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Physical Teams Take It to Gophers

January 12, 2017 - (0) comments

 

The Gophers have surprised their critics this season with 15 wins in their first 18 games but there is a message in the three losses. Minnesota, winners of only two Big Ten games last season and now much improved, has lost those three games to more physical and aggressive top 20 ranked teams.

Michigan State, after last night’s drubbing of the Gophers in East Lansing, has now defeated Minnesota twice. The Gophers other loss was to Florida State, a team with big guards and four front court players 6-9 or taller including 7-1, 304-pound center Michael Ojo and 7-4 (not a typo) center Christ Koumadje.

Few teams, if any, can match the size of Florida State but Michigan State has bruising freshmen Nick Ward (6-8, 250) and Miles Bridges (6-7, 230). And what the Spartans may lack in inches and heft is made up for in aggression.

Last night the Spartans flummoxed the Gophers, shutting down driving lanes and contesting shots. When the Gophers did have decent looks at the basket they couldn’t make enough shots. The Spartans also beat up Minnesota on the boards and made more hustle plays.

Richard Pitino

“We just could not find a way to get an easy basket,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said during his postgame interview on 1500 ESPN. “I thought we had a couple decent looks, but you know overall we’re not the toughest team, even from an offensive standpoint of screening, being strong with the ball. …”

It doesn’t help when Minnesota’s most physical player, 6-10, 260-pound junior center Reggie Lynch, is consistently in foul trouble and on the bench. Last night in the 65-47 loss Lynch fouled out for the fourth time in the last five games. He has fouled out of both games against the Spartans.

The Gophers were behind 39-17 at halftime and looked frustrated. Maybe there was a hangover feeling from the overtime loss to the Spartans in Minneapolis on December 27. Minnesota led 39-26 at intermission and was clearly the superior team in execution, if not effort. The Spartans, though, were by far the more assertive players in the second half. Among the telling final stats was MSU scored 12 more points in the lane than the Gophers.

The Gophers, now 3-2 in Big Ten games, face a momentum test Saturday at Penn State. Minnesota needs to stop its losing streak at one against a Nittany Lions team that has been at home all week preparing for Saturday’s game. With an 11 a.m. Minneapolis start time, the Gophers won’t have to wait long to see how things go against a 2-2 PSU group team that defeated MSU last week, 72-63.

Worth Noting

Tom Izzo has been Michigan State’s head coach since the 1995-1996 season. Early on he competed against Minnesota coach Clem Haskins, and he got to know legendary Minneapolis newspaper columnist and radio personality Sid Hartman. When Izzo was in town a couple of weeks ago he was asked about the 96-year-old Hartman, who is recovering from a broken hip.

“I get a kick out of Sid,” Izzo told Sports Headliners. “…He always was good to me. There were wars when Clem was here, when I first started, and Sid always had something to say. He wasn’t afraid to tell you how he felt, but I thought he listened and understood. There are a couple people up here (in Minneapolis) I really appreciate and he’s one of them.

“He’s still an ornery (guy). He still doesn’t belong in heaven yet. That’s why he’s not there, because God is negotiating the terms. But someday he’ll end up there and I just hope it’s not for a few years yet.”

Hartman wrote his first column for 2017 in today’s Star Tribune.

Ryan James, the prep basketball authority from GopherIllustrated.com, has watched both Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris play. The two high school guards signed National Letters of Intent with the Gophers last fall, and James is impressed with their skills. Washington (from New York City) is among the nation’s elite point guards, while Harris (New Brunswick, New Jersey) is a combo guard.

“Isaiah Washington is a guy you describe as having New York juice,” James told Sports Headliners. “He has so much shake, so much burst with his initial attack. It’s matched by very few. He is one of the best players I saw all summer in transition. He makes the right decision in pushing the ball nine times out of 10, whether it’s a quick pitch, attack and dish, or if he goes at the rim.

“Outstanding pull-up jumper. Streaky shooter at the arc but he can be a good shooter out there. …He’s just an aggressive playmaker, and he has the capability of being a great defender. He just has to do it more consistently.”

James believes Harris could average double figures in points as a Gopher. “The first thing you think of is shooter. …He is really strong, high character guy—like he was looking at Stanford. He was looking at the Ivy League.”

James believes Washington definitely has all-Big Ten potential. He also said Harris could be an all-Big Ten academic selection.

In 13 home games this season the Gophers are averaging 9,091 in 14,625 capacity Williams Arena. In 10 games the Gopher women’s team is averaging 3,065.

Steve Fritz bobblehead (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

St. Thomas will celebrate Steve Fritz Bobblehead Day Saturday during a home basketball doubleheader with Concordia College at Schoenecker Arena. Fritz enrolled as a student at St. Thomas in 1967, and he has worked at the St. Paul school since 1971, including 10 years as an assistant men’s basketball coach, 31 years as head coach and 25 years as athletic director. St. Thomas will sell the bobbleheads for $15 each during the 1 p.m. women’s game and the 3 p.m. men’s game against the Cobbers. Fritz, who is still the AD, will greet fans and sign bobbleheads (also available in the Tommie Shop in the Anderson Student Center as of next Monday).

GopherIllustrated.com publisher Zach Johnson talking about how the ultra optimistic and turbocharged personality of new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck could prompt media cynicism: “…I hope the media doesn’t beat him down—force him to create a shell around the program and around himself, and sort of try to protect himself from that (type of) media. I hope he just continues to be who he is. If he wins, he can make those columnists eat crow.”

Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who may announce his retirement this offseason, turns 34 today.

Vikngs defensive tackle Linval Joseph has been named to the Pro Bowl replacing the injured Aaron Donald of the Rams.

Bruce Boudreau, the Wild’s first-year coach who has directed Minnesota to the second best record in the NHL’s Western Conference, earns $2,760,000, according to Otherleague.com, a website listing compensation for league coaches. He is the first head coach in NHL history to lead three different teams (including the Wild) to win streaks of 11-plus games.

The Wild will play eight of their 12 games in February at Xcel Energy Center. After February 7, the team has only one game away from home during the month.

 

Could Adrian Peterson Land with Pack?

January 10, 2017 - (0) comments

 

At 31 years of age Adrian Peterson is coming off a torn meniscus rehab that sidelined him for most of last season, yet he wants to play deep into his 30s. It seems unlikely, though, that he will find a lot of offers in 2017 or beyond.

Destined to make the Pro football Hall of Fame one day and the greatest running back in Vikings history, Peterson faces obstacles that even he may struggle to overcome. The Vikings have written checks in the past making him one of the NFL’s best paid players but if the club is interested in bringing him back in 2017 his compensation will be greatly reduced. His present nonguaranteed deal with the club reportedly will count $18 million against the team’s salary cap.

Peterson voiced his desire recently to remain a Viking and hinted he might be willing to accept a pay cut, per media reports. A new nonguaranteed contract at perhaps a few million dollars, plus loaded with incentives based on number of games played and yards gained, might be what awaits Peterson wherever he lands in 2017. It’s believed Peterson has lost a step in his explosive running and at his age even teams in need of running backs are likely to look elsewhere.

Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer

To some observers Peterson comes with baggage including his infamous 2014 incident in disciplining one of his out of wedlock children. It wouldn’t be surprising if there are those in the Vikings front office who prefer to part with Peterson for more than football reasons, although head coach Mike Zimmer recently described his veteran as still “a really good back” and said he was hopeful about having him on the 2017 roster.

It would certainly be intriguing if Peterson ended up playing for the Packers next season. The team’s main ball carrier in recent years has been Eddie Lacy and he is an unrestricted free agent in 2017. The Packers have had an on again, off again relationship with the talented 26-year-old Lacy.

The Packers have been using converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery at running back. He’s shown promise and among his skills are catching the ball, something that has never been a Peterson strength. If the Packers stick with the Montgomery experiment, perhaps they like the idea of alternating him with a power runner in Peterson.

An opportunity to play with the great Aaron Rodgers and a team that is consistently in the playoffs certainly might appeal to Peterson who in 10 previous seasons has never played in a Super Bowl. It could be like payback time for Packers fans if Peterson had a couple of successful seasons in Green Bay after that franchise’s Brett Favre ended his career with the Vikings, nearly taking Minnesota to the 2010 Super Bowl.

Another team usually in preseason Super Bowl speculation is the Seahawks who might need a veteran running back in 2017, too. Coach Pete Carroll is a risk-taker and known for his willingness to deal with players having strong personalities. Minnesota fans saw that when Carroll was willing to acquire troubled but talented Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin in 2013. Seattle’s leading regular season rusher in 2016, Thomas Rawls, gained 349 yards. Quarterback Russell Wilson was second with 259 yards.

A couple of years ago it seemed that Peterson, a Texas native, might end up in Dallas. But that opportunity is all but gone with the Cowboys having a breakthrough season led by multiple players including rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott who rushed for a league leading 1,631 yards.

It’s a good guess the Vikings will try to find their Ezekiel in the draft. Although Elliott was taken in the first round, it’s not unusual to find quality runners in the second rounds and beyond. The NFL’s second leading rusher this season was rookie Jordan Howard, a fifth round pick by the Bears in 2016. Drafting a running back in 2017 seems likely to be on the Vikings to-do list, or perhaps even pursue a free agent. Both those directions seem more probable than a Peterson return.

Worth Noting

Paul Wiggin evaluates offensive and defensive linemen on other teams for the Vikings. He also watched this past season when Minnesota’s offensive line was devastated by injuries. Even when available the team’s linemen have been criticized for their performances, but Wiggin told Sports Headliners, “I think our problem is not necessarily” to acquire a new line. Instead, it’s to get players healthy, he said.

Left tackle Matt Kalil, a No. 1 draft choice in 2012, missed 14 games because of his knee injury. He has frequently been the target of frustrated fans in the past but as an unrestricted free agent this offseason teams considering him are likely to include the Vikings.

“I think they will try to work something out with Kalil,” Wiggin said. “Kalil is a pretty good football player. (But) I can’t speak for the organization. I don’t know. That’s not my job. I am not the front office, from that standpoint.”

Guard Alex Boone has played left tackle at Ohio State and with the 49ers. Could the Vikings switch him to the left tackle spot where T.J. Clemmings struggled so much in 2016? “I am not on the inside on that kind of thing, but my opinion is I think Boone is more of a guard,” Wiggin said.

Wiggin, whose title with the Vikings is personnel consultant, played defensive end in the NFL in the 1950s and 1960s. His football experiences include being head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and at Stanford, his college alma mater.

Stanford junior running back Christian McCaffrey, who is declaring early for the NFL Draft, decided to skip the Cardinal’s bowl game and prepare for his pro career. That’s not something Wiggin liked. “I am offended by what he did to Stanford but I do think he’s going to be a great player (in the pros).”

The men’s basketball Gophers, 15-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten, have their first top 25 national ranking since February of 2013. In this week’s A.P. and USA Today Coaches polls Minnesota is No. 24, joining Purdue and Wisconsin as the only Big Ten teams in the rankings.

Richard Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Richard Pitino & Jordan Murphy

“Rankings mean absolutely1,000 percent nothing to me,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said after his team defeated Ohio State on Sunday. “RPI means something to me. Strength of schedule means something to me. …Rankings are for the fans.”

The Gophers have the fifth best RPI in the country and rank seventh in strength of schedule, according to espn.com. Minnesota is tops in the Big Ten in RPI and second in strength of schedule to Nebraska.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta talking about the Gophers: “They’re a very, very good basketball team. No question.”

With fall semester over, word is the Gophers are solidly academically and all players will be eligible this winter.

Minnesota freshman forward Amir Coffey is averaging 12.8 points per game, second best on the team. He was named Monday as Big Ten Freshman of the Week after leading the team in scoring in wins over Northwestern and Ohio State.

His sister, Nia Coffey, was supposed to lead the 13-4 and 2-2 Northwestern team against the Gophers (10-7 and 1-3) tomorrow night at Williams Arena but the game has been postponed following the unexpected death of the Wildcats’ Jordan Hankins. Nia leads the Wildcats in scoring at 20.8 points per game and is third among Big Ten players. The 6-1, senior forward from Hopkins High School also leads the Wildcats and the league in rebounding at 11.2 and her blocked shots average of 1.9 is tied for second best in the Big Ten.

Coach John Anderson said last week that ticket prices will be announced soon for the Gophers debut baseball games in U.S. Bank Stadium February 17-19 against UC Irvine. Seating will be general admission only.

Anderson’s nine player recruiting class announced last month will enroll in school this summer. Some college baseball programs enroll players in January but Big Ten teams don’t.

 

Najarian Put Fleck in Top List for U

January 08, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Former Gophers football player Pete Najarian, who last year pursued the athletic director job at the University of Minnesota, has been following 36-year-old coach P.J. Fleck for three years. Najarian told Sports Headliners yesterday that Fleck was one of three coaches he was interested in hiring if he became the AD and the Gophers head coaching job was open.

As an ESPN game commentator, Najarian studied Fleck’s work at Western Michigan, and he was more than impressed. “I liked his energy. I liked how intense he was. I could tell that he paid attention to detail. His teams were disciplined and that was very, very apparent.”

Najarian noticed that despite the coach being in his first head coaching job, Bronco teams were well prepared and adjusted to injuries. Fleck and his staff also topped their Mid-American Conference rivals in annual recruiting rankings. “He checked about every box that you could want to check,” Najarian said.

Fleck was announced as Gophers coach on Friday while coming off of a 13-1 season at Western Michigan where his Broncos only loss was in the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin. Fleck spoke with passion and vision at his news conference, demonstrating a leadership style that attracted national media attention at Western Michigan.

Najarian, the former Minneapolis Central star who went on to play linebacker for the Gophers, said he was self-motivated as a player but that Fleck’s ability to connect with and motivate players might “just put us (the Gophers) to the next level.” Fleck is outgoing and passionate, and he is already pitching the whole community—not just his players—to “row the boat” together. He is trying to create a buzz about Gophers football that some day may remind older fans of legendary coach Lou Holtz who in the 1980s asked for the help of “every man, woman and child” in the state. Najarian played for Holtz and said players would “sprint through a wall” for the man who could command a locker room and also charm a room full of Fortune 500 executives.

Tracy Claeys

Tracy Claeys

Of course it will require more than words for Fleck to eventually make the Gophers Big Ten champions for the first time since 1967. Zach Johnson is a well-known Gophers and Big Ten recruiting authority who thinks Minnesota just made a huge upgrade going from Tracy Claeys to Fleck.” We went from having the worst Big Ten West (Division) head football coach to having the best Big Ten West head football coach, as far as recruiting.”

In Rivals.com’s national recruiting rankings last Friday Western Michigan was No. 51 while Minnesota was No. 77. That all changed this weekend when six high school players switched overnight from Western Michigan commitments to Minnesota. On Saturday Minnesota was at No. 50 (tied with North Carolina State) in the Rivals rankings and Western Michigan dropped to No. 79.  National Signing Day for players in 2017 is February 1.

“They (the six players) have never set foot on the campus of the University of Minnesota, and they completely flipped their college plan and their life plan to commit to Minnesota,” said Johnson who is publisher of GopherIllustrated.com. “They will move to Minnesota sight unseen and begin classes at the U on January 17.”

Johnson said Fleck will “work tirelessly at recruiting” and pursue talent within a six or seven hour drive of Minneapolis, with particular emphasis on the Chicago area. He regards Fleck as a good game and practice coach, but it is also Fleck’s personality, style and determination that Johnson predicts will be so evident in the months and years ahead. “It’s off the field that this is really a home run hire for (athletic director) Mark Coyle. It’s the energy that he is going to bring to this program,” Johnson said.

Johnson believes better days are ahead at the box office, too. Last year there was a lot of fan apathy and attendance was the lowest since moving into 50,805 seat TCF Bank Stadium in 2009. “It’s embarrassing that they can only get 30,000, 35,000, maybe 40,000 to a college football game,” Johnson said. “I think you’ll see that change. If he (Fleck) wins, and he is successful, I can’t imagine they won’t sell that place out.”

Worth Noting

Holtz had an escape clause in his Minnesota contract to pursue the Notre Dame job if it opened. That opportunity gave Holtz an easy exit after the 1985 season when he headed for Notre Dame. But Coyle told Sports Headliners there is no escape clause for another school in Fleck’s contract.

Coyle said Fleck has long wanted to coach in the Big Ten, and that Minnesota is a “good fit” for the coach and his family. “I expect him to be here a long time,” Coyle said.

Coyle speaks to the CORES lunch group on Thursday at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bloomington, 1114 American Blvd. The deadline for reservations is Monday and a large turnout is expected. More information is available by contacting Jim Dotseth, dotseth@comcast.net.

Matt Simon, who was the tight ends and special teams coach at St. Thomas in 2011, coached the wide receivers for Fleck at Western Michigan this past season. Simon is a native of Edina.

Fleck’s agent Bryan Harlan is based in Chicago and he also represents Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

The Gophers Blake Cashman, who was the Holiday Bowl defensive MVP, was named an honorable mention linebacker on the Associated Press 2016 All-Bowl team. A sophomore last season, Cashman led the team in sacks with 7.5. The former Eden Prairie player was third on the team in tackles for loss at 43. He was selected Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after a dominant performance in late November against Northwestern.

Chad Hartman said on WCCO Radio last week his 96-year-old father Sid Hartman is making a “remarkable recovery” from his broken hip. He added that Sid is walking almost as well now as before his accident.

Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones told Sports Headliners his confidence isn’t damaged by lack of playing time with the Timberwolves. The 2015 first round draft choice didn’t play in the team’s most recent game, a Saturday night loss to the Jazz in Minneapolis. It was the sixth consecutive night the former Apple Valley prep All-American point guard didn’t get on the court, according to ESPN.com. He has played in 21 of the Wolves 35 games, averaging 10.4 minutes, 3.1 points and 2.1 assists, per ESPN.

When asked recently if his spirits were down, Jones said, “No, not at all—just because I went through that last year. I know what that’s like. Last year I think that definitely hurt my confidence, that being the first time. I feel like I am a lot improved (now), so that’s also helped my confidence.”

Jones is a deep reserve on the roster, just like last season when he even was sent down to the NBA Development League for a brief time. He played better toward the end of the 2015-2016 NBA season and had a career high 12 assists in the final game. He finished the season appearing in 37 of 82 games, averaging 15.5 minutes, 4.2 points and 2.9 assists.

Jones mentioned his improvement includes ballhandling, shooting and assessing what needs to be done on the floor. His minutes are minimal, though, playing behind veteran point guard Ricky Rubio and 2016 rookie No. 1 draft choice Kris Dunn. At 6-1, 195-pounds, the 21-year-old Jones is small for an NBA player. Concerns about his defense have been part of the scouting report since he decided to leave Duke after his freshman season when the Blue Devils won the national championship.

Jabari Parker, who recruited Jones to Duke and is now a leading scorer on the NBA Bucks, told Sports Headliners his friend can have a long pro career. “Yup, because he’s got two things you can’t teach. He’s got heart and he’s got skill—he’s got a feel for the game.”

That feel has often been seen in Jones’ career at the biggest moments for his teams, particularly at Apple Valley and Duke. Jones, who was the Final Four MVP with Duke, is confident his composure will be there for the Wolves, too, if he given an opportunity.

“I think that’s just something that I’ve always had,” he said. “Something I’ve always prided myself on. (The) point guard has got to be a great leader on the court. To be composed, that definitely helps. …You see a strong face on the point guard, everyone else is going to follow.”

Tyus said his brother Tre Jones, the highly recruited junior point guard at Apple Valley, will wait until his senior year to choose a college. “He hasn’t narrowed it down to any specific list yet,” Tyus said.

The Twins hired new baseball executives Derek Falvey and Thad Levine away from the Indians and Rangers organizations last fall. Levine said recently on WCCO Radio’s Sports Huddle the Twins won’t hesitate to show interest in players with their former organizations and their farm systems. The club, though, is highly unlikely to pursue personnel from  the front offices of the Indians and Rangers.

He also said evaluating South Korean slugger Byungho Park in his second season will be more meaningful than his struggling rookie season of 2016. The first baseman-DH hit just .191 in 215 at bats, striking out 80 times while totaling 12 home runs and 24 RBI. Allowances, Levine said, have to be made for the adjustments Park faced playing in major league baseball for the first time and coming to a new country with its language and cultural differences.

Philosophies vary among major league teams on retaining two or three catchers on rosters but Levine said the Twins plan to carry two in 2017.

 

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