When it comes to youth, the Big Ten’s Golden Gophers don’t necessarily have anything on the NBA’s Timberwolves. Consider this:
The Gophers starters usually are 21-year-old Joey King, 23-year-old Mo Walker, and three 22-year-olds—Andre Hollins, DeAndre Mathieu and Carlos Morris. Those five average 22 years of age. Key reserves are Charles Buggs, 21, and Elliott Eliason, 23.
Because of injuries and searching for productive players, the Timberwolves have used many starting combinations but nine times the opening lineup has been: Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins, both 19; Shabazz Muhammad, 22; Gorgui Dieng, 24; and Thad Young, 26. Again, average age is 22. Other young players on the roster include a pair of 21-year-olds, Anthony Bennett and Glenn Robinson III.
What to make of this?
Well, the Gophers “grey beards” haven’t collectively been able to make enough plays to prevent a 0-5 start in Big Ten games. But Minnesota has been competitive, losing two games by two points each, and two more by four and five point margins.
The Timberwolves have been a mess, losing 15 of their last 16 games while compiling a record of 6-31—flirting with the worst showing so far in the NBA. And what were the results with the youthful and inexperienced LaVine and Wiggins group? A winless 0-9.
The overall record is certainly no surprise since the Wolves have been playing most of the season without four starters from 2013-2014. All-Star Kevin Love has relocated to Cleveland while Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio have missed most of the season with injuries.
Coach Flip Saunders has been left with a roster that isn’t ready to play consistently—never mind win games. The record so far leaves them well positioned for a high first round pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and the addition of more young talent to the roster.
It is somewhat surprising a team with as much experience as the Gophers has struggled to close out and win tight games. The Gophers not only have starters but bench players who have past Big Ten experience.
Hollins was a three-year starter coming into this season and his teammates aren’t exactly without game experience. Seniors Eliason and Walker averaged 21.5 and 18.5 minutes per game last season, while Mathieu, a junior college transfer at Minnesota in 2013-2014, averaged 30.2. King averaged 19 minutes per game two years ago at Drake and 22.4 minutes with Minnesota last season. Morris has the least major college experience but he is a junior college transfer, not a player just out of high school. Mathieu is a senior, while King and Morris are juniors.
After Tuesday night’s loss to Iowa, some Gophers were crying in the locker room. Disappointment has reached that level. Hollins said this 0-5 start is the most difficult period for the team since he became a Gopher.
Hollins is dating Gopher Rachel Banham, the preseason choice in women’s basketball for player of the year in the Big Ten. Her season ended in December when she tore an ACL. What message of encouragement has Hollins offered? “Stay strong. Come back stronger than ever.”
Hollins and the Gophers have 13 remaining Big Ten regular season games including Saturday at home against Rutgers. Hollins might offer his teammates the same advice he shared with his girlfriend.
The Wolves traded Love last summer and knew they would have to adjust without their All-Star power forward but the absence of Martin, Rubio and Pekovic due to injuries is as surprising as the Gophers 0-5 Big Ten start. Martin was counted on to replace some of Love’s scoring and be a prime option for clutch shots. Rubio’s performances early in the season before he was injured indicated he might be ready for his best year as a playmaker. Pekovic, when healthy, is among the NBA’s top low post scorers.
Pekovic, though, is fast gaining a reputation more for his run of injuries than his brute strength and low post scoring. He has only played in nine games this season. He missed 28 of the team’s final 38 games last season.
Pekovic reportedly accepted a five-year, $60 million contract from the Wolves before the 2013-2014 season. When Sports Headliners asked Glen Taylor about trading the 29-year-old, 295-pound center, the Wolves owner said: “At his salary, I wasn’t planning on trading him, but even if I was I don’t think I could be thinking about it now until he shows he’s a guy that can play consistently. Otherwise, he’s paid too much money.”
Taylor said fans are appreciative of the potential shown by young players like Wiggins but for now all the losing has put a dent in gameday ticket sales at Target Center. The Wolves rank last in attendance in the 30-team NBA, averaging 13,818 fans per game, according to Espn.com.
Taylor said the franchise may lose a “couple million dollars” this season but it is 2015-2016 that concerns him more financially. He wants to see the Wolves get their three veterans back in the lineup and play with the young talent. Win some games and show fans “the injuries were the reason that we didn’t win” while creating hope for the future. Positive momentum closing out this season can help retain and even grow the season ticket base for 2015-2016.
It’s possible that with the No. 11 pick in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft the Vikings will choose a former teammate of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. DeVante Parker was a much targeted wide receiver when the two played their junior seasons at Louisville in 2013.
Parker, 6-3 and 210, is one of the best wide receiver prospects for the 2015 draft. Although Parker doesn’t have elite speed, he has quickness and has shown ability to get open and make yards after a catch. In 2013 he gained 785 yards on 55 catches while scoring 12 touchdowns.
After his junior year he considered coming out for the draft but remained at Louisville. A broken bone in his foot last season limited him to seven games but he had team best and impressive stats—855 receiving yards, averaging 19.9 yards per reception and 122.1 yards a game.
The Vikings have multiple needs including offensive line, linebacker and in the secondary, but it might be difficult to pass on Parker, a player Bridgewater knows well. Bridgewater established himself as the team’s No. 1 quarterback during the 2014 season but the passing game has plenty of room for improvement.
The Vikings were 29th in the 32-team NFL last season in touchdown passes. They had 17 touchdown throws and 18 interceptions, making them one of three teams in the league with more interceptions than touchdowns. Minnesota’s average pass gain of 6.9 yards ranked No. 25 and only four teams had fewer pass plays of 40 yards or more than the Vikings with seven.
Former Viking Bob Lurtsema, who remains close to the team, said “absolutely” he believes the front office should select a wide receiver with the No. 11 pick who can stretch the field. “You gotta get the corners off, get the corners to back up and respect you,” he told Sports Headliners. “Teddy Bridgewater is the real deal.”
Lurtsema learned to admire Bridgewater during the season including the poise of the 22-year-old and how teammates warmed to him. “He’s a great kid,” Lurtsema said.
Bridgewater was named to the All-Rookie Team by the Pro Football Writers Association, according to an announcement today. The Vikings had a 6-6 record in his 12 starts. He completed 259 of 402 attempts (64.4 percent) for the third-highest completion percentage among rookie quarterbacks in NFL history.
Bridgewater’s 85.2 passer rating ranks as the seventh-highest passer rating among rookies in league history and best for a rookie in Vikings history. He led all rookie quarterbacks with 224.5 passing yards per game. He threw for 14 touchdowns and had 12 interceptions.
Lurtsema has a lot of praise for another Vikings newcomer last season. He compares head coach Mike Zimmer’s no baloney style with legendary Bud Grant. “Zimmer is out of sight,” Lurtsema said. “Players love playing for him. … He tells it like it is. He’s got a little Budism. He’ll tell you the truth.”
Later this month the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee will consider former Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff among 18 finalists for induction into the Canton, Ohio shrine. Tingelhoff played in 240 consecutive games over 17 seasons with the Vikings. He participated in six Pro Bowls.
Former Vikings running back Clinton Jones, who played collegiately at Michigan State, is part of the 2015 College Football Hall of Fame group announced by the National Football Foundation.
Giovan Jenkins, who played at Washburn and later became an assistant coach, is resigning as head football coach for the Minneapolis high school. In March he will become a volunteer assistant for the Gophers.
“I am very excited for the opportunity of a lifetime,” Jenkins told Sports Headliners. “It was a tough decision.”
During his 14 seasons as an assistant or head coach, the Millers compiled a 109-34 record. They won 13 city championships, appeared in six section playoff finals and one state tournament. Jenkins had many outstanding players on his team including Jeff Jones, a Rivals.com four-star recruit in 2014, who hopes to be the starting running back at Minnesota this fall.
Jenkins will continue his position as ninth grade dean of students at Washburn. Moving up into a college football role is something he’s thought about for years. “Leaving home is never easy,” Jenkins said. “I bleed orange and blue.”
With the Gophers Jenkins’ assignments are expected to include on-campus recruiting and analyzing game films. “It will be an opportunity to learn college football at the highest level from some of the best people in the business,” he said.
No announcement has been made about Jenkins’ successor at Washburn.
Aaron Hicks, 25, has played parts of two seasons in the major leagues for the Twins but hasn’t established himself as the team’s regular center fielder. In 150 total games with 467 at bats the athletic center fielder’s batting average is .201. Twins president Dave St. Peter recently told Sports Headliners it can take time for the “game to slow down” for some players and noted Torii Hunter, who became an All-Star, went “back and forth” between the majors and minors before establishing himself as one of the Twins’ best players ever.
St. Peter said there is no update on whether former manager Ron Gardenhire will accept an offer to stay with the organization. Gardenhire’s role hasn’t been defined. St. Peter said after 13 seasons leading the Twins, Gardenhire has earned the opportunity to set his own schedule regarding future plans.
Glen Taylor, the longtime Timberwolves owner, is the new owner of the Star Tribune and the Mankato-based billionaire meets monthly to be advised about the newspaper. Taylor said his daughter, Jean Taylor, represents him and typically meets weekly regarding newspaper details.
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill said on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” program Sunday that he expects four newcomers to participate in spring practice which begins March 2. Kill said he wasn’t sure if NCAA policy allowed him to identify them on the air. One player is known to be Iowa Western Community College transfer Charlie Rodgers, a defensive back. As a junior college player, he was allowed to sign his National Letter of Intent last month.
Kill also said among players who have been injured and unable to play, defensive lineman Scott Ekpe is the only one not expected to participate in spring practice. Ekpe, a junior, made his first career start in Minnesota’s opening game in 2014 but suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The Gophers will be looking to find a replacement for record-setting senior running back David Cobb. Kill mentioned multiple candidates but the most surprising name was Josh Parks from Chisago Lakes. Parks is a redshirt freshman and preferred walk-on who joined the program last year. His senior year in high school he averaged 9.5 yards per carry and was named third team all-state.
National Football Signing Day for high school players is February 4. Kill said the Gophers 2015 recruiting class may total about 23 players.
Zac Epping, who started 47 consecutive games on the offensive line for the Gophers and this fall was named first team All-Big Ten by the media, has retained Minneapolis-based attorney James Selmer of Selmer Sports Management as his agent. Epping is preparing for the NFL Draft with the help of Gophers strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, and offensive coordinator and line coach Matt Limegrover.
It won’t be surprising if the College Football Playoff National Championship is played in Minneapolis within the next several years. Last night’s first ever game was hosted by AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The 2016 game has been awarded to the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Raymond James Stadium in Tampa will host the 2017 game. Arlington and Glendale have retractable roof stadiums while Raymond James is open air.
The College Football Playoff is run by FBS schools including the Big Ten. With schools represented from all over the country there is likely to be sentiment for staging the championship game in varied locations including the north. The new domed Vikings stadium is scheduled to open in 2016 and its only competition to host the national title game within Big Ten country comes from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and Ford Field in Detroit. With the Minneapolis stadium expected to be state-of-the-art and among the newest NFL covered football facilities in the country, odds seem high the city will one day host the game. Stadium promoters can already boast of booking the 2018 Super Bowl and 2019 Final Four.
The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, the Vikings and SMG announced recently that Patrick Talty has been hired as SMG’s general manager for the new Minneapolis stadium. SMG is contracted to operate and manage the facility on behalf of the MSFA. Talty joins SMG from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) where he most recently served as the senior vice president of Live Events. Talty’s career experiences include assistant general manager for the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
Former Gophers head coach Glen Mason predicts Ohio State will win the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship tomorrow night in Arlington, Texas. Oregon is about a six point favorite but Mason spoke with conviction and enthusiasm regarding the Buckeyes during a telephone interview with Sports Headliners.
Mason played football at Ohio State and later was an assistant coach for the Buckeyes. Now he’s a lead analyst for the Big Ten Network. There is no disputing Mason has Ohio State and Big Ten roots but he was convincing the other day when he raved about the Buckeyes’ last two games and the talent coach Urban Meyer has assembled in Columbus.
The Buckeyes were an unexpected entrant in the four-team college playoffs. Despite their 11-1 record going into the Big Ten Championship game on December 6, the Buckeyes didn’t come up a lot in conversations targeting the four teams likely to be invited to participate in the playoffs. In the last regular season game on November 29 against Michigan, starting quarterback J.T. Barrett broke his ankle. Barrett had replaced the injured Braxton Miller as the starter in August. For the Big Ten title game the Buckeyes had to start their third team quarterback from last summer, Cardale Jones.
Ohio State destroyed Wisconsin 59-0 to win the Big Ten championship. That stunning performance and score earned an invitation to join Alabama, Florida State and Oregon in the playoffs. Alabama was the most popular choice to emerge as the national champion but the Buckeyes refused a ride on the Crimson Tide bandwagon. In the semifinal playoff game between the two legendary programs, the Buckeyes rallied from a 21-6 deficit to win 42-35.
A lot of college football observers are impressed with the Buckeyes. “They’re on a roll right now,” Mason said. “I’ve never seen a team that’s gone through a transformation in two games like Ohio State. They were a good team this year, now they’re a really good team. They became a really good team against Wisconsin and parlayed it right into the game against Alabama.”
Oregon, of course, hasn’t exactly stumbled in its last couple of games. In the Pac-12 championship game the Ducks avenged their only loss of the season with a convincing 51-13 win over Arizona. Then in the semifinal playoff game against undefeated Florida State the Ducks easily defeated the Seminoles, 59-20. “Both these teams are peaking at the right time,” Mason said.
When Mason coached the Gophers he spoke about “swagger.” After the Gophers earned a big win, he might talk about the program’s confidence. The secretaries in the football office even carried themselves differently, he claimed.
Mason sees that “swagger” with the Buckeyes. He brought that up with Meyer before the Alabama game and the Buckeyes coach agreed his team was different than earlier in the season. “They’ve gotten their swagger back, their confidence,” Mason said. “I don’t think they had it during the year up until they played Wisconsin. …”
Mason described it as “truly amazing” Ohio State can be playing in tomorrow night’s national championship game after not only losing their two top quarterbacks but also seeing seven players from last year’s team become starters in the NFL.
Among the losses from the 2013 team were four starting offensive linemen. Replacing those four and having such an inexperienced line was worrisome last summer regarding national championship hopes but those prospects really seemed doomed when Miller—a leading candidate to win the Hesiman Trophy—injured his shoulder and was ruled out for the season.
“If they win Monday they’ll have a national championship. It’s a testament to the amount of talent that Ohio State (has) and it’s a testament to the coaching job being done by Urban Meyer and the coaching staff,” Mason said.
Jones, a 6-5, 250-pound redshirt sophomore, threw for 243 yards and one long touchdown against Alabama. He also ran for 89 yards. Mason praised Jones’ abilities to “punish” tacklers when he runs and also the inexperienced quarterback’s arm strength. “They call him 12-gauge because he wears No. 12 and he’s got an arm like a shotgun,” Mason said.
Miller, a senior, has twice been the Big Ten MVP. Barrett, a redshirt freshman, was so impressive for most of the 2014 season he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Jones has turned heads in his two starts against Wisconsin and Alabama.
Mason couldn’t remember one college team ever having three quarterbacks so talented. All three have remaining college eligibility and they could be back with the Buckeyes next season—although transferring to another school perhaps is also in the mix for Miller or Jones. “If they all stayed at Ohio State, you’d have three guys that would be (in) the Heisman Trophy discussion at the same position going into the season,” Mason said.
Tomorrow night Ohio State will have to contend with Oregon’s skilled passing and running quarterback Marcus Mariota. The redshirt junior from Hawaii has thrown 40 touchdown passes in 14 games this season and rushed for 15 more. He has thrown only three interceptions. He was a unanimous first-team All-American and won the 2014 Heisman Trophy.
Winning college football’s most prestigious individual award can be a precursor to something bigger—a national championship. Quarterbacks Cam Newton from Auburn and Jameis Winston of Florida State won Heismans in 2010 and 2013, and then led their teams to national titles.
The Ducks are known for their speed and Big Ten teams have long been considered a plodding bunch but don’t get too caught up in stereotypes. When Mason coached the Gophers they defeated Alabama and Arkansas, two programs from the speed-based Southeastern Conference. After those games opposing coaches told Mason they had underestimated the Gophers’ speed.
Mason didn’t even think the Gophers were a fast team but Ohio State is. He watched the Buckeyes against Alabama and thought, “Ohio State is the fastest team out here.”
Oregon is second in the country in scoring at 47.2 points per game while the Buckeyes are fifth at 45 points. OSU ranks at No. 26 in scoring defense allowing 22.1 points. The Ducks are No. 27, allowing 22.3 points.
Comparable stats for two 13-1 teams who have apparently saved their best football for the biggest stage. No wonder Mason predicts it will be a “heck of a contest.”