Sunday, March 20, 2016

100 Years 100 Stars: The Center of Attention

I started out to make a list of the 100 biggest stars of the boys basketball tournament, in recognition of the 100th year of tournament play this year. But then I thought, what the heck, why not rope in those guys who didn't play in the state tournament and make a really comprehensive list. Well, I compromised. I did both.

First, the centers.

The Center of Attention--1940-1990, But No More

It's worth noting that the role of the center has changed a lot over the years. In the early days, he was primarily a play-maker, like a hockey center. He'd play mostly at the high post and look to pass the ball to the forwards wherever they were working. Of course, the also had a center jump after every basket until 1937--like a hockey face-off--and the center was most often the guy they asked to do the honors.

With the demise of the center jump, the center was relieved of his 2nd most important duty. But indirectly, he was also relieved of the 1st. The offenses of the day were static because, hey, if you could routinely win the center jump, you could aspire to controlling the ball pretty much throughout the game. You could aspire to shutting out your opponent. So you didn't have to score a whole lot. In fact, as late as 1940, shooting percentages hovered around 20 percent.

Well, if the other side was going to get his shots, maybe you had to score a little more. And right about this time whatever it is they put into the water or the food started to produce taller boys and young men than ever before. So the #1 scoring option from the 1940s through the 1980s was the tall guy in the low post.

But, then, with the addition of the 3-point shot, the game changed again. The 3-pointer was meant to open up the lane for more of the good ole low post. Instead, the defense went on the attack. Now, the offense has to move a little quicker. And, getting an open shot doesn't necessarily mean closer to the hoop or high above average terrain. It means not having a defender in your face, and that often happens not closer but further away from the basket. The best of both worlds is to create havoc and turnovers in the opponent's backcourt for easy lay-ups for yourself.

The center isn't always able to get downcourt in time to participate in the transition, so of course he cannot be the center of attention anymore. That's the point guard. But in a rambling, gambling defensive strategy, he's the last line of defense. So it helps to be a shot-blocker, and hitting the boards is pretty essential. Scoring is gravy.

But getting back to the tournament, since I started out to list the top players in the tournament, I went ahead and did that. It's a good baseline, because we have plenty of data to make well informed decisions on them. Then I looked at guys who never played in the tournament and slotted them in on an as needed basis, recognizing that we don't have as good of data for the regular season all over the state of Minnesota.

So, even for the tournament list, but especially for the overall list, we consider their post-high school accomplishments insofar as they are validation of how good we think the player was in high school, if you see the distinction. The selection is based on their value as a high school player, but we understand that value in part by what they did later.

I should also note that a center is a guy who played center exclusively--in high school and at the next level, whatever that level is. Centers were so dominant for so long that I have plenty of candidates. So if a guy played center in high school but played forward anywhere further along--like a Vern Mikkelson, a Kevin McHale, etc.--he's a forward for my purposes.

Once again, the centers, beginning with the tournament 20 followed by the overall 20.

State Tournament Top 20 Centers

1. Jim McIntyre, Mpls. Patrick Henry 1944-45. The Babe Ruth of Minnesota basketball. Demolished any and all scoring records of the day, both in the tournament and for the regular season. Two-time state champion. Probably the #3 career scorer when he finished his high school career. Went on to earn all-America honors at the U of M.

2. Ron Johnson, New Prague 1955-56. Broke McIntyre's game and tournament scoring records, though he didn't win a title. All-time top scorer with 2,190 points at career's end. Also went on to earn all-America honors at the U of M.

3. Randy Breuer, Lake City 1978-79. Broke Johnson's record for most points in a tournament; his 113 points in 1979 still stands. Won 2 titles but not in the biggest class. One of 3 Minnesota high schoolers ever to win a state championship and a Big 10 championship.

4. Bill Simonovich, Gilbert 1951. Pros: Dominated Burdie Halldorson of Austin in the biggest big man matchup to that time (the Lingenfelter-McHale of his day) 35-4 en route to state title. Was a recognized force as a junior when Gilbert lost in the Region 7 final to eventual state champ Duluth Central. Cons: Not recruited into D1 out of high school, started at Hamline and transferred to the U. Started for the U as a junior, lost his starting spot as a senior.

5. Chad Kolander, Owatonna 1989-90. Pros: 2-time state champ, played at the U of M. Cons: Not a big scorer in high school, undistinguished at the U.

6. Ed Nylund, Buhl 1941-42. Pros: 2-time state champ, regarded as the best center ever to that time. Cons: Not aware that he played post-high school but the war could have affected that.

7. Don Dale, Robbinsdale 1950. Pros: 2nd highest scorer in tournament after Jim McIntyre, among top 5 career scorers (1,162 career points) at end of high school career. Cons: Played 1 year at the U and didn't make the varsity.

8. Como Pontliana, Duluth Central 1971. Pros: 3rd player to score 100 points in a tournament, state champ.

9. Joe Regnier, White Bear Lake 1984-85. Pros: 2-time state champ, 1-time tournament MVP. Cons: Not recruited by D1, played college ball in NCC.

10. Steve Lingenfelter, Bloomington Jefferson 1975-76. Pros: State champ, tournament MVP in 1976, out-played Kevin McHale in the final. Cons: McHale turned out to be a ton better after high school.

11. Rudy Monson, Duluth Denfeld 1947. Pros: Tournament MVP for state champion; had a nice career at UMD. Cons: Had a nice career at UMD.

12. Jimmy Jensen, Bemidji 1978. Pros: 1st to score 50 points in a tournament game. Cons: Not aware of post-high school career.

13. Ray Wall, Mountain Lake 1946-47. Pros: 2nd player after Jim McIntyre to lead the tournament in scoring 2 times. Cons: Not aware of post-high school play.

14. Don "Red" Mattson, Mpls. Marshall 1939-40. Pros: 2-time all-tournament, played for Minnesota Gophers. Cons: Lost 2 tournament big upsets including 1939 final to Mountain Lake.

15. Spencer Tollackson, Chaska 2004. Pros: State champ, tournament MVP, had a productive career with the Gophers.

16. Chris Engler, Stillwater 1977. Pros: Tied for top scorer in the '77 tournament, and had a productive college career.

17. Tom Copa, Coon Rapids 1983. Pros: Regarded as the best of 3 solid posts in 1983 tournament. Cons: Lost in final, college career didn't quite pan out.

18. Norm Galloway, Bemidji 1935-36. Pros: State champ, tournament MVP, started with the Gophers. Cons: Didn't stick with Gophers, resurfaced with Bemidji State.

19. Bob Laney, Proctor 1964. Pros: Tournament rebounding record still stands, nice D2 career. Cons: Very disappointing tournament for unbeaten team, nice D2 career.

20. Tryg Johnson, Anoka 1981. Pros: State champ, tournament MVP.

Overall Top 20 Centers

1. Jim McIntyre, Mpls. Patrick Henry 1944-45. 
2. Ron Johnson, New Prague 1955-56. 
3. Randy Breuer, Lake City 1978-79. The same 3 as above.

4. George Tuck, Mpls. Central 2001. Pros: Central played the Gophers tougher than Iowa and Wisconsin in those days. Went on to earn all-America honors at the U, and led them to 2002 and 2003 national championships.

5. Joel Przybilla, Monticello 1995.  Pros: Mr. Basketball, #1 all-time shot-blocker, NBA career, played well at U of M before.... Cons: Two relatively undistinguished state tournaments, quit the Gophers in mid-season.

6. Bill Simonovich, Gilbert 1951. #4 above.
7. Don Dale, Robbinsdale 1950. #7 above. 
8. Chad Kolander, Owatonna 1989-90. #5 above.
9. Steve Lingenfelter, Bloomington Jefferson 1975-76. #10 above.
10. Como Pontliana, Duluth Central 1971. #8 above.

11. Don "Red" Mattson, Mpls. Marshall 1939-40. #14 above.

12. Kleggie Hermsen, Mpls. Vocational 1940. Pros: Played at U of M, plus 9 years as pro with 9 ppg.

13. Johnny Horan, St. Thomas 1951. Pros: Led St. Thomas to Catholic title and win in match game vs. Wisconsin Catholic champ, played college ball at Dayton, 19 professional games with 2 ppg.

14. Ray "Swede" Nelson, St. Paul Mechanic Arts 1924-25-26. Pros: Led the Trainers to 1925 state title, led St. Paul City Conference in scoring 1924, 1926. Cons: Not top 20 for tournament performance.

15. Ed Nylund, Buhl 1941-42. #6 above.
16. Joe Regnier, White Bear Lake 1984-85. #9 above.
17. Rudy Monson, Duluth Denfeld 1947. #11 above.
18. Tom Copa, Coon Rapids 1983. #17 above.
19. Chris Engler, Stillwater 1977. #16 above.

20. Noah Dahlman, Braham 2004-05-06-07. Pros: 2,413 career points, 1,434 rebounds (was career leader at end of career), .656 career FG pct. Cons: Never the star of his own team.

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