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Posted On: 12/6/17 2:49 PM
Basketball season in Minnesota might’ve officially tipped off last weekend but it gets full-fledged underway Saturday when 34 of the top teams from all corners of the state descend upon Hopkins High School for the Breakdown Tip Off Classic.
Without venturing too far down Hyperbole Lane — it’s the first week for a lot of teams — this day is a huge deal for all of the teams playing in it. It’s an opportunity for measurement against another team with similar talent, similar goals and the ability to provide a pressure that many teams on the schedule the rest of the season simply don’t.
Sure it’s the first week of December and every team is far, far away from being a finished product. Some really good teams might look downright bad. Some teams might peak now or not far from now before fizzling out come February/March.
With that in mind, I’ll try to refrain from making grand assumptions and drawing scalding hot takes from whatever unfolds Saturday. But there are things that I definitely want to see.
*Peeling back the curtain on the Northstar Hoops/Breakdown coverage plan for a moment, I’m posting up on the East court for the entire day. So the following is going to be ‘East court matchup’ heavy.*
Spring Grove vs. Springfield
What are Spring Grove’s young guys going to bring to the table? The Lions will almost always have the two best players on the floor in junior guard Alex Folz and junior forward Brady Matzke. Those two will be expected to do a lot of the heavy lifting this season and should be capable of driving the team to a lot of wins. But I’m curious to see some of the less experienced Spring Grovers get their first taste of varsity action.
If an opening game against Rushford-Peterson isn’t enough of a baptism by fire, a date with the No. 1 team in the state certainly should be. Folz and Matzke won’t be the two best players on the floor Saturday — they’ll need some help. Which kid(s) can provide it?
Springfield might be the Class A team with the least questions and most answers at this point — they are ranked No. 1 in Class A after all — so there isn’t a whole lot to glean from a December game. But if I’ve got ask one, it would be this: is there a hole in the Tigers’ offensive attack? They hung 110 points on Cedar Mountain/Comfrey Tuesday night — a top-five team in the state for my money — and 96 against Mountain Lake Area in the first game of the season.
They won’t regularly hit triple digits. Then again, they might. They’ve got a wealth of shot-makers and shot-creators. I don’t know if Spring Grove has the horses to slow them down, but I want to see if there’s something that would indicate that anybody can.
Austin vs. Totino-Grace
How much does the loss of Both Gach impact the Austin defense? When Both Gach transferred out of Austin, the Packers’ state title odds took a hit. They weren’t totalled by any means — there’s a ton of talent in that program — but there are some things they’ll have to iron out.
The big one for me is the defense. Austin’s 1-2-2 zone press is physically and mentally taxing on the opponent because they throw athletes out there in waves. Both Gach spearheaded that effort. 6-foot-5 guys with pyrodactyl wingspans and gazelle-like fluidity aren’t common and his range on that end set a tone which keyed their offense. Austin wasn’t a great halfcourt offensive team last year. The Packers destroyed teams by forcing turnovers and overwhelming people in transition.
I still think the Packers are a state tournament team and a borderline top-five team because Tate Hebrink and Duoth Gach are as good a one-two punch as any — and again, there’s a lot of ancillary talent in the stable — but will the defense be as impactful? And if it’s not, what’s the team’s identity?
How much will Charlie Jacob need to score for Totino-Grace? Jacob seems capable of averaging 20-plus points per night but I don’t think I’m stumbling onto anything profound when I think that the best basketball teams are ones built on balance. The Eagles bring back four guys in Tyler Kittelson, Nick Flottmeier, Will Schmidt and Braeden Mischke who averaged between six and nine points per game a season ago. Can a couple of those guys pump those numbers up to 10-15?
That won’t be answered on a random Saturday afternoon in December — but I think a trend can get started. What’s the Eagle offense look like early? The Eagles weren’t a great defensive team a year ago and while I suspect that’ll change this year under head coach Nick Carroll, the inevitable ebbs of flows of that initiation may require the Eagles to win a shootout or two.
Fergus Falls vs. Delano
Is this the last hoorah for Fergus Falls? Okay that’s dramatic for effect because high school sports programs don’t really have “last hoorahs” but this Fergus Falls team has been one of the best in the state each of the last two years. That success has come thanks largely to last year’s senior class (Matt Monke, Elijah Colbeck et all) and this year’s senior class (Nate Rund, Harrison Christensen et all).
Matthew Johnson is a stud in the junior class for the Otters but what’s that state of the talent well after him? Fergus will need to get something out of guys who haven’t produced a whole lot at the varsity level before this season and even if the Otters don’t, a Rund-Johnson-Christensen trio is probably good enough to get them 20ish wins and at least an extended section tourney run. But is there more in the tank? We’ll at least have a clue Saturday.
Can Calvin Wishart lead the state in scoring this season? I’m sure Matthew Hurt, Michael Jones, Cade Goggleye and a handful of other high-octane scorers (particularly at the smaller school level) will be up there as well but Wishart is the third best point guard in the state in my opinion and he’s going to have to shoulder a heavy load for this Delano club. He’s a machine and I think he’s capable of pumping out 30-plus points per night.
A better question might be ‘who will ease the scoring burden on Wishart?’
Keegan O’Neil is off to a fast start through the first few games. Can he consistently give the Tigers 15ish points per game? Derek Techam is one of the best shooters in the state. Can he improve on his 12 points per game average from a season ago? Is there anyone else that will step up and provide a punch? Those questions are a lot easier to deal with when Wishart can hang 40-plus on any given night.
Eden Prairie vs. North St. Paul
How super are the sophomores at Eden Prairie? Playing underclassmen at a Class AAA or AAAA school is usually a recipe for disaster unless said underclassmen are future upper-level college basketball players. I’m not sure how much ceiling the collection of sophomores for the Eagles have when it comes to next-level upside — and why would I? They are sophomores — but they’ve proven to be capable of playing well beyond their years already.
Drake Dobbs, Austin Andrews and Connor Christensen were all key guys on a solid Eagles team as freshmen. Now those three are the core along with old man senior point guard Kyler Kluge for a team that should have state tournament aspirations. A matchup with an upperclass-laden Polar team provides a good early-season test for how ready those now-Sophs are for for that next step.
Can the North St. Paul backcourt consistently drive the Polars to wins? It’d be tough to find many backcourts better than the pairing of Bryce Phillips and Goodnews Kpegeol. That’s what first-year head coach Damien Johnson is working with here and while a big chunk of the roster in unproven, those two are terrific. They’ll have to be in North is going to be competitive this season. Kpegeol is an intriguing player because few possess the size/athleticism/skill blend that he does. If he can take another step and dominate — which he’s capable of — the Polars will win a lot of games.
Caledonia vs. St. Cloud Cathedral
Here’s the juiciest east-court matchup of the day in my opinion. Caledonia is the second best team in Class AA for me — of course Minneapolis North, Cathedral, Brooklyn Center and Esko can make claims for that spot as well — but if there’s a weakness I anticipate them having, it’s their lack of a true interior presence.
Can Caledonia rebound enough to run? The Warriors want to play fast and they’ve got the athletes and skill to do so as well as anybody. But to do that, they’ve got to get stops and rebounds. This is an important game for them from a big-picture perspective because no team in the Three Rivers Conference is capable of beating them up inside like the teams they’ll have to compete with to win a state title (I know that’s forever away) are. The Crusaders are one of those teams. They don’t have a hulking big man per se but the duo of Mich Plombon and Michael Schaefer double checks the rest of the big man boxes. Both guys have the explosiveness and motor to wear people down inside and out. Can the Warriors slow them down? It’ll take a gang effort.
What can we make of the Cathedral perimeter players? I’m not based in St. Cloud so I’m not getting the super in depth scoop on the state of Cathedral basketball. But when most people think about that team, the big guys gobble up the attention. The Crusaders are a top-fiveish team in the state — their guards must be doing something right. Jackson Baustian-Jangula and Nicholas Schaefer are the top two perimeter returners and averaged 10 and 7 points per game respectively a season ago. I don’t care if they average more than that given the offense will run through the bigs. But can the guards hold their own against the top-shelf guards around the state. Owen King, Noah King, Sam Barthel and company will put them to the test.
Annandale vs. Esko
A second uber-juicy Class AA matchup on the East court pits two state-tournament fixtures against one another in what should one of the best games of the day. Both teams are old and deep. The winner will leave with a high quality win while the loser really doesn’t lose much given it’ll have been at the hands of a team that will win 20-plus games and play deep into the postseason.
Can Esko play multiple ways? I know the Eskomos want to play slow and pound the ball inside to Adam Trapp. 7-foot-2 guys don’t come around often and he’s one of the most productive players in the state. But Esko’s got a number of capable guards who would benefit from getting out and running and getting easy buckets. Quinn Fischer, Camden Berger and Ryan Pantsar could all average double-figures in scoring this season. And I know the formula will be to play inside out with the offense orbiting around Trapp. But is that the only way they can play?
Can anyone replace Jarod Wilken as a ‘go-to’ scorer? I tend to think the ‘go-to scorer’ or ‘first option, second option…’ notion is a bit overrated when people analyze basketball but Wilken was as close to that kind of player as it gets last year for the Cardinals.
The cupboards aren’t bare at Annandale as Nick Bieniek, AJ Hines and Trenton Peterson are all back after playing big roles on last year’s state tournament team. Replacing Wilken will take a village of course and it’ll take more than those three guys stepping their games up. But the onus will fall on those three to step their games up first. Can one of them consistently deliver 15-18 points per night? I think the Cardinals will be balanced. But do they have a gamebreaker type on their roster?
Champlin Park vs. Minnetonka
How will the new-look Champlin Park group play? This is kind of a bland question because there’s just a whole lot about Champlin Park that we won’t know for a while. The Rebels have been one of the top programs in the state for a long time and a lot of their success at least in the last few seasons was in large part because of an outstanding 2017 senior class.
The talent in the system is still there but how will it all blend together? Will the team play a run-and-gun style like it did a year ago? I would actually think so with the athletes they’ve got in the program. It might be a different kind of run-and-gun given they don’t have two Division I guys but for volume’s sake, that may be the best way to play. In a very layman’s way of thinking: Think less and play fast to maximize all that athleticism.
Josiah Strong and Bennett Otto are the only two returning regulars and going from bit guys to go-to guys is a significant step up. I think they’ll be fine though.
Can Minnetonka score enough? Okay this is another weird question and one game on a random Saturday is hardly enough evidence to formulate a grand answer but the Skippers averaged 63 points per game a season ago — by far the lowest in the Lake Conference — and have to replace their top three scorers. They’ve got some nice players particularly with sophomore big man Cameron Steele and junior guard Jalen Dearring. Throw in senior forward Jon Martens too.
Do they score enough to consistently beat the high-octane teams that fill up their schedule though? They put up 80 in a win over Monticello to start the year. Can they do that against some of the bigger, grittier, more athletic teams in the metro area? Champlin Park will certainly provide a test.
New Prague vs. Robbinsdale Armstrong
The last game of the night features two teams undergoing wholesale changes on practically every account.
The Trojans are replacing nine seniors and their head coach while the two top returning players from last year’s Armstrong team didn’t actually return. Both of these teams are sort of hitting the reset button. So what are we looking for? I think the question applies for both clubs honestly.
Armstrong went from arguably a top-10 team in the state with Race Thompson and Quinn Smith to one that might struggle for a while as guys grow into varsity roles.
New Prague’s got some young talent with junior guard Tyler Kemp, junior big man Nathan Brusseau and sophomore guard Parker Johnson in particular. But how quickly does that talent pay off? It might take the Trojans a little while too.
So Saturday’s performance on both accounts may not ultimately be all that telling. It’ll be interesting to compare where they are at the start of the year to where they are at the end of the year.
That actually could really be said for all these games. In the grand scheme of things, they might not matter a whole lot given how early it is. But playing these games is definitely better than not playing them.