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Thumbs Down on Wolves Jimmy Butler

September 23, 2018 - (0) comments

 

The Timberwolves play a preseason game at home on October 5. Their first regular season game at Target Center is October 19.

Jimmy Butler should get an earful from fans at those games—if he is not traded to another NBA team by either of those dates.

The Wolves’ mega-paid star (reportedly near $20 million for the coming year) has decided after one season in Minnesota he doesn’t want to play here and wishes to be traded. Jimmy, where’s the loyalty in honoring the commitment the Wolves organization made to you including the remaining year on your contract?

It was about 15 months ago that this town first embraced Butler with a huge fan turnout and welcome event at the Mall of America. Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said then of Butler: “He’s a great person. He’s a great leader. We’re thrilled to have him.”

A few years ago Thibodeau coached Butler with the Bulls and helped take him from a late first round draft choice to an All-NBA guard. “Thibs has molded me into the player that I am today,” Butler said at the MOA event.

Butler is not expected at media day on Monday and it will not be surprising if he doesn’t report for the team’s first practice on Tuesday. Internet accounts say Butler’s unwillingness to play for the Wolves is motivated by his dissatisfaction with younger teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Butler, 29, also reportedly was critical of younger teammates when he played for the Bulls. Apparently, instead of being a role model for less experienced players, Butler prefers to move on from teams where he doesn’t like the locker room.

Maybe Thibodeau should get Butler, Towns and Wiggins in a room for a “come to Jesus meeting.” That’s what former NBA champion coach Bill Fitch told Sports Headliners he would do.

Fitch suggested he would meet all day, if necessary, with the players. They could even “agree to disagree” on things but the outcome would be to reach a place where the players could make the team better.

Fitch was an old-fashioned taskmaster when coaching the Celtics to an NBA title. He didn’t hesitate to command players to do extra running for their transgressions. He suggested that measure could be appropriate with the Wolves’ soap opera.

What if Butler doesn’t report to training camp because of his trade wishes? Fitch said the Wolves should start fining Butler.

A couple of days ago Thibodeau reportedly didn’t want to trade Butler, while owner Glen Taylor was supposedly telling other NBA teams to call him for such talks. If true, that kind of split in the organization is dysfunctional. Taylor hired Thibodeau as president of basketball operations and coach to make the difficult decisions, even in times of crisis.

Now it’s said the two are in agreement they need to scramble to trade Butler, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season. He has left the Wolves with minimal leverage in trade discussions with teams knowing they could get him next summer without having to give up players they have now.

The best chance of moving Butler soon, or even in coming months, could be to a bubble team that sees acquiring him as a big move toward advancing into or going deep in the playoffs. But that raises the question of whether a team with an already talent-shy roster has enough assets to interest the Wolves.

The Wolves’ best move might be to dump Butler soon in exchange for draft choices. Getting him out of the locker room and off the court looks like it will bring peace among players and fans. At that point the Wolves would have to conclude their 2017 trade bringing Butler here from Chicago was a mistake, sending three players and a high first round draft choice to the Bulls.

When Butler came to Minneapolis it looked like a big part of his motivation would be playing on a winning team. The Wolves were a much better team with him in the lineup and they made the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2004. Minnesota had a 47-35 regular season record. In the 59 games Butler could start when not injured, the Wolves’ record was 37-22.

Butler’s minutes per game of 36.7 were third most in the NBA. He ranked 15th in league scoring (22.2 points per game), 29th in assists (4.9) and fourth in steals (a career-best 1.97). After Butler’s seventh NBA season and first with Minnesota, he was named to the NBA All-Defensive second team.

There’s no doubting Butler’s all-around skills and value. The doubting now is about his loyalty and accountability to the team and fans. The Wolves invested heavily in Butler and so too did the fans, including season ticket holders who paid thousands of dollars and a lot of time to watch him and teammates.

The LA Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, the three teams Butler reportedly has expressed interest in being traded to, all missed the playoffs last season. If the Wolves have Butler, those teams don’t have the potential to win this coming season like Minnesota does.

Maybe Butler wants to be in the glamour cities of Los Angeles and New York to do something in business related to his interest in clothing and fashion. All I know is he didn’t take long to surprise and disappoint a lot of people inside and outside Target Center.

 

Gophers Lost ‘The Juice’ 50 Years Ago

September 21, 2018 - 1 Comment

 

Golden Gophers football then and now in today’s column. Read on for a history lesson, and also insight about Saturday’s game against Maryland.

It was 50 years ago today, September 21, 1968, that Minnesota lost to USC in one of the grand games in Gopher football history. The buildup and hype to the game at old Memorial Stadium on the Minnesota campus was extraordinary. The Trojans were college football’s defending national champions. The Gophers had shared the 1967 Big Ten title with Indiana and Purdue.

USC was a glamour team featuring senior All-American halfback O.J. Simpson who would go on to win the 1968 Heisman Trophy. Yes, for those who need a history lesson, the same Orenthal James Simpson—nicknamed the “Juice” for his orange juice-like initials—that was charged in 1994 with killing his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.

Minnesota had talented players, too, including All-American defensive end Bob Stein. USC’s John McKay was a national championship coach and Minnesota’s Murray Warmath had coached the Gophers to the 1960 national title.

In the weeks leading up to the game there was a buzz around town seldom seen with Gophers football before or since. It was Minnesota’s opener and the game drew a crowd of 60,820 crazed fans to Dinkytown. It would be the largest crowd at Memorial Stadium until the Gophers abandoned the “Brick House” after the 1981 season and moved into the Metrodome.

Warmath was known from International Falls to Austin as a defensive authority and military-like taskmaster. Stop the other team. Gain field position with a strong punting game. Don’t make mistakes. If you’re worried about the offense screwing up, punt the ball on third down and let the defense take over winning the game.

Warmath, then 55, had been the Golden Gophers head coach since 1954. Before that he was head coach for two seasons at Mississippi State. This assignment of stopping Simpson and USC was hardly his first “rodeo.”

Sometime during the offseason of 1968 Warmath got an unusual idea. He decided to let the grass at Memorial Stadium grow long in an attempt to slow down Simpson who not only was powerfully built but had track star speed.

How long was long? “Unusually long,” said former Minnesota offensive tackle Ezell Jones.

Fullback Jim Carter was a teammate of Jones in 1968 and also recalled the long grass. “It was deep,” Carter said. “I don’t know if it was six inches or what. But the problem with that strategy is, it didn’t work.”

The grass was long and the field was wet from rain, but the Gophers couldn’t do enough to contain Simpson in a 29-20 loss. Simpson ran for four touchdowns and had 375 all-purpose yards, according to Warmath’s biography, The Autumn Warrior by Mike Wilkinson.

After the game Simpson expressed his admiration for Minnesota’s defense. “Simpson praised the Gophers, saying he had never been hit harder than he was that day,” Wilkinson wrote.

Those who saw the game have enduring memories but topping most any list is Minnesota’s fourth quarter kickoff return for a touchdown that gave the Gophers a 20-16 lead. The play started with George Kemp catching the USC kickoff and starting up the field. Suddenly, with tacklers coming toward him, he stopped and threw a cross-field lateral pass to teammate John Wintermute who had an open field in front of him and a path to the end zone.

Murray Warmath (photo courtesy Minnesota athletic communications)

The play shocked not only USC but also Gophers fans who long ago had labeled their coach unimaginative. “That was awfully risqué for coach Warmath,” Carter said. “(Normally) three running plays and a cloud of dust was about as risqué as he got. Having a play like that on the kickoff was pretty amazing.”

The other day somebody recalled the kickoff play was copied “by every high school coach in the state,” and that they used it on ensuing Fridays. Whether that’s reality or myth, the memory of the play will never be forgotten by those who attended that famous game.

The 1968 squad was the last of Warmath’s powerful teams. That group went 5-2 in Big Ten Conference games and tied for third place in the standings. They could play—as they showed against USC—with any team in America. Warmath, with recruiting deteriorating, had losing seasons in 1969, 1970 and 1971, and then was forced out as head coach.

Between 1960 and 1968 Warmath’s Gophers won one national championship, two Big Ten titles and split two Rose Bowls. During their best stretch, from 1960-1962, Minnesota’s record was 22-6-1.

The Gophers have had nine coaches between Warmath and P.J. Fleck. None of the coaches since Warmath has been able to make the Gophers consistent winners in the Big Ten and therefore return Minnesota to national prominence.

Fleck was 2-7 in conference games in his first season of 2017. Tomorrow he takes his 3-0 nonconference team to College Park, Maryland for Minnesota’s opening Big Ten game in 2018.

The Terps are 2-1 and the results include a season highlight win over Texas and an inexplicable home loss to ho-hum Temple, 35-14. Maryland has that kind of a roller coaster program. Third-year coach DJ Durkin has recruited effectively but he is currently on administrative leave while the school investigates the football program’s culture.

The Terps are at least an average Big Ten team in talent, perhaps better. They were labeled before the season as the potential surprise team in the Big Ten’s East Division. The Gophers have an unusually inexperienced roster and are playing on the road for the first time this season. The game looks like a tossup—and a huge opportunity for Fleck and the Gophers to move within two wins of bowl eligibility, with eight more games remaining after Saturday.

Among the positives for Minnesota is the fan apathy at Maryland Stadium, formerly Byrd Stadium. Two years ago redshirt junior and walkon quarterback Conor Rhoda made his first college start at Maryland Stadium. “…It was not too electric of an atmosphere,” Rhoda told Sports Headliners this week.

Rhoda was an effective game manager in the quiet atmosphere, helping Minnesota to a 31-10 win. “After the first play I didn’t even notice the stands, or notice anybody out there,” he said. “It just felt like practice to me, which was a big relief.”

Rhoda completed seven of 15 passes for 82 yards and one touchdown in front of an announced crowd of 41,465. Minnesota’s offense was running game dominant with Rodney Smith at 144 yards and Shannon Brooks gaining 86.

Rhoda said going on the road changes routines and preparations for players. A first away game can particularly be a challenge. The task is only made more difficult if played in a noisy and even hostile environment.

Tomorrow the Gophers will send another walkon quarterback out on the field at Maryland Stadium, Zack Annexstad. Rhoda, who now works in sales for a Minneapolis tech company, expressed confidence about Annexstad’s first road start. As with other observers of Minnesota’s first three games, Rhoda has been impressed with the poise of the true freshman quarterback.

“I don’t have any doubts that Zack will feel comfortable after a snap or two in there, and he’ll feel just like he’s playing at TCF (Bank Stadium),” Rhoda said.

Rhoda has met Annexstad and also knows his family including older brother Brock who is a redshirt freshman wide receiver for Minnesota. “He (Zack) seems like a mature kid and he knows how to handle himself in a Big Ten environment,” Rhoda said.

Rhoda, who was one of the Gophers’ two starting quarterbacks last year, knows Tanner Morgan better than Zack Annexstad. Morgan redshirted last season and is now Annexstad’s backup. “Tanner has got nothing but awesome things to say about him,” Rhoda said.

 

2 Positions May Top U Recruiting List

September 19, 2018 - (0) comments

 

P.J. Fleck has 24 verbal commits for his 2019 recruiting class, per 247Sports, and that could mean his work is all but done. Yet there still could be some big news before National Signing Day in December.

Speculation is the Golden Gophers head coach will hold back a scholarship offer or two to see what develops in the coming months. Recruiting authority Ryan Burns from Gopherillustrated.com will be watching. “Defensive back and offensive tackle look like the two positions that they really want to address with these…remaining spots,” Burns told Sports Headliners.

Defensive backs Omar Brown from Minneapolis North and Jalen Graham from Detroit interest the Gophers, Burns said. So, too, do offensive tackles Joacheim Price of Algonquin, Illinois and Hunter Poncius from Buffalo, Minn.

Burns said Price might be the most highly sought after among players Minnesota is evaluating for a possible final scholarship or two. Price has multiple Big Ten offers but unfortunately tore his ACL earlier this summer.

Burns reported that Gophers offensive line coach Brian Callahan scouted Poncius at his game last Friday night. The 6-foot-8, 255-pound Poncius has verbally committed to North Dakota State but National Signing Day isn’t until December 19.

Under NCAA rules, schools have a hard cap of 25 players that can be signed to scholarships in a single football recruiting class. In the fall of 2017 Fleck also had most of his recruiting class lined up but added two offensive linemen late. They were IMG Academy four-star recruits Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele.

“It’s always interesting to see what P.J. Fleck does in November-December, when it’s time to really make sure those signatures (Letters of Intent) count,” Burns said. “…With P.J. Fleck and the way he’s able to make a great first impression on kids, I am not really counting anything out.”

If one or more players who have committed changes his verbal pledge, that will open up more scholarships for Fleck’s class of 2019 that currently is ranked No. 30 nationally in the 247Sports composite national rankings.

Ryan Burns

Right now Burns looks at the list of 24 verbal commits and believes four-star defensive lineman Jason Bargy from Momence, Illinois could be the “crown jewel” of the 2019 class. Burns said the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Bargy might not contribute immediately but the prep senior has the highest “ceiling” of any defensive lineman coming to Minnesota since the days of Ra’Shede Hageman who left the program after the 2013 season.

“You can’t teach that size, that athleticism, that speed (of Bargy), and Gopher fans have been searching for that elite pass rusher for quite some time,” Burns said. “Well, once Minnesota is able to get Jason Bargy in here, given a year or two…I think he has the impact to absolutely be an impact player.”

Overall, what has Burns upbeat about the Gophers 2019 class is that Minnesota is going after and winning recruiting battles against other Power Five conference programs. Examples are Texas prep players Jacob Clark and Nnamdi Adim-Madumere. Clark, a quarterback, was recruited “hard” by Iowa and TCU, Burns said. Wide receiver Adim-Madumere turned down Alabama and Texas A&M when he committed to Minnesota.

“…P.J. is winning some recruiting battles that the previous staff wouldn’t even entertain,” Burns said. “If they did entertain them, they wouldn’t win them.”

Worth Noting

Running back and Minnesota verbal commit Treyson Potts from Williamsport, Pennsylvania injured his ACL a year ago but is playing again and he excites Burns. A potential playmaker in multiple ways, Potts might be the successor to Rodney Smith returning kickoffs in 2019 or 2020. “He is extremely electric when he gets the ball in space,” Burns said.

Jornell Manns, a freshman wide receiver from the 2018 recruiting class, is being redshirted but he intrigues Burns who predicts a starting role next season. “That is my bold call. I think he starts over (current redshirt freshman) Demetrius Douglas.

“I think his skillset is very unique. He can be in the slot, (and) in high school he played running back. So you can have him potentially take some carries out of the backfield, but he is a very dynamic player when he gets the ball in space.”

In its bowl projections this week Collegefootballnews.com predicted the Gophers against USC in the December 31 San Francisco Bowl in Santa Clara.

Recent dining options for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins include Jensen’s in Eagan and Murray’s downtown.

Head-scratcher: why is CBS sending its top NFL broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo to Minneapolis for Sunday’s likely mismatch between the 0-2 Bills and 1-0-1 Vikings?

Superstitious: Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau drove the same route to Target Center last season when his team was on a winning streak.

Homecoming: The Minnesota United (versus Portland) will play at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night in its first home game since August 4.

The United’s last regular season game at the Gophers’ football stadium will be October 22 and ticket sales are expected to go over 40,000 this week. TCF Bank Stadium has a capacity of more than 50,000 and the United is trying to set a new single match attendance record for Minnesota professional soccer.

A record announced attendance of 49,572 was established over 40 years ago at Met Stadium for a Kicks game. The Loons move into their new 20,000 capacity Allianz Field next year. See the promotion #50KToMidway.

Andrew Zimmern

No team in professional sports may eat better quality and tastier meals at its practice facility than the Minnesota Wild, now starting a second season being served by KZ Pro Visioning, the company founded by Minnesota culinary authorities Andrew Zimmern and Gavin Kaysen.

“We know that what you put in your body…is the most vital preventive there is. It’s also the most positive restorative there is,” Zimmern told Sports Headliners.

Zimmern suggested other professional sports organizations in America are more casual in both science and art when feeding athletes. KZ’s goal for the Wild is to hit all the right targets including glycerol, protein and calorie needs.

The food has to be right not only nutritionally, but satisfying. “…We look to food to fill us up many different ways, not just calorie counts,” Zimmern said.

With their knowledge and holistic approach, Zimmern and Kaysen intend to pitch their culinary expertise with KZ Pro Visioning to other American sports organizations within a year or so.

Both Zimmern and Kaysen are James Beard award winners. The connection with the Wild came when a player (Zimmern wouldn’t reveal his name) dined at one of Kaysen’s Minnesota restaurants and suggested how great it would be to have his teammates eat this well.

Zimmern, who lives in Edina, is famous nationally as a TV travel and food host on the Travel Channel. He grew up in New York City and participated in sports. “But then I got into 10th grade and I discovered girls and beer,” he said with a smile. “Otherwise, I would be in the pros right now; sort of like the Gordie Howe playing through five centuries with different teams.”

What would Zimmern eat everyday if he was limited to the same breakfast, lunch and dinner? With no hesitation he answered bagels and smoked fish for breakfast, mussels for lunch and his grandmother’s roast chicken for dinner.

 

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