibility. But Katie Loberg emerges as a player to be reckoned with in the Banham era.

Small College

Minnesota colleges have over-achieved at the D2 level (Northern Sun), while the D3 schools (MIAC) have faded from national prominence. That's about to turn around. The reason I say that is 1) the center of power in the NSIC is about to shift south and west, to places like Wayne State and Augustana and Northern State, though I do believe that the Concordia (St. Paul) women will continue to be strong contenders. And 2) the St. Thomas women are putting together a powerhouse that will soon begin to enjoy success at the national level like MIAC women did back in the good old days.

The High Schools

Let's admit that Hopkins' domination of boys basketball is getting to be a serious annoyance. And let's note that the Hopkins girls have stockpiled an awesome amount of talent, though they're probably a year away from another state title.

In other words, kids shopping themselves like NBA free agents is a problem if you're a fan who's not attached to a particular group of kids, you just like watching high school ball. Specifically, at the state tournament level. I mean, I'm thinkin' maybe I'll go see a bunch of regular season games and then just skip the damn state tournament. I don't know.

The point is that the transfer rule that was initiated a couple-three years ago can now pretty clearly be understood to have been a bust. Kids can no longer transfer after the first day of 9th grade without missing a year of eligibility--well, except that kids transfer all the time. T.T. Starks, who as a 7th grader at Mpls. North last year looked like the second coming of Janet Karvonen, will henceforth be playing for Hopkins. And kids can transfer after 9th grade if they change their place of residence.

But anyway, the main point is that once upon a time, kids waited until after 9th or even 10th grade to assess their talent. Then, if they thought they could play for Hopkins or some other, more elite program, they would transfer. But relatively few of them would do so. Most would look at their abilities and say, I probably belong where I am today. But, now, they've got to decide when they're in 8th grade, and they all think, Hey, I can play with the big boys or girls. So Hopkins actually ends up with more talent than if there were no transfer (or anti-transfer) rule.

Now, don'[t get me wrong. Hopkins hasn't done anything wrong--not the boys, and not the girls--and neither have the kids who transfer there or anywhere else. It's a free market out there, and kids and their families rightfully get to choose the path that's right for them. I'm just saying this is one of those cases where a truly free market would probably work better than one that is constrained by this particular heavy-handed transfer rule.

Now, maybe all of this is just by way of an aside. The question before us is, Is Minnesota basketball still golden? And it will depend, ultimately, on the kinds of college careers Rachel Banham and Joe Coleman and the next 50 top players have, and whether 1 or 2 of them doesn't squeeze through the meat grinder to make it to the NBA and WNBA. It's not that the success of Hopkins and the other truly elite programs actually prevents anybody from doing that. But it is that the increasingly lopsided distribution of talent at the high school level doesn't seem to be promoting that sort of success, either.

So I'm gonna keep asking the question, Is Minnesota Hoops still golden? And I'm going to give it to 2012-2013 to really try to answer the question. But right now we seem to be experiencing a bit of a decline. I'm hoping it's only temporary.

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