Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017


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U RPI Keeps Tourney Target Alive

February 09, 2017 - (0) comments

 

It’s been a productive several days for the Gophers basketball team including last night’s double overtime win over Iowa at Williams Arena.

Minnesota had lost five consecutive Big Ten games and had an overall record of 15-7 and league record of 3-6 going into last Saturday’s game at Illinois. It was near panic time for the Gophers to change their momentum in the next three games.

Done—almost. The Gophers defeated Illinois by nine points, won a thriller over Iowa, 101-89, and now pack their gym gear for Saturday’s game at Rutgers, 13-12 overall and 2-10 in the Big Ten.

Minnesota went into last night’s game ranked No. 25 nationally in the NCAA.com Ratings Percentage Index (RPI)—rankings that have much to do with determining who moves on to postseason tournaments. The Gophers have some quality wins, and the opportunity to earn more with seven Big Ten games remaining on the schedule, plus a chance to maintain or even improve a top 25 RPI ranking that for awhile now has had NCAA Tournament predictors keeping Minnesota in the mix. Hard to say what the final results will be but a possibility could be wins over Rutgers, Indiana, Penn State and Nebraska, and losses to Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin. Such a path would result in a 9-9 Big Ten record, 21-10 overall.

Richard Pitino

Results as referenced above will keep the team’s RPI in good shape and should deliver an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. If so, it will be a first for Minnesota coach Richard Pitino who is in his fourth season with the Gophers and was 2-16 in the Big Ten last year.

After the season ends the Gophers may look back  on the Iowa win as a key to their success–close call that it was.  Minnesota was ahead 56-43 with 11:52 remaining in the second half. About three minutes later three consecutive turnovers against Iowa’s half-court trapping defense had triggered a 57-56 Hawkeyes’ lead.

Fatigue, though, hit the Hawkeyes as they tried to finish off the Gophers. Iowa freshman Jordan Bohannon couldn’t keep up with Gophers junior guard Nate Mason in the second overtime. Mason got key baskets as Minnesota outscored the Hawkeyes 17-5.

It was an emotional night for the Gophers and their fans. Pitino doesn’t like to do it, but he was waving his arms late in the game to engage the crowd. The student section saved its infamous “We Hate Iowa!” yell for second half dramatics, and at times Williams Arena rocked like its famous days a decade or two ago.

After the game Mason was asked if this win—important even if the Gophers were playing Rutgers—was at least a little more satisfying coming against border rival Iowa. “Yeah, for sure,” he answered.

Worth Noting

Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey has two sons, Connor and Patrick, playing for Iowa City West High School. That team plays at Cretin Derham-Hall and against Gophers recruit Daniel Orturu Saturday, February 18.

Dick Jonckowski

There is talk of an appreciation roast for Dick Jonckowski in the spring to be sponsored by the Minute Men. Jonckowski, the Shakopee-based speaker and emcee, is in his final season as public address announcer for Gophers basketball but will continue with U baseball games. He will be recognized by the Gophers at halftime of the Michigan basketball game February 19.

Ray Christensen, who died a couple of days ago at age 92, was known to sports fans as the radio voice of Gophers football and basketball for decades but he had varied interests including classical music. He preferred to work without a partner on basketball broadcasts and announced those games alone. He was a humble gentleman in an industry known for egos.

Better than Ground Hog Day to prompt optimism about spring arriving soon is that the Twins first exhibition game is two weeks from tomorrow in Fort Myers against the Rays. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training February 14, with the full squad coming in February 18.

Tallest player on the 40-man roster is 6-7 Michael Tonkin and the heaviest is 6-5, 290-pound Kennys Vargas. The oldest Twin is 35-year-old Ervin Santana, born December 12, 1982, while the youngest is 21-year-old Fernando Romero who was born December 24, 1995.

The Twins have announced another Hall of Fame class without Halsey Hall being included. His storytelling and baseball knowledge delighted Twins radio and TV audiences in the early years of the franchise. An obstacle is many Twins Hall of Fame voters aren’t familiar with Hall who died almost 40 years ago but is deserving of enshrinement. Fans who want to see Hall honored can send an email to Twins@twinsbaseball.com

Timberwolves second-year center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has the potential to be the best player in franchise history, has double-doubles in 31 of his last 34 games. Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves third-year forward and another potential superstar, has scored 20-plus points in 11 consecutive games.

The Minnesota Wild, with the best record in the Western Conference, has become a popular mid-season pick to win the 2017 Stanley Cup but that is a lot different outlook than before the season. For example, a June 18 article on Bleacherreport.com had the Wild’s odds of winning the cup at 30/1.

Coach John Anderson’s Minnesota baseball team begins its season February 17-19 at UC Irvine, then opens the home schedule February 24-26 against Seattle in the first- ever Gopher games in U.S. Bank Stadium. Tickets are on sale via Ticketmaster and at the stadium for 13 Gopher games to be played in the new facility through March 12.

Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton High School in southern Minnesota soon breaks ground on a major upgrade to its football and softball facilities, and will be adding a new track. The project will include synthetic field turf for the football and softball fields, plus lights, scoreboard and concession upgrades. JWP has an enrollment of 199 in grades 9-12 and might be the smallest school in the state to install field turf.

 

Blackhawks Still Target for Wild

February 07, 2017 - (0) comments

 

It will be interesting to see how the Minnesota Wild plays this week and throughout the month.

The Western Conference leaders are a confident team and have made fans wonder if this could be the best club since the franchise’s inception in 2000. Tonight the Wild play in Winnipeg against the Jets and then players won’t have much time to rest before they go on the ice at Xcel Energy Wednesday against the Blackhawks, the team tied with the Sharks for second most points in the Western Conference. Tomorrow night’s game is the first of eight consecutive at home and despite fatigue the Wild should be full of adrenaline facing the rival Blackhawks.

The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in Chicago last month and Minnesota has won eight consecutive games against the famous franchise. The two teams also have remaining games in St. Paul on February 21 and in Chicago March 12. More wins over the Blackhawks can only add to the Wild’s collective confidence and momentum.

But the Wild has a history with the Blackhawks that makes some fans anxious. Chicago has often dominated the Central Division during the past several years and has been a playoff pest to the Wild and other teams. Just two years ago, on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks swept the Wild 4-0 in their best of seven games playoff. In the second round series the Wild scored just seven goals.

Bruce Boudreau

However, this doesn’t look like the 2015 Wild team. New head coach Bruce Boudreau has brought leadership, including a calming presence, to his players. That leadership has helped make for a remarkably consistent team group that so far has been able to avoid long losing streaks while also winning close games.

Boudreau has a team playing effectively as a unit. That togetherness is exemplified by the Wild’s balanced scoring. The club has nine players with 10 or more goals. Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal and Jason Zucker are tied for the team lead with 16 goals each.

This is a roster with depth and Boudreau is able to use four lines. That fourth line sometimes steps forward to make big plays and take pressure off the other units. Every game the Wild can count on depth and it’s something that distinguishes the roster from rivals.

Goalie Devan Dubnyk is among the NHL’s leaders at his position. He ranks first in the league in wins with 28. He is second in save percentage at .932.

The Wild has made a fast start without a lot of help sometimes from Zach Parise, the 32-year-old forward with the 13-year, $98 million contract. Maybe Parise isn’t right physically but even if that is a problem expect him to contribute to the team’s success by mentoring younger players.

The Wild could get another psychological boost with an impressive win tomorrow night. Are they better than Blackhawks? “I think right now they are,” a hockey authority told Sports Headliners. “But the Hawks are battle-tested. They have so much experience playing in big games in the past and are proven winners.”

The Wild hopes in a couple of years people will be saying the same about them.

Worth Noting

Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn has been named Big Ten First Star of the Week. Schierhorn held the nation’s top-ranked offense to three goals on 69 shots last weekend when Minnesota swept Penn State at Mariucci Arena. Schierhorn, a sophomore, was Big Ten Goaltender of the Year last season, and currently leads the Big Ten in wins with 17. That total is tied for second best in the NCAA.

The Wild’s TV deal with FOX Sports North ends after this season. Ratings are impressive and the two organizations are likely to make a new deal.

New Gophers coach P.J. Fleck will do the “Let’s Play Hockey” call at Friday’s Wild-Lightning game.

For those who missed or couldn’t get enough of Lady Gaga’s halftime show at the Super Bowl last Sunday, she is performing at the Xcel Energy Center August 21. Tickets go on sale Friday.

Rivals ranks the Gophers football recruiting class No. 51 nationally. That compares with a No. 51 ranking in 2016 and No. 53 in 2015.

P.J. Fleck

Among the best Gophers recruits in this year’s class is Marshall offensive tackle Blaise Andries who has known since seventh grade he wants to be an actuary, according to Fleck who joked about not knowing what the noun means.

Another recruiting prize could be tight end Jake Paulson from Louisville, who turned down a visit to LSU and has special parents in two former Navy pilots, per Fleck.

Fleck believes the “sleeper” of the class could be under recruited defensive lineman Austin Schirck from Carroll, Iowa. “He is special,” Fleck said. “I don’t know how he got out of that state.”

Fleck headlines the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Clinic March 30-April 1. Other prominent speakers will include Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi, North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman and San Diego State’s Jeff Horton. More information is available by clicking on the MFCA advertisement on this page and visiting the organization’s website.

Look for the Gophers athletic department to host members of the 1967 football team later this year as part of a celebration for the school’s last Big Ten championship.

The 1967 team will be honored with the Murray Warmath Legendary Team Award at the Minnesota Football Awards event May 7. The event is organized by the Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation and will be at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Gophers basketball team could get its second home sellout of the season Wednesday night against Iowa. Minnesota’s win last Saturday over Illinois, combined with the Iowa rivalry and an 8 p.m. start, puts the Gophers in a potential sellout situation. The Wild and Timberwolves also have home games Wednesday night so there is box office competition.

Boys high school basketball fans could hardly find a more fun start to the week. Last night the state’s best team, Champlin Park, defeated (70-60) arguably the second best club, Maple Grove. Tonight prep powers Apple Valley and Lakeville North play at Apple Valley.

Mike Max said on WCCO Radio this morning that NBC TV’s Harry Smith is planning a feature story on Sid Hartman, the local radio and newspaper personality who turns 97 next month.

 

Dad Wants Amir Coffey to ‘Step on Toes’

February 05, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Amir Coffey has impressed in his first season of college basketball. The Gophers 6-8 freshman forward from Hopkins High School is second on the team in scoring and minutes played. Twice he has been selected as the Big Ten Freshman of the Week.

“He is one of the better freshmen in the country,” former Gophers head coach Jim Dutcher told Sports Headliners. “I’ve really enjoyed watching him play.”

Coffey is averaging 12.2 points and 31.9 minutes per game, ranking second in both categories behind junior point guard Nate Mason. Coffey is a versatile player who helps the Gophers in multiple ways including rebounding and passing. He is fifth on the team in rebounding average and only Mason has more assists.

That versatility and willingness to help teammates earns the praise of many obervers including Coffey’s dad, Richard Coffey who played four seasons for the Gophers in the late 1980s.

Amir Coffey

“Amir is a team guy,” Richard said. “He’s not selfish. He’s going to try and make the right basketball play. He sees the ball really well. He has a high basketball I.Q.”

During an interview with Sports Headliners, Richard expressed approval of his son’s first-year performance. “I think he’s doing extremely well. I didn’t come in with a lot of expectations, because I didn’t want to put that pressure on him. I just wanted him to come in and learn his teammates, learn the coaching staff, learn the offense and try to use his skill-set as much as possible in the game. He’s done that. …”

The older Coffey was a warrior playing for the Gophers. His on-court demeanor as a rugged 6-6 rebounder and defender fit his background as a former Army airborne paratrooper. He led Minnesota in rebounding all four seasons from 1986-1990. It’s not surprising Richard believes a mental adjustment is what his son needs to be more consistent and elevate his play.

“(When) Amir steps on the court right now, sometimes he might be thinking that I am a freshman and I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Richard said. “He needs to learn that he needs to step on some people’s toes to get to that next level. When you’re not aggressive, you’re not only not helping but in some cases you maybe hindering because of your skill-set. This team needs Amir to be aggressive to win.

“When I say aggressive, I don’t mean shoot. I mean having the ball, make a play with the ball and create something for yourself or your teammates.”

There are times, though, when the Gophers do need Coffey to score, and that was evident in a loss at home to Maryland late last month. Minnesota led the nationally ranked Terrapins 33-26 at halftime and Coffey had 11 points. But the Gophers lost the game 85-78 and Coffey didn’t score a point in the second half.

Yesterday against Illinois Coffey played a team high 38 minutes in a 68-59 road win that stopped Minnesota’s five game losing streak. Coffey took only six shots but scored 13 points while holding the Illini’s leading scorer, Malcolm Hill, to 13 points on five of 18 shooting. It was a steady performance for Coffey who was a team leader including with his solid position defense against Hill.

Ups and downs are to be expected, even with a freshman as talented as Coffey who was the state’s 2016 Mr. Basketball. In a 2015 interview Hopkins coach Ken Novak Jr. told Sports Headliners Coffey was the most versatile player he has had in more than 30 years of coaching and he predicted that eventually Amir could become a dominant Big Ten player. That’s high praise coming from someone who has coached high school superstars Kris Humphries and Royce White—two players who became first round NBA draft choices.

Jim Dutcher

Part of that process will involve becoming physically stronger. At less than 200 pounds, Coffey needs more weight and muscle. “That comes with maturity,” Dutcher said.

Certainly a more physical body will be needed if Amir is to play in the NBA, but neither in the past or right now has there been family strategizing on reaching that destination. “Is that Amir’s dream? Of course it is, but we haven’t had those conversations for a couple different reasons,” Richard said. “

“I don’t want to put that pressure on him. I think that (NBA focus) will happen when the time is right—whether it’s two years, three years, four years. When the time is right, I think he will know, the coaching staff would know and I would know it. Then we’ll start having those conversations.

“But if a kid is going out there thinking I need to play to get to the NBA, that’s just a set up for disaster. Enjoy this experience. College was one of the most pleasurable experiences in my life. …Let’s do well where we are right now and then other things will happen.”

Richard spent a lot of time coaching Amir when his son was young. Among the development goals was to have Amir become similar to European professionals who often are versatile enough to play multiple positions and have varied responsibilities on the floor. Amir’s versatility will continue to help the Gophers and enhance his pro possibilities. He is a player who makes those around him better, even if his dad and others want to see more consistency in his total game.

Richard is optimistic about his son’s future including a possible NBA career. “I think he has a great chance if he continues to grow physically and grow mentally, and stay healthy.”

Amir has already shown his dad and others a willingness to work. That quality has much to do with achieving the success already in place including helping Hopkins to a state championship last year. His dad said more work must be done by the freshman including “stepping on toes.”

“He is a 6-8 kid right now that shoots the ball average—that can see the ball, make plays,” Richard said. “He has good ball skills for a kid that age. Now all of those things need to tighten up. His ball handling needs to tighten up. His shooting needs to tighten up. His free throws. Everything needs to get better, but…he’s working. …”

And impressing.

 

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