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Pressure on Wolves from Opening Tip

October 17, 2017 - (0) comments

 

With a disappointing past but an intriguing offseason of personnel changes, coach Tom Thibodeau and his players need to fulfill expectations in the months ahead. The Timberwolves, who haven’t earned their way into the NBA playoffs since 2004, open the regular season schedule Wednesday night in San Antonio against the Spurs, and the pressure to win starts this week.

The Wolves are a favorite of NBA authorities to qualify for the 2018 playoffs, perhaps finishing with the fifth best record in the Western Conference behind the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Thunder. If the team doesn’t make the playoffs the disappointed will include Wolves owner Glen Taylor. He told Sports Headliners Monday he shares the “high expectations” of fans and nothing else could balance out the club not playing in the postseason.

Taylor described the expectations for the playoffs as “good pressure” on the Wolves. “We have some very good players,” he said. “The coaching staff should be ready. I can’t think of any reason other than injuries that’s going to hold us back.”

Glen Taylor (photo courtesy of Minnesota Timberwolves).

Taylor is more excited going into this season than any in awhile. In the past he has been looking down the road, hoping for a playoff team eventually. “I think we’re there now,” he said. “We just have to produce.”

Thibodeau’s chair is a little warm after last season—his first as the franchise’s basketball czar. As coach and president, Taylor has entrusted his team’s future to Thibodeau who was one of pro basketball’s most successful coaches with the Bulls. The Wolves, though, underachieved last season when they won only 31 games, lost 51, and weren’t even a threat to make the playoffs.

Thibodeau, who in the past has been aloof with players, is considered an old-school coach demanding discipline and physical play starting with defense. The new era NBA—at least some places—seems to put an emphasis on chummy coach and player relationships, while tactically spreading the floor, using long distance shooting and multi-positional players.

Can Thibodeau make things work? Will the Wolves play differently than the grinder style characterizing the coach’s Bulls’ teams?

The Wolves, who open their home season Friday night against the Jazz, have three new starters and four newbies coming off the bench. Power forward Taj Gibson, small forward Jimmy Butler and point guard Jeff Teague join center Karl-Anthony Towns and shooting guard Andrew Wiggins as starters. Shooting guard Jamal Crawford is a key reserve.

With so many new faces there are questions? How will the club chemistry be? Will the players share the ball on offense and help each other on defense? Will they sacrifice their bodies and egos to achieve team success?

Among questions being asked is whether collectively the players will shoot well enough from the outside to help deliver a big year? Butler, Teague and Wiggins haven’t been that effective with perimeter shooting in the past.

The challenge of stepping it up faces all three, but maybe Wiggins more than the others. He just signed a mega contract and his physical gifts rank with the best in the NBA. That includes the potential to be a better long range shooter. But in his previous three NBA seasons Wiggins seems more interested in being isolated with the ball and slashing to the basket.

Thibodeau will ask for maximum effort and performance defensively from his players. As defenders, improvement will definitely be expected from Towns and Wiggins. Their buy-in will dictate a lot regarding the defensive prowess of this year’s team.

The hype is on about the Wolves. Butler, acquired in an offseason deal with the Bulls, is one of the NBA’s better all-around players, and at 28 presumably the veteran leader the club has been missing. Towns, the 21-year-old center going into his third NBA season, was named in a preseason poll of league general managers as the player they would most want to start a franchise with. Teague is expected to provide better shooting than former starter Ricky Rubio. Gibson, at 32, gives the Wolves experience at power forward, and Crawford, even older at 37, will play the role of three-point producer and scorer off the bench. That same general managers poll showed 69 percent forecast the Wolves to be the NBA’s most improved team.

Taylor said that unlike the past, Thibodeau hasn’t been critical of players when talking to him. “Listening to him…he’s really been pleased with just about all the players. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall anything negative he said about any player.

“The year before he always had bitter expectations of some of the guys that they could have done more, or a little bit (of) this. But this year he’s been really positive about the guys, and he’s pointed out a lot of good things that he sees. That’s not just the starting five, but everybody on the team.”

Worth Noting

In its NBA preview edition that came out last week, Sports Illustrated ranked the league teams 1-30 for entertainment value using criteria that included “style of play, firepower, age, health, coaching and personality.” The Wolves ranked No. 7 after the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Celtics, Cavaliers and Bucks.

The magazine projects the Wolves will finish fifth in the Western Conference behind the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, and Thunder. S.I. raves about Towns. Writing that Towns “flashed talent seldom seen from a second-year big man,” the magazine reported that following the NBA All-Star break last winter Towns averaged 28.4 points per game on 59.7 percent shooting with 13.4 rebounds.

The Timberwolves and city of Minneapolis officials are justifiably excited to showcase their $145 million Target Center renovation on Friday night for the team’s home opener. The concourse and bowl improvements include a new state-of-the-art scoreboard, better restrooms, new seats, upgraded sound system and digital signage. There is also new luxury seating, and exterior changes including a new three-story glass atrium.

City officials, though, should be concerned about downtown’s reputation for public safety. The threat of violence and individuals who harass others on downtown streets are issues that worry patrons attending events on Hennepin Avenue, and at Target Center and Target Field.

Taylor’s Lynx have won four WNBA championships but he said the 2017 title stands out after a controversial officiating call played a role in his 2016 team losing in the finals. “This is a good one. This is right up there (among the best title winning years) just because I was so disappointed last year and how that got refereed at the end (of the championship game). We lost something which I thought we deserved to win.”

If the Lynx receive an invitation to be honored at the White House, Taylor said it won’t happen for awhile. Most likely a White House visit would coincide with a scheduled Lynx game in Washington D.C. against the Mystics.

U.S. Bank Stadium’s five pivoting doors were opened at 9 a.m. Sunday for the Vikings-Packers game that started at noon. The outside temperature was 43 degrees. The doors (95 feet tall at their peaks) are popular for the outside feel they contribute to the roof covered facility, but fans in the west stands sometimes complain about cold air.

A street seller was asking $125 for an inexpensive seat for last Sunday’s game, and $300 to $400 for better seats.

A parking lot across from the stadium was charging $55, while eight to 10 blocks away the rate was $20 per vehicle. The cost was $30 about six blocks from the stadium. Meters on the street charged $25.

Vikings second-year receiver Laquon Treadwell had fans raving over his one-handed catch in the Packer game. Treadwell said it was the second best reception of his life, with an even better one playing in college for Mississippi.

The Gophers’ fragile bowl hopes start with a must win Saturday at home against Illinois, the Big Ten’s worst team. Minnesota, 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, could get to the prerequisite six victories and a bowl invitation by defeating Illinois and Nebraska at home, and Northwestern on the road.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, who played high school football for Burnsville, is taking an extended leave of absence because of surgery and treatment for prostate cancer.

 

Griffen Praying for Rodgers’ Recovery

October 15, 2017 - (0) comments

 

A Sunday night notes column kicking off with the Vikings, following Minnesota’s 23-10 win over Green Bay.

Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr knocked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of today’s game with a hard hit in the first quarter. After getting up off the turf, Rodgers appeared to have words for Barr while heading toward the sidelines—perhaps describing what he thought was a late hit.

After the game Barr wasn’t available to reporters because he suffered a concussion during the game but two of his defensive teammates didn’t find fault with the play that broke Rodgers’ collarbone. “We play as hard as we can to the whistle,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “I didn’t see a flag (penalty) on the play so it was clean.”

Defensive end Everson Griffen said he didn’t hear what Rodgers said, or to whom. “I didn’t hear nothing,” Griffen told Sports Headliners. “I am here to play ball. I want to compete against Rodgers all day. I wish him a speedy recovery—the best quarterback in the league, in my opinion. I pray for him. I hope he heals up well.”

Sam Bradford (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

While Rodgers could be out for a long time, the Vikings might be getting former starter Teddy Bridgewater back later this season. Bridgewater may receive medical clearance to begin practice with the team this week, and in three weeks the Vikings could take him off the physically-unable-to-perform list and activate him. Although Bridgewater presumably will be rusty after not playing in a regular season game since 2015, he could be an asset to the quarterback roster that is using backup Case Keenum while starter Sam Bradford is sidelined with his ongoing left knee issue.

Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was chosen as honorary captain for Michigan State last night. The Spartans defeated the Gophers, 30-27, at TCF Bank Stadium. Shurmur was a captain and All-Big Ten center for the Spartans in the 1980s.

When Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle had the same job at Syracuse he hired Dino Babers as the school’s football coach, and Friday night the Orange stunned the nation defeating No. 2 ranked and defending national champion Clemson.

As of October 5, total men’s Gopher hockey season tickets for the public and students were down slightly from a year ago on that date, according to figures provided by the University of Minnesota. The comparative public totals were 5,511 for 2017-2018 public season tickets, versus 5,941 in 2016-2017. The student numbers were 2,483 versus 2,690. The University reported 89.2 percent of public accounts renewed for this season versus 80.4 a year ago.

The Gophers, who have already opened their home schedule at 3M Arena at Mariucci, sold 183 new public season tickets for 2017-2018. The total as of October 5 a year ago was 227. There was no increase in pricing for either public or student season tickets from last year to this.

Mariucci, with a capacity of almost 10,000, opened in 1993. The all-time single game attendance record is 10,587 set on November 6, 2004 for a Minnesota-Wisconsin game. The Gophers were defending NCAA national champions going into that game.

The Gophers, who won a sixth consecutive regular season conference title in 2017, averaged 9,595 fans per game last season at home. The averages the two prior seasons were 9,847 and 9,982.

WCHA Men’s Commissioner Bill Robertson thinks all five Division 1 men’s hockey schools in the state will for the first time finish the 2017-2018 season ranked among the top 20 teams nationally. In addition to the Gophers from the Big Ten, the other four teams are Minnesota State, Mankato and Bemidji State from the WCHA, and St. Cloud State and UMD from the NCHC.

“The state of Minnesota has never had better overall talent and depth than in 2017-2018 with regard to men’s college hockey,” Robertson said via email. “If all goes well we could potentially see a couple of Minnesota teams make it to the Frozen Four in April at the Xcel Energy Center. It should be a banner year for college hockey in this state leading up to the NCAA Tournament. It will be so exciting for the fans.”

A spokesman for men’s Gophers basketball said about 1,800 new public season tickets have been sold for 2017-2018. The student allotment of about 2,000 tickets is sold out. Single game tickets for the Big Ten season go on sale next month. Multiple sellouts of Gopher conference games at Williams Arena are likely.

Optimism is high about this year’s team, including from observers at fall practice. The Gophers are being ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams by various sources.

The public can attend a free intra-squad scrimmage that begins at 5 p.m. Sunday, October 29 at Williams Arena. There will be an autograph session after the game.

Former Timberwolf player and executive Fred Hoiberg, now the Chicago Bulls head coach, has his 45th birthday today. The Bulls are rebuilding and figure to rank with the NBA’s worst teams this season.

It will be interesting to see how much Brian Dozier is in the local baseball news this offseason. The Twins second baseman, who many observers believe was the club’s MVP during the team’s turnaround season, could be the subject of trade rumors, or given a contract extension. Dozier’s final contract season is in 2018, according to Baseballprospectus.com, which reports the 30-year-old will earn $9 million next season.

Congratulations to high school football coaches Dean Aurich of Mayer Lutheran and Joe Kemp from Wabasso on achieving 200th and 100th career wins respectively earlier this month. Aurich has coached Mayer Lutheran in four state tournaments, while Kemp has had three teams in the tourney including last year.

 

Oregon State Should Pursue Jerry Kill

October 12, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Gary Andersen made a surprise announcement this week, resigning as Oregon State’s head football coach. OSU decision makers should reach out to former Gophers coach Jerry Kill about their unexpected opening.

The Andersen era was a disaster, with the Beavers going 7-23 the last three-plus years. At the end, Andersen lost faith in his assistants and was so frustrated with his situation he resigned.

Kill, now back in coaching as offensive coordinator at Rutgers, is 56 and still young enough to take on a head coaching job again. The shadow over Kill, of course, is his history with epilepsy and seizures. When his meds, diet, exercise and sleep are properly balanced he does well, but keeping all that just right is difficult when coaching with all of the profession’s demands and nonstop hours.

Jerry Kill

Kill had a minor seizure a few weeks ago but was soon coaching again at Rutgers where the Scarlet Knights are struggling to rebuild and have a 1-4 overall record and are 0-2 in Big Ten games. Head coach Chris Ash saw all the attributes of Kill and hired him last December. The man who rebuilt Gophers football was working in athletics administration at Kansas State when the opportunity at Rutgers emerged.

Jim Carter doubts most athletic directors have the “courage” to consider Kill for a head job. The former Gophers fullback from the late 1960s is close with Kill and his wife Rebecca. In an interview with Sports Headliners yesterday, Carter said leaders at Oregon State and Kill would all have to be in agreement this was a risk worth taking.

“They’re going to have to be convinced that his health situation is in a good place. So that will be an issue on both sides,” Carter said.

Does Kill want to run a football program one more time? “He’s never said to me he wants to be a head coach again, but it’s my personal belief that if he could get his health straightened out, that he would want to be a head coach again,” Carter said.

Kill loves coaching and being around young men. In a poll a few years ago fellow coaches ranked him near the top of those they would want their sons to play for. He missed the coaching experience after resigning from Minnesota in October of 2015 and then trying to figure out what to do about his health and future career path.

Not long after leaving the Gophers Kill wrote a book about football and life experiences. Tributes on the book jacket include these words from Bart Scott who has been a TV analyst and played for Kill at Southern Illinois: “I learned about second chances from Jerry Kill because he gave me one. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. He coached you as hard as anyone could coach, but he loved you even more. …When he retired from coaching, the game lost a superstar.”

It was no surprise to those close to Kill that he accepted the opportunity at Rutgers. But Kill’s future might be more secure as a head coach than at Rutgers where he doesn’t control the whole program and the Scarlet Knights are historically among the have-nots of college football.

Oregon State fits that label, too, but at least in Corvallis Kill could control his destiny. He has a history of rebuilding programs including at Minnesota and Southern Illinois. He has won numerous national, Big Ten and regional coach of the year awards during a head coaching career dating back to 1994. There’s no question he could put together a top staff of assistants with names like Tracy Claeys and Jay Sawvel—assistants who excelled at Minnesota—quickly coming to mind.

“I don’t know what happened there (at Oregon State with Andersen), but it couldn’t be as bad as Minnesota was when he (Kill) came here,” Carter said. “He rebuilt that thing after (Tim) Brewster had us lower than low.”

Oregon State is at the bottom of the pecking order in Pac-12 football. Kill hasn’t recruited extensively on the west coast but he could hire assistants with connections. Corvallis is considered one of the Pac-12’s most attractive college towns. It’s not a big city and the beautiful area could be a good fit for Kill who has roots in rural Kansas.

Kill could rebuild the program with an emphasis on defense, team unity, academics and accountability. After a big OSU win he might even show off his trademark dance moves with celebrating players in the locker room. Yes, Kill has a love affair with college football and the game is better when he is part of it.

Oregon State paid Andersen about $2.5 million annually. Kill would probably take less, and be more interested in spreading limited athletic department dollars toward assistant coaches. Taking care of assistants was a priority at Minnesota.

There is always risk in hiring any head coach. No matter past reputation, achievements and health, those hiring a new leader can’t know for sure what future results will be. It would take guts for Oregon State to reach out to Kill while knowing that there could be health issues if he came to Corvallis. But Kill boosters will argue the rewards are worth the risk.

Kill, of course, would have to be comfortable enough with his health to consider the job. That’s a big if, but there aren’t that many Power Five head football jobs, and at age 56 potential opportunities will be fewer in the years ahead.

Kill is on record that he doesn’t want to be a head coach again but that doesn’t mean Oregon State shouldn’t make a call. The Beavers aren’t going to find many coaches with Kill’s resume interested in their job —perhaps none. Long distance calls are inexpensive. The Beavers should invest a dime and make a call. Ask.

If all sides wanted to put a deal together, Carter would applaud. “I think it would be great if Oregon State hired him,” Carter said.

 

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