Monday, November 29, 2010

Eden Prairie, Hopkins and Lakeville North--A Third Look

Among all of the basketball championships that will be contested this year, the girls AAAA is the toughest to handicap. That's because there are 3 teams that in any normal year would be a heavy favorite to win it all. But this is no normal year, nor are there likely to be any more normal years for awhile--or, as long as the "new" MSHSL transfer (or, anti-transfer) rule lasts. In theory, the transfer rule was going to level the playing field and provide for more parity in high school sports. In practice, it is having exactly the opposite effect. More on this later.

But for now, the 3 super-teams, in alpha order, are Eden Prairie, Hopkins and Lakeville North.

Eden Prairie Eagles

The Eagles' claim to fame is pretty simple. Center Jackie Johnson and guards Aubrey Davis, Shayne Mullaney and Morgan Van Riper-Rose are all rated among the top 13 girls in their class. (Johnson and Mullaney are juniors, Davis and Van Riper-Rose are seniors. The seniors will be playing college ball at Mankato State [Davis] and Denver [Van Riper-Rose].)

The Eagles were 21-7 a year ago, tied for 2nd in the "old" Lake Conference at 12-4, and were rated as high as 3rd among AAAA teams at year's-end according to one rating service. Unbeaten state champion Lakeville North was their nemesis in the conference, beating the Eagles 74-60 and 84-60. Eden Prairie defeated Hopkins at home in a December non-conference tussle, 81-55.

Chaska ousted the Eagles from post-season play, 72-57 in the section semi-finals after the 2 had split a pair of regular season games. Chaska dominated the Eagles inside in the sectional. Johnson held her own, individually, with 13 points, but no other front-court player scored for Eden Prairie, while Chaska's front line of Degler, Tisch and Evangelista, all seniors at the time, combined for 33 points. The Eagles' back-court out-scored Chaska 44-39 as Van Riper-Rose scored 24 (and despite 29 points by the Hawks' Brooke Brown).

Davis, Mullaney and Van Riper-Rose will be on the court most of the time for the Eagles, and senior guard Taylor Uhl is their top sub. So, Eden Prairie will continue to be a guard-oriented team in 2010-2011. But the front-court will be improved, thanks to the development of junior forward Becca Sparkman. Not to mention Johnson's increasing strength and maturity, Jackie having been one of the top 3 players in the AAU summer season just past.

In most years, a line-up featuring 4 top 13s plus Sparkman and Uhl would be a very strong contender for a state championship. But 2010-2011 is not most years. Along with front-court depth, the Eagles will have to show that 7 or 8 elite girls can compete with 13 to 15 such girls, which is how deep Hopkins and Lakeville North are going this year. Being a guard-oriented team, Eden Prairie loves to put on the defensive pressure and get out in transition. But the Hopkins and North pressure defenses will be something special because both have the rare ability to keep fresh legs in the game--and not just 2 platoons' worth of fresh legs, but 3 if needed. It seems likely that EP may run out of gas against the Royals and Panthers, as would any opponent.

Fortunately for the Eagles, they won't face either of their elite opponents in post-season until state tournament time, and most likely not until the semi-finals as the Eagles, Royals and Panthers figure to be the top 3 seeds in some order or other.

The Eagles will have some adjustments to make this year, however. Guard Davis has just transferred in from Bloomington Kennedy, so chemistry between her and the girls who are returning will be key. Then there's a new coach in Chris Carr, the former Timberwolf and head of the Twin Cities youth basketball club 43 Hoops. And finally, there's also a new conference, as Eden Prairie has moved from the "old" Lake consisting mostly of Dakota County schools, now the South Suburban, to the "Classic" Lake of Hopkins, Edina, Wayzata, Minnetonka and Armstrong. It's a tougher conference, to be sure, but with just 6 teams and only 10 conference games. So they'll be spreading their wings and playing more non-conference foes from Prior Lake to Bemidji, and from Stillwater to Orono. But, more to the point, they will play Hopkins twice in the conference, so the pecking order between the 2 of them will be established by the time they face each other at the Target Center.

Hopkins Royals

The Royals, by their standards, have had a few down years now, but this year Hopkins seems poised to return to the top--or at least the top 3--of Minnesota girls AAAA basketball. Last year was an especial disappointment at 19-9. In 2009, they were 26-3 and rated as high as #1 before losing to Mpls. South and Tayler Hill in the section final, 59-45. This was an instant replay of 2008, when the Royals went 26-3 with a #1 rating--but lost to South in the sectionals, 51-42. They were just 18-10 in 2007.

You have to go all the way back to 2004, 2005 and 2006 to find the kind of years the Royals expect under coach Brian Cosgriff--3 straight state championship game appearances, 2 state championships in 2004 and 2006 sandwiched around an OT loss to Kennedy, 44-38 in 2005.

Anything less than a championship game appearance will be a disappointment in 2010-2011, that's for sure, because the Royals have amassed an awesome roster of talent, 15 girls deep or more. At least, 13 girls scored in their 2010-2011 opener against defending state runners-up White Bear Lake, a 72-40 Royals win. A mere 12 girls scored in the 2nd game, an 85-39 rout of Blaine.

• Sophomore Nia Coffey (Richard's daughter) is rated #1 in the state in her class by gPrep.
• 8th graders T'Aire Starks (a transfer from Mpls. North) and Sam Trammel are both rated among the top 4 in their age group.
• Senior Brianna Williams is rated #7 among the 2011s, and was the Royals' leading scorer in those 1st 2 outings with 23 points. Williams is going to play college ball at North Dakota.
• Junior Sydney Coffey (Richard's other daughter) is rated #13 in her class, who also scored 23 points in the last weekend's games. She has verballed to Marist.
• And there are 5 other girls rated among the top 40 in their age group. And Taylor Anderson, another sophomore, is not among them, and yet she was next in scoring over the weekend with 19 points.

About That Transfer Rule

My buddy Kevin Anderson of (no relation to Taylor) says that you could split their squad down the middle, and you'd have 2 top 10 teams, and I'm sure he's right. And for this you can thank the MSHSL's recent transfer rule. It was meant to even the playing field a little bit, but has had exactly the opposite effect. Here's why. Previously, kids (boys or girls) could transfer schools at any time. Now, in order to maintain eligibility, they cannot transfer after the 1st day in the 9th grade.

Well, it used to be that kids would test themselves in the 9th and 10th grades. If they thought they were D1 material and needed tougher competition or more exposure, then they might think about transferring. The number of kids who would find themselves on the horns of such a dilemma would, however, be small and most of them would say, The hell with it.

Now, they've got to decide what they wanna do when they grow up while they're still in the 8th grade. At which point in their lives, of course, they've really got no clue whether they're D1 potential or need more exposure than they can get in their home school district or not. But it's easy, from that perspective, to imagine that, yeah, there's a problem or an opportunity if they just take the appropriate action, which is to enroll someplace where they're sure to get a top-shelf high school basketball experience. Such as, Hopkins.

And so, the Royals come to have 15 kids or more who are obvious varsity basketball prospects where most other schools have 7 or 8 and backfill from there. Now, let's be honest. How many of Hopkins' top 15 do not live in the Hopkins district? I don't know. And how many transferred in for 9th grade for exactly the reasons I just mentioned? I don't know that, either. That would be a nice little test of my theory but I'm not gonna bug a bunch of kids to satisfy my curiosity. But the one thing I know is that since the MSHSL transfer (or, anti-transfer) rule went into effect, Hopkins and Lakeville North have amassed rosters that have been unheard of in Minnesota basketball history until now.

Okay, end of digression and back to our regularly scheduled content.

More On the Hopkins Royals

The fact is that other than Brianna Williams, all of the Royals' top-ranked players are younger, and the 5 girls who start the games on the floor are not as highly-rated as Eden Prairie's top 5. Then there's the fact that Hopkins' front-court is really not very big--again, not, at least, among the more highly regarded of them. 5 of their top 15 girls may be seniors, and yet the Royals are probably not going to peak until 2013 when Nia Coffey, Anderson, Erin O'Toole and Shackleford are seniors and Starks and Trammel sophomores. That's not to say they're not going to have a lot of success in 2011 and 2012 but rather it is simply to say, Look out in 2013!

Lakeville North Panthers

That leaves the defending state champions, who certainly deserve to be something more than an afterthought after their 32-0 state championship season of last year. Hey, they're 3rd in alphabetical order! That's all I'm sayin' here!

And you'd also have to say that they match up against Eden Prairie's top-shelf talent with point guard extraordinaire Rachel Banham, rated the #1 senior in the state; 6-2 Apiew Ojulu, rated #6 among the 2011s, inside; and guard Taylor Stewart (#10 among the sophomores).

Plus, they match up against Hopkins' depth, having had 15 girls score in their 1st game, an 88-12 shellacking of the suddenly very overmatched Polars from Mpls. North. Among the rest are:

• Senior guards Hannah Hughes and Jaya Perkins, tied at #40 among the seniors
• Junior "big" McKenzie Hoelmenn, rated #23 in her class
• Sophomore Simone Kolander, Chad's daughter. She is as yet unranked in her class, but appears to be the next to come out of the Panthers' star-making machinery.
• And, again, another 8 girls scored against North, but only another 1 (Lindsay McCuddin) against Osseo in the Panthers' 2nd game.

But if anybody can match up against Hopkins in terms of depth, this is that team. And Banham is a game-breaking talent. But, of course, when she's on the bench, the Panthers will miss her more than the Royals will miss any of their top 5. Or will they? Hopkins was pretty terrible last year while Brianna Williams was out with a knee injury. When she came back, they became a whole new team. So maybe she and Banham are equally missed when they need a breather.

The good news here is that North and Hopkins will square off next Saturday at Hopkins in the Breakdown Tip-Off tournament, so we'll get a feel for all of that early on. Bottom line, however, is that if North is going to win another state championship, now would be the time because once Banham is gone, the Panthers are unlikely to be this good and Hopkins is just gonna be getting better for the foreseeable future.

So Cut to the Chase Already, What's Going to Happen?

I think North will beat Hopkins next Saturday, and I think Hopkins and EP will split their regular season games. Hopkins will also beat EP on its home court in the finals of the Dick's Sporting Goods tournament in late December. North plays in the somewhat easier Suburban South conference, so if they beat Hopkins next Saturday they'll head into post-season at 26-0. Hopkins always plays an impossibly tough schedule and it just got tougher with the addition of EP to the Classic Lake. I see the Royals tying for the Classic Lake title at 6-2 and heading into the post-season at 24-3. And I see EP also going 6-2 in the Classic Lake in their 1st season as a member, and finishing the regular season at 21-5 with losses at Lakeville North, Hopkins (Dick's Christmas Tournament) and Benilde-SM.

As noted above, the 3 are in different sections. EP has the toughest section to contend with, with Edina and Prior Lake being solid threats. Lakeville North really has only Eastview as a challenger, while Hopkins shouldn't have any difficulty in 6AAAA with Minnetonka and Wayzata representing the toughest competition.

In the state tournament, the seedings will reflect the team's losses. Lakeville North 0 or 1, Hopkins 3ish, and Eden Prairie 5ish. Earlier, in my 2010-2011 Season Preview, I picked EP to go all the way. I now think that's wrong. The reason being, EP can compete with North and Hopkins, but not the 2 of them, not back-to-back, on Friday and Saturday nights. 40 minutes of hell, maybe. But 80 minutes of hell against teams (Hopkins and North) that have the depth to keep fresh legs in the game? I don't think so.

So either EP beats Hopkins on Friday and loses to Lakeville North on Saturday. Or Hopkins beats EP and Lakeville North. By the time they get to the state finals, the Panthers could be on a 63-game winning streak. The fact is they'll be overdue to lose one, whether or not the pressure of such a streak affects their play. And why not against the best prepared opponent they'll face all year?

Either way, the 1st string all-state team includes, at a minimum, Banham and Johnson, while A. Davis, Mullaney, Ojulu, Van Riper-Rose and B. Williams get at least 3rd team recognition.

The Final Word

1. Hopkins 30-3 Classic Lake co-champ, Section 6AAAA champ, State AAAA champ
2. Lakeville North 31-1 South Suburban champ, Section 3AAAA champ, State AAAA runner-up
3. Eden Prairie 26-6 Classic Lake co-champ, Section 2AAAA champ, State AAAA 3rd place
4. White Bear Lake 22-9 Suburban East co-champ, Section 4AAAA champ, State AAAA 4th place

White Bear is not the 4th best team this year, but it's to their credit that they've upped their schedule to parity with the elite schools. The point is that the next best after the Big Three are all in Sections 2, 3 and 6.

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