Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gopher Men, Women Tabbed for Middle of the Pack

The Big 10 media and coaches pre-season polls are in, and the Minnesota Gophers are mostly out. Out of all of the top 3s, which is what the Big 10 released for publication.

Men's Media--1. Ohio State, 2. Wisconsin, 3. Michigan
Men's Coaches--1. Ohio State, 2. Wisconsin, 3. Michigan State
Women's Media--1. Penn State, 2. Purdue, 3. Michigan State
Women's Coaches--1. Penn State, 2. Purdue, 3. Iowa

It's hard to argue for the Gophers--men or women--rating this high. There's upside for both (defined as better than the #7 or thereabouts that is being predicted) but there's upside for a lot of Big 10 teams this year, especially among the women.

Da Men

Except that poll details were released for just one of the 4 polls--that would be the men's teams as voted on by the media. And what it shows is that:

• Ohio State was a unanimous #1 pick.
• 4 different teams got 2nd place votes, but all 4 were also picked as low as 5th.
• The Gophers and Illinois make up the middle of the pack.
• If there was ever any doubt that expansion of the Big 10 is all about football, look at who comes in 11th and 12th.

1. Ohio State (unanimous with all 12 1sts) so their range was 1st to 1st--288 points total
2. Wisconsin ranged from a high of 2nd to a low of 5th--248 total points
3. Michigan ranged from 2nd to 6th--233 points.
4. Michigan State also ranged from 2 to 6, with 219 pts are here.
5. Purdue was as high as 2nd and as low as 9th, with 194 points.
6. Illinois was rated from 4 to 9, with 150 points.
7. Minnesota is just behind the Illini, with a range of 3 to 10, and 142 points.
8. Northwestern ranges from 6 to 11.
9. Indiana ranges from 5 to 12.
10. Iowa ranges from 6 to 12.
11. Nebraska ranges from 8 to 11.
12. Penn State--nobody picked 'em higher than 11.

Both the media and the coaches picked the following pre-season all-conference team:

Draymond Green, Michigan State
Robie Hummel, Purdue
Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State--also pre-season player of the year
Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin

Sullinger averaged 17 points and 10 boards last year as a freshman, and he is a pre-season all-American. Also returning for the Buckeyes to complement Sullinger's inside game is William Buford, who scored 14 ppg last year. Otherwise the Buckeyes will be relying on some new faces.

But the fact is that the Big 10 lost a tremendous amount of talent, and all of the Buckeyes' competitors are in the same boat--relying on new faces--but without a superstar like Sullinger to man the oars.

Wisconsin has Taylor (formerly of Benilde-St. Mary's) back, but lost Jon Leuer (Orono). Minnesotans Mike Brusewitz (Henry Sibley) and Jared Berggren (Princeton) will be major contributors while freshman Jordan Smith (also of Orono) is also on the roster.

Michigan has 4 starters back including sophomore guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. The question is whether coach John Belien, now in his 5th year at Ann Arbor, is really a big-time coach. The Wolves are 68-67 (30-42 in the Big 10) under Belien. So this is his year and his team and his time to prove he's got what it takes.

Michigan State has coach Tom Izzo back and that's all you need to know. Of course, they also have Green. But not much else from a 19-15 team. Still, no need to feel sorry for the Spartans.

Meanwhile, the Gophers are universally acknowledged as having a first-class front court led by all-America candidate Mbakwe. His stock rose significantly after a stellar performance at the World University Games. The question for the Gophers is whether Tubby Smith has got his point guard troubles fixed and behind him. Maverick Ahanmisi and Julian Greer are the two pure point guards on the roster. Still the betting in most corners is that newcomer Andre Hollins, not to be confused with sophomore bro Austin Hollins, will be da man. He's a natural "2," but his his skills appear to be so good that he's better at the "1" than anybody else. Meanwhile the "2" could end up being fellow frosh Joe Coleman. Time will tell.

My Take: The Gophers are slotted appropriately at #7, until they prove otherwise. There's a lot of talent but the perimeter talent is young. Too bad there's not a little more overlap between the young perimeter talent and the veteran frontcourt. They'll be better than last year's 17-14 but not as good as the 11-1 and 16-4 Gophers of last year before the point guard dearth struck. 10-2 in the non-conference portion of the schedule is within reach, but 9-9 will be a solid record in the Big 10.

The Women

It seems strange to see any Big 10 standings--projected or not--that doesn't have Ohio State on top, the Buckeyes having won 6 straight conference championships before last year's surprising 3rd place finish. Surprising because center Jantel Lavender gave the Bucks their customary rock in the post (before Lavender it was Jessica Davenport) and point guard Samantha Prahalis was one of the Big 10's best.

For 2012 the focus shifts out to the perimeter where Prahalis and Penn State guard Alex Bentley share pre-season player of the year honors. Prahalis is the #4 returning scorer at 14.5, Bentley is #5 at 14.4. Prahalis is the #1 returnee in assists with 7, Bentley is #2 with 5.

And, each has some help. For the Buckeyes, Tayler Hill (Mpls. South) is the #9 returning scorer at 12.4, while Bentley has Maggie Lucas with 15.8 ppg (#3 returning) and 3.2 3-point shots per game (#1 among returnees).

Iowa also has 2 players among the returning stats leaders. Jamie Printy is in fact the #1-returning scorer at 18.8, and she also kicks in 3.5 assists per game. Kamille Wahlin (Crookston, MN) is #10 among returning scorers at 12.0 and #3 in assists with 4 per game.

The full pre-season all-conference team includes:

Bentley--unanimous player of the year (i.e. by coaches and media)
Prahalis--co-player of the year by the coaches
Karisma Penn, Illinois, jr., F--may be the best player but her talents are lost on a weak team
Jaime Printy, Iowa, jr.--top returning scorer
Lykendra Johnson, Michigan State--the top inside player

My Take: So, in a nutshell, while the coaches and media like Penn State, Purdue and Iowa and Michigan State, I have to take Iowa and Ohio State at 1 and 2 (or 2 and 1), with Penn State 3, and Purdue and Michigan State 4 and 5 (or 5 and 4).

That leaves #6 as the highest the Gophers can expect to finish, and they'll have some stern competition from improving Northwestern to do that. Much of the Gophers hopes ride on freshman "1" Rachel Banham. And, don't get me wrong, Banham will be terrific. But as a freshman, she's going to be facing highly skilled and more experienced guards game in and game out. The Gophers fate also rides with senior Kiara Buford, hoping to fulfill the high expectations that came to the U of M with her (and classmates Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt) 3 years ago. With less need to handle the ball, Buford should score a few more points and reduce her turnovers by 1 or more per game. All of which still leaves the Gophers #6 at best.

Can't/won't argue the all-conference teams, but: There's no freshman of the year but one reason I have Iowa rated highly is freshman guard Sam Logic, who is rated more highly even than Banham (#10 nationally in her class vs. Banham's 18). Logic and Banham head up the all-freshman team.

Friday, October 28, 2011

NSIC Coaches Pick Augustana and Wayne to Win; I Don't

The NSIC got the jump on pre-season prognosticating this week with the publication of their coaches polls.

The Men

The men's coaches picked Augustana to win it all this year, and why not? Only Augustana returns 2 1st team all-NSIC players in Cody Schilling, a 6-5 senior who also led the NSIC in scoring last year with 21 ppg, and Cameron McCaffrey, a 6-1 junior who was #6 in scoring at 18.5 ppg. If successful, this would be Augie's 1st-ever NSIC champion. Augie only joined the NSIC in 2009 with the demise of the North Central Conference.

The coaches have Winona State, Minnesota State-Mankato and Concordia-St. Paul next, and all 3 get 1st place votes. Mankato is 2-time defending regular season champ, while Winona is the defending play-off champ. Concordia has a 1st (guard Peter Olafeso) and 2nd (6-10 Brent Barz) team all-conference players returning. Winona will be led by 6-7 junior Clayton Vette, whose post-season play was the reason for the Warriors' jump from 4th in the conference in the regular season to 1st in the playoffs. He is the only 1st team all-tournament player to return.

Personally, I like Augustana but I like Winona State better, and I have Vette among the candidates for my all-Minnesota team for 2011-2012. But of course Cody Schilling is not a Minnesota-based player and so not eligible for my little honorarium.

The Women

I strenuously object to the women's poll which has defending regular season champ Wayne State on top, followed by defending post-season champion Winona State, then Augustana, Moorhead State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Northern State and Concordia.

My choices are Winona State first, UMD second, and then Moorhead State, Wayne State, Concordia, Northern and Augustana.

The coaches further have the 2010-2011 player of the year Ashley Arlen of Wayne St., a 6-2 senior forward, as their pick to repeat as PoY. I don't agree with that, either. Nothing against Arlen, who is terrific, but she doesn't have much help coming back, and if Wayne indeed finishes below first place, there will be a tendency to look elsewhere when it comes time to vote on the PoY.

My pick is another 6-2 senior forward, Angie Jetvig of Moorhead State. Jetvig, from Hawley, MN, is the defending conference scoring leader at 19.5 points per game; Arlen scored 16.5. Jetvig shot 52 percent from the field, Arlen 43 percent.

And Moorhead State added Angela Christianson to an already formidable roster during the off-season and will challenge for the conference championship this year--even finishing ahead of Wayne if I am correct. Christianson, of course, was an all-stater at Alexandria High School, then played 1 year of Division 1 ball at Drake, where she scored 8 points per game as a freshman before transferring back closer to home.

But it is Winona and UMD who will fight it out for the title this year, IMHO. Winona is of course defending conference play-off champion with 6-foot senior forward Michelle McDonald, 1st team all-conference a year ago, and 5-6 junior guard Katie Wolff, who made the all-tournament team, coming back.

UMD, meanwhile, takes less of a star-studded approach, though 5-9 senior guard Lindsay Miller, 2nd team all-conference last year, returns. But it's their depth and their coach who moves me to put them at (or near) the top of the list. 5-11 forward Katrina Newman was Freshman of the Year last year, and will jump into the 1st team all-conference level of play this year. 6-foot senior Shelly Stemper, who made the 1st all-defensive team last year, is also back. The Bulldogs will miss Kelsey Hewitt in the paint, but 6-5 senior Emma Van Winkle and 6-2 junior Hannah Rutten are back. And perhaps 6-2 Julie Kruse will be ready to contribute now in her sophomore year. Alyssa Kerkhoff and Jessica Newman are probably not ready to contribute as freshmen, but make a pretty classy 2-person recruiting class.

And then there's coach Annette Wiles, who got a lot out of these Bulldogs the past couple of years while also building up the stock of talent in what was a pretty empty cupboard when she arrived at UMD. UMD finished 16-12 her 1st year (2008-2009) compared with 4-23 the year before. She was 300-141 when she arrived at Duluth, and the cumulative record says she can coach a little. My choice for coach of the year, which will of course be a no-brainer if the Bulldogs finish as high as 2nd.

To Summarize

The candidates for my post-season awards include:

Team of the Year--Winona State men, Winona State women, UMD women

Player of the Year--Angie Jetvig, Moorhead State; Clayton Vette, Winona State

Coach of the Year--Annette Wiles, UMD women; Mike Leaf, Winona State men

Friday, October 14, 2011

Grace Coughlin the Latest, as Gopher Women Suddenly Stockpiling Guards

EDIT: This post was written back in August, then updated today (10-14-11) with the announcement that Grace Coughlin also has verbaled the Gopher women.

One (of many) knocks on Pam Borton has been her persistent lack of depth at guard. After passing on Minnesota guards like Alyssa Karel, Kamille Wahlin, Courtney Boylan and Brittney Chambers, she had to go out and sign stop-gap, junior-college guards like Kay Silva and China Antoine just to form a minimum rotation at the position.

Now, suddenly--with the verbals she has received from Kenisha Bell of Bloomington Kennedy (back in August) and Grace Coughlin of Benilde-St. Margaret's yesterday--Borton has turned over a new leaf; she's into her "stockpiling-Minnesota-guards" phase.

In 2011, Rachel Banham comes aboard and brings big expectations with her. She and Kayla Hirt--just the two of them--are rated as the #16 best recruiting class in America by Hoopgurlz, though it's also true that Romanian guard Alexandra Ionescu has also signed on.

In 2012, Mikayla Bailey and Shayne Mullaney have verballed. They're not as highly rated as Banham and Kayla Hirt in 2011 but Mullaney, at least, looks to me to have the skills to complement Banham quite nicely. On the other hand, there are better guards on the horizon and I don't necessarily mean Bell.

But for 2014, Bell represents the #1 rated girl in her class and she is of course another guard. Coughlin is rated #5 or #6 among the 2014s, which would translate to the #3 or 4 guard.

But note that Borton still has no verbals from the highly-rated 2013s Rebekah Dahlman of Braham is likely to be the most highly recruited Minnesotan since Tayler Hill. Nia Coffey, Hopkins, the daughter of Gopher great Richard Coffey, would look especially good in maroon and gold for that reason. But does Borton need either one of them now, with all of the guards she's already recruited?

Well, yes, of course, you always need to best player to come out of Minnesota in 4-5 years. Remember when the Gopher men had big Minnesota kids stacked up like cordwood--back in the days of Kevin McHale, Randy Breuer, et al. If you ended up with too many kids, somebody could always transfer to Augustana or Maryland or wherever.

So, as of now, the Gopher roster is projected to look like this at the guard spot if Borton is able to land Dahlman and Coffey. (NOTE: That's a lot of guards.)

Gopher Guards

2011-2012 Rachel Banham (fr.), Kiara Buford (sr.), Leah Cotton (jr.), Alex Ionescu (fr.), Sari Noga (soph.)

2012-2013 Banham (soph.), Cotton (sr.), Ionescu (soph.), Noga (jr.), Mullaney (fr.), Bailey (fr.)

2013-2014 Banham (jr.), Mullaney (soph.), Ionescu (jr.), Noga (sr.), Bailey (soph.)

2014-2015 Banham (sr.), Kenisha Bell (fr.), Mullaney (jr.), Coughlin, (fr.), Ionescu (sr.), Bailey (jr.)

2015-2016 Dahlman (jr.), Coffey (jr.), Bell (soph.), Mullaney (sr.), Coughlin (soph.), Bailey (sr.)

What this says to me is that Borton is preparing and is prepared to lose Dahlman and all the other 2013s. It's true, however, that at 6-feet Coffey could also play the small forward spot.

This also says to me that if Borton can get Dahlman and Coffey, that Mullaney and Ionescu and especially Bailey will be candidates to move out to other schools if they can't adjust to a role coming off the bench, as some cannot or will not do. Heck, it remains to be seen if Leah Cotton will be happy continuing to come off the bench for another year, though it's true that she projects as the starting guard alongside Banham in her senior year.

But, meanwhile, that mythical 2nd D1 program Minnesota State could do worse than load up itself on the guards the Gophers didn't recruit. In other words, you've still got kids like Tessa Cichy and Alexis Foley (2012), Jessica January and Mikaala Shackleford (2013), Ta'Kendra Elbert and Grace Coughlin (2014) hangin' out there--not, again, to mention Dahlman and Coffey.

Which just reinforces the notion that Borton and the Gophers should never be short of guards. The dearth of guards these past few years, in fact, has been entirely self-inflicted, especially when you consider that Kamille Wahlin of Crookston, MN, has been starting for Iowa for almost 3.5 years and earned all-Big Ten honors these past 2 years. Borton's failure to recruit Wahlin was the primary cause of the guard dearth, which forced her to go out and spend a scholarship on stop-gaps like China Antoine and Kay Silva.

But secondly, it's great that Borton has signed the #1 girl among the 2014s but, hey, don't forget about the 2013s!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Da Lynx "Run" to WNBA Title

Ignored by the mainstream media most of the season, the Lynx enjoyed wall-to-wall media coverage during the WNBA Finals this past week. I didn't have a whole lot to add to what you've been able to hear on TV or read in the newspapers. But now, let me return to my #1 Lynx theme of the year.

The Lynx' success in the finals, as all year long, has been characterized by killer runs that they've laid on their opponents. Against Atlanta in the finals, it went like this.

Game 1: 13-0

Tied at 62 after 3 periods, the Lynx scored the 1st 13 points of the 4th quarter. Lindsay Whalen scored the 1st 5 points of the 4th on a driving layup 2 + 1 and a "J." In between the 2 scores, Whalen blocked a Lindsey Harding shot, then tied up Harding and tapped the ensuing jump ball to Maya Moore. 8 more consecutive points, 4 by Rebekah Brunson, followed and at 5:44 it was 75-62. Game over.

Game 2: 16-2

Trailing 85-81 with just 4:53 to go, Seimone Augustus hit 2 throws, then a "J." A Moore "J" from Brunson, a Brunson throw and another driving 2 + 1 for Whalen, and suddenly the Lynx were up 91-85. Another minute later it was 97-87 as Seimone hit 8-of-10 FT down the stretch. Again, game over.

Game 3: 19-8

Trailing 37-33 at the half, the Lynx owned the 3rd quarter 19-8 including 11-2 in the 1st 3 minutes. Whalen opened the half with another of her specialty, the driving layup. Moore scored on 3 lay-ups, Augustus a hook and a "J," and Brunson and Wright a pair of "J's" and it was 49-43 Lynx. Entering the 4th quarter ahead 52-45, the Lynx never again trailed. Game and series over.

Da Runs: 48-10

In total, the Lynx enjoyed a ridiculous 48-10 edge over these 19 crucial minutes.

The Rest of the Way

Atlanta out-scored the Lynx a shocking 226-214 over the rest of the 3 game series!

No I in Team

Looking at individual stats, what comes through is the other major Lynx theme for 2011 which is team, team, team. Series MVP Seimone Augustus led the Lynx in scoring during the 3 big runs with 18 points, but 10 of them came on 12 FT attempts at the end of game 2. Augustus also tied for the team lead with 3 assists and added 3 boards, a steal and a block. Lindsay Whalen scored 10 points, including the 1st 5 points of the game 1 run, with 2 steals and an assist.

Rebekah Brunson scored 9 points on 6-of-7 shooting, with a team-high 6 boards plus 3 assists (tying for the team lead) and a block. Maya Moore scored 8 points on 4-of-5 shooting with 4 boards, an assist and a steal. Taj, Adair, Wiggins and Wright all scored during one or more of the 3 big runs, too.

The Future

Today's papers are full of speculation that the Lynx are well-positioned for the future and that additional WNBA titles are a reasonable expectation. Maybe. There's likely to be some fall-off among the 8 "regulars." Augustus and Whalen can't play any better than they did this year. Taj, 40, could be calling it quits, you'd think. And the team's health can hardly be better than the zero days lost to the disabled list in 2011.

Of course, Moore, a roll player this year, is likely to emerge as the team's star player by 2014 if not sooner. And the Lynx have a top 4 draft pick, which could end up as #1 in the 2012 lottery, thanks to the trade of Nikki Anosike to the Washington Wizards.

Seattle would seem to be the primary road block if 2010 MVP Lauren Jackson returns at 100 percent after her injury troubles this year.

But there's time enough for that. Right now, Twin Cities sports fans are simply enjoying the region's 1st professional championship since 1991, earned by a very classy group of young women, at that.