Thursday, September 30, 2010

U.S. Women Dominate Aussies

Well, I guess I was agonizing over nothing. The U.S. women dominated their arch-rivals, the defending world champions from Australia, running out to an early 47-23 lead, then coasting to an 83-75 final.

The Americans never trailed, but it was just 21-18 at 1:51 of the 1st period. But over the next 4 minutes, the U.S. made 7 straight shots and scored 18 consecutive points. Sylvia Fowles and Diana Taurasi scored 15 of the 18 points. Fowles added another bucket a minute later, and the U.S. led by 24 at the 5:19 mark of the 2nd period.

The final score sounds much closer than it was. The Aussies got within 11 at 55-44 at 4:49 of the 3rd, but the U.S. quickly ran the score to 67-48. It was 72-57 after 3. Then, Australia got within 10 at 77-67 at 3:43 of the 4th, and 79-70 at 2:26, but the U.S. still led by 9 at 1:20. 83-75 was as close as the Aussies had been since 21-13.

Taurasi finished with 24 points, Fowles 15 and Tina Charles 14. Fowles and Charles success was something of a surprise, coming at the post position where the Aussies are at their best with WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson and 6-8 Liz Cambage. But while the 2 Aussie posts scored 31 points with 13 rebounds, they couldn't stop their American counterparts who contributed those 29 points and 10 boards.

The U.S. won the game from the field, shooting 46 percent to 38.5. The U.S. hit just one-third of its 3 point shots but Australia made just 4-of-23. Both teams shot 50 percent on 2s, but the Americans attempted 10 more from inside the arc, and so had 5 more 2 pointers than their opponents. Australia had better luck getting to the FT line where they had a 21-13 edge. The possessions, offensive boards and turnovers were about even.

The U.S. now advances to the quarter-finals as the #1 team in Group E, which means they'll play South Korea, 3-3 and #4 in Group F, in the Elite Eight. The winner of that game will get the winner of France (4-2, #3 Group E) and Spain (5-1, #2 Group F).

It's not unlikely that the U.S. will get Australia again in the finals. Standing in the Aussies' way is the unbeaten Russians (6-0, #1 Group F), who have finished 2nd or 3rd in every Olympics and world championship since 2002. But so, too, have the Aussies medaled in every such competition going back to 1994, while winning the world championship in 2006, something the Russians have not done since the 1992 Olympics.

If that happens--a U.S.-Australia rematch--last night's win won't matter much. In fact, Australia will undoubtedly be focused on its 42-32 edge in the 2nd half. Also there's the fact that the U.S. beat the Aussies in an exhibition tournament earlier this year, then lost a week later in a rematch.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

USA Women Start Out 5-0, Headed for Showdown with Aussies

Sept. 29--Indeed tonight's showdown with unbeaten Australia is on, as both the U.S. and Aussies won last night. The U.S. hammered Belarus 107-71 as Sylvia Fowles saw her first extended action, 19 minutes, of the tournament. She led the U.S. in scoring and rebounding in the 2008 Olympics but came into this year's tournament hurt. Well, she's OK, based on a team-high 15 points and 6 rebounds last night. Diana Taurasi added 14, the hot-shooting Candice Dupree 12 (and 6 boards), and Swin Cash and Maya Moore 11 each. Taurasi, Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen each had 4 assists, and Whalen added 4 steals.

The U.S. led 23-6 and 37-11 at the quarter, and never looked back.

The Aussies beat France 62-52 as WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson led the way with 19 points and 10 boards.

The U.S. and Australia play at 8:15 local time tonight at Ostrava, Czech Republic. That would appear to be about 1:15 this afternoon local time here in Minnesota, but don't hold me to that. The game is on NBA TV and www.FIBATV.

Sept. 28--You wouldn't know it from the mainstream media, but the U.S. women's national team has played--and won--4 games at the FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic.

First came 3 games in Group B, in which the U.S. defeated Greece 99-73, Senegal 118-52 and France 81-60 to advance to the second round.

In the second round the U.S. is in Group E, and has now defeated Canada 87-46. Lindsay Whalen led the Americans against Canada with 16 points. Belarus (2-2) comes tonight, followed by a showdown with undefeated Australia on Wednesday.

The top 8 in each pool (Group E and Group F) will advance to the quarter-finals. Right now the semi-finalists would look to be the U.S. and Australia (both 4-0 in Group E) and Russia and Spain (both 4-0 in Group F).


So far, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi have started all 4 games, but second-stringers Maya Moore and Whalen are among the top 5 in minutes. Nine players are averaging 17.5 minutes or more, with Ashja Jones, the injured Sylvia Fowles and Jayne Appel in more of a supporting role. Fowles, who led the 2008 Olympic gold medal team in both scoring and rebounding, is playing only 10 minutes per game here.

1, Candice Dupree 11.3 ppg 5.3 rebounds 83% FG shooting
2. Angel McCoughtry 11.3 and 3.8 assists
3. Tina Charles 10.5 and 5 rebounds
4. Swin Cash 10
5. Diana Taurasi 9 ppg
6. Maya Moore 8.3 plus 5 rebounds and 3 assists
7. Tamika Catchings 8.3
8. Lindsay Whalen 7.5
9. Sue Bird 6.8 plus 2.8 assists

As a team, the U.S. is shooting 55 percent from the field--61 percent on 2s, just 28 percent on 3s--while the opposition is shooting 39 percent--44 percent on 2s, and the same 28 percent on 3s. So, not only is the U.S. winning the battle inside the 3-point arc, it is also winning the battle for possessions. The U.S. is getting 78 possessions per game, with 15 offensive rebounds and 16.5 turnovers, while opponents are getting just 62, with 8.5 offensive boards and 24 turnovers.

The Outlook

The U.S. is rated #1 in the world and, as noted, won the 2008 Olympic gold medal. Australia would have to be rated as a co-favorite, however. They are the defending champ in the FIBA worlds, defeating Russia in the gold medal game 91-74 after Russia had upset the U.S. in the semi's 75-68.

Not only that, but the Aussies, led by WNBA MVP and scoring champ Lauren Jackson, beat the U.S. 83-77 last month in Spain. What I didn't know when I wrote my last post on this subject, however, is that the U.S. had also defeated Australia a week earlier in Hartford, Connecticut 89-56. The Aussies were without Jackson in both of those games.

At the worlds, the U.S. and Aussies have 2 common opponents so far. The U.S. beat Canada by 41, the Aussies by 25. On the other hand, the Americans beat Greece by 26, the Aussies beat 'em by 39. Jackson is averaging 15 points and 11 boards for Australia.

It's Not Just the Hawkeyes, the Badgers Are After Our Girls, Too

The Wisconsin Badgers announced the other day that 2 Minnesota girls will be making official visits to Madison. Both are 6-3 post players in the class of 2011: Apiew Ojulu of Lakeville North, and Bethany Doolittle of Hill-Murray. Ojulu's final list of schools was said to include the Badgers and Marquette, while Doolittle's, according to the Badger Web site, are Wisconsin, Marquette and Iowa.

I don't have too much heartburn over the Gophers' lack of interest in the 2. The Gophers, after all, have 6-7 Amber Dvorak and 6-4 Katie Loberg on their roster and both are youngsters. Not to mention, I haven't yet seen the strength, mobility or aggressiveness needed to be successful in D1 from Doolittle. Ojulu has more of each of those traits but has a long way to go on fundamentals.

I'd have more of a problem if the Gophers fail to move on some of the 2012s that the Badgers mentioned in the same article--players who apparently will be making unofficial visits to Madison this fall. They include:

• Tessa Cichy, Doolittle's teammate at Hill-Murray
• Jackie Johnson, 6-2 post from Eden Prairie
• Whitney Tinjum, play-everywhere, do-everything player for Chisago Lakes

Jade Martin, perhaps the top 2013 in Minnesota, from Bloomington Kennedy, will also be visiting UW.

The basketball world is probably highest on Cichy among these four. She is a lock-down defender and proved that she can score in last spring's state tournament, though it's been noted that her shooting mechanics are not good and she has had some pretty bad shooting nights (4-for-17 one night I saw her). Still, she had a great summer season and, as a result, has reportedly been pursued by the Duke Blue Devils. Her dad played football at Notre Dame and, so, the Fighting Irish are also said to be in the hunt. So, why a visit to Madison?

I've been very high on Johnson since I saw her in the state tournament as a freshman. She really blossomed during the summer season just past. But it's true that she's a bit of a tweener. She's played nothing but the post her entire career, but is a little small for the position in D1. Still, she's perhaps the most athletic 6-2 Minnesota has ever seen, and I remain convinced that she'll be a star at D1. I would concur with those of you who have said, and I've heard it several times: Hey, Pam Borton, what are you waiting for? Sign her up! Now!

As for Tinjum, I haven't seen enough of her to say very much, except that she combines size (6-1) the quickness and other perimeter attributes of much smaller girls. She hasn't gotten much notoriety because her team is not prominent come March. But she could be the #1 girl in her class by the time it's all been said and done.

Finally, there's Jade Martin. Some say she's the best girl in Minnesota in her class, knowing full well that she's in the same class as Rebekah Dahlman. Well, it's a bit early to worry about that. And it's true that Martin is the anti-Dahlman in one respect. If anything, Dahlman is too aggressive, sometimes getting ahead of herself and charging into traps and other situations she can't quite handle. In Martin's case, we're waiting for ignition. She's got great skills, but the aggressiveness seems thus far to be lacking. Perhaps she's been inclined to defer to the older girls on her team. Well, soon enough, she'll be the older girl and I suspect we'll see her blossom into a bona fide high-D1 prospect. Maybe this is the year.

In summary, it says here that the Gopher women could do worse than grabbing Jackie Johnson, Jade Martin and Whitney Tinjum. It's bad enough seeing girls like Alyssa Karel and, soon, Cassie Rochel wearing Badger red. Let's stop the bleeding.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Whalen Makes U.S. Women's Team; Augustus, Harding and Montgomery Don't

The Minnesota Lynx' Lindsay Whalen survived the final cuts to the roster of the U.S. women's team that will compete in the FIBA world championships starting on Thursday, September 23. But Lynx' swing player Seimone Augustus was 1 of the last 2 cuts. And, while former Gopher and now Lynx point guard Whalen made the roster, ironically 2 of tthe final 4 women cut were former Lynx point guards Lindsay Harding and Renee Montgomery.

In addition, former Lynx coach Jennifer Gillom, now coaching the L.A. Sparks, is an assistant to UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

The team's Web site has stats from 4 exhibition games, all wins, and Whalen was the #4 scorer with 9 ppg, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers. She started 2 games, played in all 4 for an average of 17 minutes per game, and shot a remarkable 16-0f-19 (.842).

Augustus started 2 games and played in all 4 for 18.8 minutes per game, and scored 7 ppg with 61 percent FG shooting.

Whalen is the only 1 of the top 5 scorers who is not currently affiliated with a team in Connecticut, but of course she played for the Sun for 6 years before being traded to the Lynx earlier this year. The top 5 scorers are:

1. Tina Charles, UConn alumnus and the Connecticut Sun, recently named WNBA rookie of the year--13.3 ppg
2. Maya Moore, UConn, recently named NCAA player of the year for the 2nd time and still having 1 more year of college eligibility--13 ppg
3. Kara Lawson, Tennessee grad and Connecticut Sun, 10 ppg
4. Whalen--9 ppg
5. Diana Taurasi, UConn grad and Phoenix Mercury--7.8 ppg

In addition, UConn grads Sue Bird and Swin Cash will play for the U.S. despite missing the exhibition season. The 2 also play for the Seattle Storm, which just polished off the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA finals last Thursday, September 16. It says here that Bird will start at the "1" for the U.S., with Whalen coming off the bench. But we'll see.

Like the U.S. men, the women enter the worlds with a chip on their shoulder. Then men lost to Greece in the semi's in 2006 and settled for bronze. But not this year, when they swept 9 games en route to the gold medal. After winning the world title in 1998 and 2002, the American women were upset by Russia 75-68 in the 2006 semi's and settled for bronze. Of course, both the men and the women won Olympic gold in between, in 2008. Still, the U.S. women had won 4 of 5 world titles before 2006 and would like to get revenge, as the men have done.

And they're rated #1 in the world going in. But, the fact is they lost to Australia 83-77 in a tune-up in Spain over the weekend. Charles had 18 points and 7 boards for the U.S., while Whalen scored 13 points. They then hammered Senegal 93-51 in their final pre-tournament game, as Taurasi had 14 points and 5 assists. Moore had 13 points and 10 boards, Lawson 13 points, and Whalen 11 on 5-for-5 shooting.

So Australia would have to be regarded as at least the co-favorite. The Aussies beat Russia 91-74 for the gold in 2006, and finished 3rd in 1998 and 2002. Their star is WNBA regular season and playoff MVP Lauren Jackson, 6-foot-5, and now they can also play 6-9 Liz Cambage in the paint.

So the U.S. is hardly a shoo-in. While the U.S. roster is star-studded, it's also true that several prominent athletes are missing in action due to injuries. They included Sylvia Fowles, who led the U.S. in scoring and rebounding at the 2008 Olympics, plus Candace Parker, both NCAA player of the year and WNBA MVP as recently as 2008. Fowles scored 13 ppg and Parker added 9 in the 2008 Olympics. The #2 and #4 scorers from 2008 also have retired--Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie.

So the U.S. has something to prove. But it says here that Australia is a juggernaut.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Praise of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Lisa Bluder

It's hard now to remember that the Iowa Hawkeyes won women's Big Ten basketball championships in 10 of 15 seasons between 1987 and 2001. It probably seemed appropriate to Iowans that it should be so. I mean, Iowa was the nation's leading hot-bed of girls high school ball, its six-on-six variant remaining immensely popular throughout the period when most other states banned girls interscholastic sports.

Still, it took an import--a Pennsylvanian, Vivian Stringer--to put Hawkeyes women's hoops on the map. Arriving in Iowa City in 1983 from Cheyney State, Stringer stayed for 13 years and won 269 games and lost just 84, a .762 winning percentage. Having continued her coaching career at Rutgers in 1995, Stringer is now 3rd in all-time wins among women's coaches and is the only coach to take 3 different schools to the Final Four.

The success continued, if only briefly, under Stringer's successor, Angie Lee. Lee led Stringer's recruits to a 27-4 record and another Big Ten title in 1996. In 1997, the Hawkeyes fell to 9-7 in the conference and 18-12 overall but claimed the Big Ten tournament championship. In 1998, they took the regular season title again at 13-3 (but just 18-11 overall). But after accumulating a 21-33 record in 1999 and 2000, Lee was let go.

Lisa Bluder, a graduate of Linn-Mar High School and Northern Iowa, took over in 2000-2001 and promptly led the Hawkeyes to the 2001 Big Ten tournament title. But, since then, additional success has not been so easy to come by. Another conference championship was only achieved 8 years later in 2008 (regular season) at 13-5 (and 21-11 overall). Bluder's conference record of 88-60 (.583) is not even as good as Lee's, much less Stringer's. Bluder has been subject to criticism from impatient fans throughout her reign, and yet she has lasted 10 years on the hot seat.

And, now, Bluder seems poised to improve the Hawkeyes results significantly.

I mean, look what she did with the 2009 squad. Decimated by injuries, she brought 2 walk-ons on-board just so the Hawkeyes could go 5-on-5 in practice. Iowa started 4-1 but, as the injuries mounted, slid to 5-5 and then 8-10 and 1-6 in the conference. One of the early losses was 72-69 in overtime at Williams Arena against Pam Borton's Minnesota Gophers. I told a friend of mine that these must be the 2 worst teams in the Big Ten. But that's when Bluder and a small nucleus turned things around, emphatically so, and only 1 of the 2 teams in question fulfilled my prediction.

Instead, Iowa continued to play an uptempo style while 3 of its starters played 33 minutes per game or more. And eventually the effort started to pay off, the victories started to come, 7 in their next 8 games, including a 75-54 drubbing of the Minnesota Gophers in Iowa City in mid-February. One poster to the Hawks Nest online forum got it right when he said, "Maybe the Iowa men could learn something from watching Bluder's bunch. Those ladies play with heart and the play hard. It's a shame they had so many injuries this year, because it looks like they could have contended for the Big Ten title."

Well, they did contend for the Big Ten Tournament title, knocking off Penn State 82-75 and favored Michigan State 59-54, before losing to heavily favored Ohio State 66-64 in the final. And thanks to this spirited effort, Bluder was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the 3rd time.

Kachine Alexander, a graduate of Benilde-St. Mary's, was injured early but came back strong to lead the Hawkeyes with 16 ppg and a remarkable 10 rebounds per game--remarkable because of Alexander's 5-9 stature. Freshman Jamie Printy earned 1st team frosh all-America honors by scoring 15 ppg. Kamille Wahlin, a Crookston, MN, native, scored 14 points and added 3 assists as Iowa's point guard. All 3 return for 2010-2011, as does starter Kelly Krei and several of the injured. The latter include rising sophomores Hannah Draxten (a redshirt sophomore), from Fergus Falls, MN; and Theiarra Taylor, a graduate of St. Paul Central High School. Taylor, a true freshman last year, was pressed into service last year only because of all the other injuries, and really impressed. Taylor scored 8 ppg and added 5 rebounds, though it's true she only shot 34 percent from the field.

The other true freshman, Printy, in particular lit up the Gophers, making 7-of-13 3s in 2 games, plus 10-of-10 FT.

Then, what triggered this article, was a potentially huge breakthrough for Bluder--that is, the successful recruitment of the #10 rated high school player in the high school class of 2011. That would be Samantha Logic of Racine, WI, Case. The 5-10 combo guard scored 15 ppg last year while adding 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals. She picked the Hawkeyes over national power Stanford, among others, and Stanford announced its "disappointment" at her decision. She and Printy will make up as good a one-two punch as you'll want to see, and they'll have 2 years together to do it.

Logic will be joined by Virginia Johnson of Iowa City, a 6-1 small forward rated #11 nationally at her position among the 2011s by one recruiting service.

Meanwhile, coach Borton's incoming 2010 class at Minnesota does not include a single top 100 player.

It must be noted, however, that Iowa's #1 and #2 2011 recruits probably will not be joining the Hawkeyes. 6-3 point guard Taylor Greenfield is going to Stanford, and highly regarded 6-3 post Kiah Stokes is reportedly considering Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland and Tennesee--with a 5th visit to Iowa, Notre Dame or Oklahoma called "a possibility." The fact that she hails from Bluder's alma mater, Linn-Mar, appears not to have influenced her thinking as Hawkeye fans might have liked.

Still, it seems unlikely that Borton's Gophers will be gaining any ground on the Hawkeyes over the next four to six seasons. The historic status quo, in other words, will return. Bluder's tenure happens to have come when the Gophers have fielded some of their best teams ever. And, yet, the Gophers have only broken even with Bluder's Hawks, winning 9 and losing 8. Overall, Iowa leads the series 41-21, meaning that when Bluder came on-board, the Hawkeyes lead was 33-12.

The point is that while the Gophers and Hawkeyes have competed very equally over the past decade, Iowa seems to be headed nowhere but up right now. The Gophers? Well, after 2009-2010, until there's new evidence to the contrary, they seem to be headed in the other direction. And what makes Iowa such a compelling measuring stick for the Gophers is that the Hawkeyes are doing it with Minnesota kids.

Iowa's Minnesotans

Kachine Alexander 16 ppg
Kamille Wahlin 14 ppg
Theairra Taylor 8 ppg
Hannah Draxten 2 ppg

Minnesota's Minnesotans

Kiara Buford 13 ppg
Jackie Voigt 8 ppg
Katie Loberg 2 ppg
Brianna Mastey 2 ppg
Amber Dvorak redshirt freshman
Sari Noga class of 2010
Rachel Banham class of 2011

No wonder, then, that when Bluder showed up in Braham last winter to see freshman Rebekah Dahlman play, Gopher fans reacted by demanding that coach Borton needed to get up there, too, and "get" Dahlman for Minnesota. If Bluder thinks she can play in the Big Ten, then it must be true, and Pam dasn't let the Hawkeyes steal another one from under our noses.

The real question is why Bluder and Iowa attracted the #10 player in the nation from Racine, WI, while Borton and Minnesota can't so much as get a visit from blue chippers like Sam Logic.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Gopher Men Sweep 3 in Western Canada

I didn't see coach Tubby Smith's Gophers sweep 3 games in western Canada last week. But, two-and-a-half games through, one had to feel a little bit underwhelmed. The University of British Columbia was the first victim, 80-62, while Trinity Western went down a little harder, 80-68, and the Gophers led Victoria 42-40 in the third.

Is it just me, or are those scores a little too close for comfort?

But, honestly, we have no idea how tough of opponents they really were. Trinity was described on the Gophers' Web site as "tough" and "physical," while Victoria was said to have come out "with fire" and to have taken advantage of the Gophers playing their 3rd game in 4 days.

Just looking at the box scores, it is hard to argue that the Gophers played well. Well, they shot well enough--40 percent against UBC, then 45 and then 55 against Victoria. From 3-point land it was a solid 43 percent, then a less solid 32 and and an extremely solid 48. From the charity stripe it was a worrisome 60 and 60 percent in the 1st 2 contests, before improving to 80 percent in the 3rd.

And the Gophers won the possession game against their toughest opponent, Trinity. But overall the Gophers' turnovers and opponents offensive boards represented glaring weaknesses. Tubby's kids gathered in 50 offensive boards but gave up 45. And Minnesota had 67 turnovers in the 3 games, while forcing 62. So it sounds like these were pretty helter-skelter affairs, not a style that is likely to produce the desired results in the Big 10 (12?).

So, as a team, there's a long way to go. And, individually, well, the main question was how much the newcomers can contribute in support of what should be a pretty solid but skinny nucleus. The answer for the moment is, well, maybe more than I anticipated.

I've expressed skepticism about the highly-touted Trevor Mbakwe, for example, but he appears to have contributed well to the 3 Canadian victories with 11 points and 7 rebounds per game, and he led the team in blocks twice and steals once. All in just 60 minutes of play, or 20 minutes per game.

The distribution of minutes across the roster was a bit surprising, by the way, as returning regular "bigs" Colt Iverson and Ralph Sampson played a total of just 80 minutes between them. Of course, Sampson sat out the 2nd game for undisclosed reasons.

Here's the distribution of minutes:

Blake Hoffarber 3 starts/82 minutes
Rod Williams 3 starts/75 minutes
Devoe Joseph 64 minutes off the bench
Mbakwe 1 start, 3 games/60 minutes
Al Nolen 3 starts/59 minutes
Maurice Walker 55 minutes off the bench
Iverson 3 starts/47 minutes
Austin Hollins 46 minutes off the bench
Maverick Ahanmisi 36 minutes off the bench
Elliott Eliason 35 minutes off the bench
Sampson 2 starts, 2 games/33 minutes
Dominique Dawson 1 game/8 minutes

The surprises here include Nolan and Joseph. I hadn't heard that Nolan has regained his eligibility, but apparently that's the case, and he's starting ahead of Joseph. But at crunch time (Minnesota 64 Trinity 62 with 5 minutes to play), Joseph was on the court. He ended up with 5 more minutes of playing time than Nolan and, oh, yeah, he led the Gophers in scoring in all 3 games with 18, 15 and 19.

The other surprise may turn out to be Maurice (Mo) Walker, who played 55 minutes, scoring 8 points per game and leading the Gophers in rebounding in each of the 1st 2 games with 10 and 10.

In short, if this western swing is a reliable indication, there are a couple of things we know about Tubby's crew:

1. The rotations are already set, and Joseph, Mbakwe and Walker will be the main bench contributors.

2. This is an adequate shooting team except from the charity stripe, where it has the potential to be scary bad.

And some things we don't know:

1. Can they hang on to the ball?

2. Can they keep the opposition off the offensive glass? Can they keep them from scoring?

3. Are Mbakwe and Walker for real?

If they answers to these questions are no, they're a .500 team. If the answers are yes, yes, yes and yes, they can be better than that but, still, not Big 10 title or Sweet 16 contenders. Sorry.

Still, it should be noted that from 42-40 at halftime, the Gophers proceeded to shoot 60 percent in the 2nd half against Victoria en route to a 101-67 win. So the trip ended on a high note, and I'm willing to say that I'm a little more optimistic than I was before the Gophers departed for the big west.