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Posted On: 11/23/18 1:00 PM
It may seem like the Class AAA season is a bit preordained with DeLaSalle looking like the clear best team in the state. But last year taught us that high school hoops in Minnesota is not the NBA. There can be some intrigue (and not the soap opera kind). There is no shortage of intrigue heading into the basketball season at the Class AAA level. Here are some storylines I’m particularly intrigued to see play out over the course of the winter.
Section 1: Can Northfield finally get to state?
Northfield is always good. The Raiders are well-coached, well-schooled and they always seem to have big, strong, athletic kids. They just keep running into a better team in Section 1. It was Winona for a while. Then it was Red Wing. Lately it’s been Austin again. Northfield certainly has the talent this year with Mason Zick, Mitchell Stanchina and Blake Christensen leading the way. Austin will be the favorite and Winona will be lurking.
Section 2: Who can get the No. 1 seed?
Section 2 is silly loaded with three teams that, for my money, could rank in the top-five in Class AAA. Waseca might be the second best team in the state with Malik Willingham and a terrific core of sophomores. Mankato East has a dynamic backcourt with Jax Madson and Joich Gong plus a ton of young talent matriculating through the program and Marshall’s got Matt Onken, Bryce Paulsen and Noah Puetz. Beyond those three teams, there appears to be a bit of a gap with Worthington and Mankato West probably sitting in that distant second tier at this time. Getting the top seed means not having to win two games against other top-notch teams, which makes any road to state significantly less complicated.
Section 3: Can someone challenge St. Thomas Academy?
St. Thomas Academy’s won the last two section titles and appears to be the favorite heading into this winter season. Jack Thompson is going into his third year as a starter and he’s one of the best point guards in Class AAA. Noah Chamberlain was a complementary guy last year and looks like a legitimate breakout candidate on the wing and with a number of the typical top teams in that section seemingly headed towards retooling seasons, the Cadets seem like the team to beat if even simply by default.
Section 4: Is this Mahtomedi team for real?
Mahtomedi’s been good for a long time but the Zephyrs have come up short when the postseason comes around. They’ve had teams capable of winning games in the state tournament but have struggled to contend with Columbia Heights. Can they knock the Hylanders off this year? Columbia Heights won’t drop off as far as people might think given what they lost to graduation as there is a ton of young talent in the program and several key veterans back to lead the way. But Mahtomedi has terrific talent as well.
Section 5: Who has the most left in the cupboard after losing a superstar?
Delano, Willmar, Monticello and Dassel-Cokato lost superstar guards to graduation last season. On paper, the Cardinals are most equipped to overcome that loss as they return four starters including Drey Dirksen, Ryan Slette and Ty Roeloffs. Delano leaned on Calvin Wishart so much but there are some good players back in Derek Techam and Trey Longstreet. And Monticello returns five of its top seven guys. Filling the void left by Matt Todd is no easy task but many of the returning players for the Magic are now in their third year at the varsity level.
Section 6: Can Cooper or maybe Roosevelt challenge the Islanders?
Robbinsdale Cooper figures to be one of the best teams in Class AAA this year Jalen Justice, Jalen Miller and Cameron Vaughn are all back to give the Hawks a potent trio. Those three could average 50 points per game or more this year if they stay healthy. Is that enough to contend with DeLaSalle? It could be. In Desi Sims, Minneapolis Roosevelt has one of the best bucket-getters in the state. Luke Barnes is a rock-solid complementary wing too.
Section 7: Will Princeton play defense?
Princeton heads into the 2018-19 season with its best team in a decade. Expectations are sky-high and in some eyes, the Tigers are the second best team in Class AAA. That’s what happens when three all-conference caliber guys from the year before are all back and the team gains another by way of transfer. If the Tigers are going to live up to those expectations, they can’t give up 70 points per game like they did a year ago. They gave up 86 in a season-ending loss to Cloquet, a team that averaged 63 points per game on the season. They’ve got to provide some more resistance.
Section 8: Is St. Cloud Apollo back?
St. Cloud Apollo has been down for a few years but the Eagles have a nice cache of young talent seemingly ready to take the next step. Mike Gravelle is a solid point guard and Deng Diew is one of the better forwards in the 2020 class. The Central Lakes as a whole looks like it is headed towards a retooling season and that’ll hit Section 8 as Fergus Falls, Sauk Rapids and Alexandria all graduate key pieces from their teams.