The second, many people guess, must have something to do with the return of the NBA to the area. But, no.
The point is that Minnesota has more kids--boys and girls--playing youth basketball than almost any state in the union. As a result, upwards of 100 Minnesotans a year are playing basketball at the college level and, as a further result, many of them with great success, individually and for their team. The Gopher men played in the 1997 Final Four, the women in 2004. The Winona State men (twice) and Mankato State women won national D2 championships, the Gustavus men were runners-up in 2003. When the NCAA named its all-time (25 year) women's all-America teams, Kasey Morlock of Stewartville (and North Dakota State) and Jessica Beachy of Staples and Concordia (Moorhead) were among the top 5 in their respective divisions.
Khalid El-Amin led Connecticut to a D1 NCAA title. Coco and Kelly Miller won the Hickok Belt as America's top amateur athletes while at Georgia. Kris Humphries and Joel Pryzbilla play in the NBA, and a number of Minnesota natives in the WNBA. And so on.
The question now, however, is whether Minnesota is still golden? There's no question that Minnesota's three signature programs--the Timberwolves, and the Gopher men and Gopher women--have declined in recent years, though it's also true that all 3 look to be improved for 2010-2011. Time will tell if they rise to the gold level or not. But here are 10 teams who are most likely to succeed in 2010-2011.
Most Likely to Succeed
1. Hopkins boys. With 5 state titles in the past 9 years, there can be no doubt that coach Kenny Novak, Jr.'s Royals are the state's #1 basketball program. Led by Gopher recruit Joe Coleman, they're prohibitive favorites to make it 6 of 10 next March. Forecast: 31-0, 3rd straight MSHSL Class AAAA championship.
2. Winona State men. The Warriors, now featuring former Minnetonka Skipper and Iowa Hawkeye Anthony Tucker, are the pre-season favorite in the NSIC. And coach Mike Leaf provides a steady hand at the helm, so the 2006 and 2008 national champs are poised to make some noise again next March. Forecast: 18-4, 1st place NSIC, 21-4 regular season, 6 post-season wins, 27-5.
3. St. Thomas men and women. The #9-rated Tommies' men go for their 6th straight MIAC regular season title under head coach Steve Fritz, now 564-243 (.692) in 30 years. Fritz will rely on a trio of senior guards, 2010 MIAC player of the year and pre-season all-American Tyler Nicolai (Hopkins), Teddy Archer (DeLaSalle) and 2010 all-conference honoree Alex Healy (White Bear Lake). Forecast: 19-1 in the MIAC, 22-3 for the regular season, 3 post-season wins, 25-4 overall.
Meanwhile, the Tommies women under coach Ruth Sinn have slowly rebuilt after some down years mid-decade. Now they're ready to build on last year's surprising march to the MIAC post-season title with 4 of 5 starters back, including pre-season all-American, Rachel Booth (DeLaSalle). Add to that 2 freshman recruits who many had tabbed as D1 prospects, Taylor Young (Edina) and Maggie Weiers (New Prague)--and who scored 23 points between them in their 1st college game, and you've got a #22-rated squad today, probably better by season's end. Forecast: 19-3, 1st place MIAC, 21-4 regular season, 4 post-season wins, 25-5.
4. Minnesota Gopher men. Hope springs eternal. And, while the Tubby Smith era has not been quite what Gopher fans might initially have envisioned, the Gophers have a lot of experienced talent back from a team that humiliated Purdue 69-42 in last March's Big Ten tournament and has already knocked off North Carolina. Of course, it's also a team that has struggled to beat Winona State and Siena already this year, and it's a team that has lost perhaps its top talent, combo guard Devoe Joseph, to a suspension of indeterminate cause and length. Still, Blake Hoffarber, Ralph Sampson and Trevor Mbakwe are a formidable threesome, which is why hope springs eternal. Forecast: 11-7 Big Ten, 21-9 regular season, 4 post-season wins (2 in the Big Ten and 2 in the NCAAs), 25-10.
5. Eden Prairie, Hopkins and Lakeville North girls. In other words, I have no clue who will be the best girls basketball team come March, and my indecision comes not from weakness. Defending state champion Lakeville North is rated #17 in the nation (Hoopgurlz) and brings back Gopher recruit Rachel Banham, rated the #18 senior in the country by one recruiting service. Still, they're anything but a lock against some very tough competition, including Eden Prairie and post Jackie Johnson and Hopkins, who has re-loaded after a down period. Watch for Richard Coffey's daughters among many others for the deep Royals. Forecast: Eden Prairie 25-2 regular season, 5 post-season wins, 30-2 overall. Lakeville North 26-1 regular season, 4 post-season wins, 30-2. Hopkins 24-3 regular season, 4 post-season wins, 28-4.
6. Braham girls. Everybody is back from last year's AA runner-up and the Bombers look like an absolute buzz-saw. Forecast: 26-1 regular season, 6 post-season wins, 32-1 overall.
7. Minnesota Lynx. Add Maya Moore to Augustus and Whalen and Wiggins, et al, and if everybody's healthy, this has the potential to be a WNBA champion. Or, given the franchise's sorry history, the biggest bust of the year. It seems unfortunate to entrust all of this talent to such an inexperienced coach. I'd say she's unproven except that 2010 proved that she's in over her head. Forecast: 21-13 regular season, 2 play-0ff series wins, 26-18 overall.
8. St. Paul Johnson boys. Not quite as deep as last year's super-team, but as long as guard Estan Tyler and coach Vern Simmons are on board, a clear AAA favorite. Forecast: 24-3 regular season, 5 post-season wins, 29-3.
9. Minnesota Gopher women. The Gophers' next gen kids exhibit a confidence and aggressiveness that has been lacking. Four players who didn't contribute last year are begin counted on--Cotton, Dockery, Loberg and Mastey--and each one looks like a new player. Dockery is a particularly good story, having sat out 3 years with leg injuries. Collectively, they look like a big upgrade over last year's seniors Ellis-Milan, Harper, McCoy and Ohm. And, of course, one musn't forget returnees Antoine, Buford and Voigt. Forecast: 9-9 in Big Ten, 18-13 regular season, 2 post-season wins, 20-14 overall. (And, just for the record, if Rachel Banham is half as good as Hoopgurlz says [#18 in the nation], then a return to real golden-ness may lurk in the Gophers' future.)
10. Benilde-St. Margaret's and Hill-Murray girls. These 2 could easily play for the state AAA title again this year. Benilde will miss the floor leadership of Itisha Alexander, but has a terrific front-court back. Hill-Murray has Iowa recruit Beth Doolittle and #1 rated (among the 2012s) Tessa Cichy. Forecast: Benilde repeats: 25-2 regular season and 5 post-season wins, 30-2 overall. Hill-Murray repeats, too, as runner-up. 24-3 regular season, 4 post-season wins, 28-4 overall.
Rachel Banham, Lakeville North girls
Blake Hoffarber, Minnesota Gophers men
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ralph Sampson, Minnesota Gophers men
Rachel Booth, St. Thomas women
China Antoine, Minnesota Gopher women
Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx
Michael Beasley, Minnesota Timberwolves
Kiara Buford, Minnesota Gopher women
Estan Tyler, St. Paul Johnson boys
Jackie Johnson, Eden Prairie girls
Joe Coleman, Hopkins boys
Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota Lynx
Andrew Tucker, Winona State men
Rebekah Dahlman, Braham girls
Honorable Mention and Most Improved (tie): Leah Cotton and Kristen Dockery, Minnesota Gopher women
1. Tubby Smith, Minnesota Gopher men
2. Mike Leaf, Winona State men
3. Vern Simmons, St. Paul Johnson boys
4. Steve Fritz, St. Thomas men, and Ruth Sinn, St. Thomas women
5. Pam Borton, Minnesota Gopher women
6. Mike Durbin, St. Ben's women
7. Chris Carr, Eden Prairie girls
8. Brian Cosgriff, Hopkins girls, and Kenny Novak, Jr., Hopkins boys
9. Andy Berkvam, Lakeville North girls
10. Paul Fessler, Concordia-St. Paul women
The Year's Best Games
1. Hopkins boys at St. Paul Johnson, January 21. This was the best ballgame of 2009-2010. Lightning probaby isn't going to strike twice. Still, this should be worth seeing. Joe Coleman vs. Estan Tyler, in particular, though Coleman has more help this year.
2. Eden Prairie and Hopkins girls, home and home. At EP February 1, at Hopkins February 28. My high school bias is showing, I guess. And if these 2 meet earlier in the Tip-Off or Dick's tournaments, it might take some of the luster away. But, no. Those tournament games are in December, the rotations won't even be set. By February, pride, conference titles and post-season seeds will be on the line. I figure a split, but EP takes the Lake title.
3. Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan State at Gopher men in 3 consecutive home games February 6, 10 and 22. The Gophers need to upset two of the 3 in order to contend in the Big Ten and for national Top 10 honors. They might do it.
4. Augustana and Wayne State at Concordia-St. Paul, January 28 and 29. The top weekend of small college ball that you'll see this year. The visitors are rated #2 and #1 in the NSIC pre-season poll, Concordia #3. This will go a long way to establishing the pecking order in the NSIC, but the truth is Wayne looks like a juggernaut right now.
5. St. Thomas men at Carleton, Gustavus and St. John's, February 9, 12 and 19. The Tommies have packed all of their toughest conference games in the last 10 days of the regular season. Chances are an unbeaten MIAC record will be on the line. Chance are the Tommies will get it.
6. Iowa at Gopher women, January 5. Whose got the better roster of Minnesota kids? Iowa, with Alexander, Draxten and Wallin? Or the Gophers with Buford, Loberg, Mastey and Voigt? Of course, either way, Iowa has more talent when you add in Jamie Printy and Morgan Johnson.
7. St. Cloud State men vs. Winona State men, home and home. At St. Cloud January 8, at Winona February 4. Winona is #1 and St. Cloud #2 in the NSIC pre-season poll, and guards Anthony Tucker and Forrest Witt figure to be 1 and 2 in Player of the Year voting. I figure a split but Winona wins the title and Tucker player of the year honors.
8. Hopkins boys vs. Minnetonka, home and home, at Tonka February 8, at Hopkins February 25. Tonka and new coach Tom Dasovich figure to up the states in what is Minnesota's best boys hoops rivalry already. I figure Hopkins sweeps this year.
9. Ohio State at Gopher women, February 13. Say hello to Tayler Hill. The Buckeyes are going for the 6th straight Big Ten regular season title. The Gophers always seem to play the Buckeyes close at the Barn, and this should be no exception. Still, Ohio State by a few and Hill might be the difference-maker.
10. St. Ben's vs. St. Thomas, home and home, at St. Ben's January 22, at St. Thomas February 19. MIAC title is probably decided by these 2 games. I figure the Tommies sweep.