Enjoy a Thursday notes column starting with the revamped Timberwolves who have played three games since president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas shook up the roster last week with new player acquisitions.
D’Angelo Russell is the long sought answer at point guard. The former NBA All-Star has played in two games for Minnesota including last night’s loss to the Hornets. He scored 26 points with 11 assists, at times showing deft ball handling and passing.
While in the game, Russell was a +12 and he had only three turnovers. No teammate was even close to that efficiency, showing the importance of the player Rosas sent to the Warriors in exchange for the much less valuable Andrew Wiggins, who despite his considerable talent never caught on at any position for Minnesota including point guard.
An announced sellout crowd at Target Center was energized last night, particularly in the first half when the Wolves moved out to a 66-50 halftime lead. Late in the second quarter fans chanted: “Defense! Defense! Defense!” Nice try, but defense is not a strength for the 16-37 Wolves who are 1-15 in their last 16 games.
The Wolves gave up 65 points in the second half to the Hornets and their offense slowed down in a 115-108 loss. Similar story on Monday night in Toronto against the defending NBA champion Raptors. After leading 75-74 at halftime, the Wolves went on to lose 137-126. The Wolves entered last night’s game yielding 116 points per game, ranking No. 27 in the 30-team NBA, per Fox.com.
A veteran hockey insider puts the chances at “100 percent” the Wild will make another trade before the NHL’s February 24 deadline. He also told Sports Headliners the team is too inconsistent and predicted a “40 percent” likelihood the Wild makes the playoffs after missing out on the postseason in 2019.
The Wild traded veteran forward Jason Zucker to the Penguins this week and acquired forward Alex Galchenyuk, defenseman Calen Addison and a 2020 conditional draft choice. The source said the Penguins have been interested in Zucker, 28, for about a year and hope he will bolster their scoring.
It remains to be seen if the trade will increase the effort and consistency of Wild players with Minnesota GM Bill Guerin on record that more deals could be coming.
The hockey Gophers have a young roster and could be special in another year or two if they retain their outstanding freshman class and players like sophomore forward Sammy Walker. “No question they’re better than at the start of the season,” the insider said.
Still, he thinks the Gophers are too inexperienced to win the Big Ten and might miss the NCAA Tournament.
WCCO Radio “Sports Huddle” co-host Dave Mona speaks to the CORES lunch group Thursday, March 12 at the Bloomington Event Center, 1114 American Blvd. Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle speaks to the group May 14. More information is available by contacting Jim Dotseth, email@example.com. Reservations for the March program must be made by Monday, March 9. (CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans).
Minnehaha Academy’s Jalen Suggs could become the first prep athlete ever to win both the Minnesota Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball awards. Suggs won the former in December and looks like a favorite among the finalists for Mr. Basketball.
Isaiah Washington, the former Gopher point guard who transferred after last season, has started 13 of 18 games for Iona. He is the team’s third leading scorer at 10.4 points per game and leads in total assists.
R.J. White’s NFL mock draft for Cbssports.com on Tuesday had the Vikings selecting Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson in the third round with the team’s No. 25 selection. White refers to the Minneapolis native as an “intriguing slot option” for the Vikings when they use “three receiver packages.”
Quoting Mike Zimmer who is preparing for his seventh season as Vikings coach, and is the third longest tenured head man in franchise history after Bud Grant (18 seasons) and Dennis Green (13):
“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve played decent, but at the end of the day we’re looking forward, and we’re not trying to look back on the last seven years. We’ve still got a lot of things that we haven’t accomplished yet that we need to accomplish.”
Marc Trestman, the St. Louis Park native and former Gophers quarterback who coached Grey Cup champions in Canada, is the head coach and GM of the Tampa Bay Vipers in the new XFL spring league. His Vipers lost their opener last Sunday to the New York Guardians, 23-3.
The average XFL player earns $55,000 with marquee players possibly making up to $500,000, per a Reuters story three days ago quoting Fox Business.
Minneapolis area native Tim Herron, who recently turned 50, is making his Champions Tour debut this week at the Chubb Classic in Naples, Florida. Herron is seen on TV ads in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market for 2nd Swing.
Former Gophers tight end and pro wrestling start Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell is the latest guest on “Behind the Game,” the Twin Cities cable TV program co-hosted by Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson. “Behind the Game” episodes can also be viewed on YouTube.
A Tuesday notes column starting with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer who spoke to reporters on a conference call this morning.
Zimmer hired Dom Capers, with 32 years of NFL coaching experience, as his senior defensive advisor this week. It had been on Zimmer’s mind since late last season to add someone like Capers whose experiences include being an NFL head coach and defensive coordinator.
“We’ve been running this defense for a long, long time and I just thought it would be good to get some new, fresh ideas,” said Zimmer who has been leading the Vikings for six seasons.
Zimmer has long been known as a high IQ defensive mind, and even as head coach been involved with the details of the Viking defense. The defense, though, had more issues last season than anyone liked including a sometimes leaky pass defense.
Capers will be counted on for help. “He’s always been a guy that has been very innovative in the pressure package of his defenses,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer doesn’t see himself being any more or less involved with the defense than in the past. He has new co-defensive coordinators in son Adam Zimmer and Andre Patterson. Zimmer said he may call defensive plays but the decision will be made as the Vikings work through the spring and months that follow.
Gary Kubiak, a senior offensive advisor and assistant head coach last season, is now the new offensive coordinator. He has won a Super Bowl as a head coach and has 24 years of coaching experience.
Zimmer was “relieved” after the playoffs when Kubiak agreed to succeed Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator. “I thought he (Kubiak) did an outstanding job last year and I anticipate it will be even better (in 2020),” Zimmer said.
Zimmer expects some changes with the offense next season but said “the majority” of it will remain the same.
Faced with a salary cap problem this offseason, it seems plausible Vikings management will consider cutting loose some or all of the following: cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, defensive linemen Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, and offensive lineman Riley Reiff.
Perhaps also in the mix of juggling numbers could be asking quarterback Kirk Cousins to restructure the final year of his $84 million contract over a longer period.
With the recent trades of center Gorgui Dieng and forward Andrew Wiggins, only center Karl-Anthony Towns remains with the Timberwolves from the promising 2015-2016 roster the late Flip Saunders put in place. The Wolves former president had several young players in the group beyond Dieng, Towns and Wiggins—including Nemanja Bjelica, Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad.
Eye-opener: The low-key Wiggins playing with the Warriors now and max-voltage competitor Draymond Green.
That was former Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman who convinced legendary Indiana Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight to return last weekend to Assembly Hall in Bloomington after a 20-year absence, per the Indystar.com.
Forbes.com writer John Perrotto yesterday described best-case and worst-case scenarios for the 2020 Twins season.
Best: “(Josh) Donaldson, (Nelson) Cruz and the rest of the Bomba Squad hit home runs in bunches again in 2020, and the Twins ride those power bats to another division title, overcoming a suspect rotation.”
Worst: “The rotation becomes a mess as (Homer) Bailey breaks down before spring training ends, (Rich) Hill is slow to recover from surgery, and (Kenta) Maeda doesn’t adjust well to switching leagues.”
Maeda, acquired this week from the Dodgers, was 10-8 with a 4.04 ERA last year. The 31-year-old likely emerges as Minnesota’s No. 3 starter and his presence could put the Twins second only to the Yankees among American League teams in preseason power rankings of MLB clubs.
Twins president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners he would like to see the club draw around 2.5 million fans to Target Field this year. The franchise attracted 2,294,152 last season, ranking No. 15 among 30 MLB clubs, per Espn.com
Look for big changes coming in major league baseball in the next several years including a pitch clock to speed up the game. The average MLB game took over three hours and overall attendance declined in 2019.
The first Twins spring training game on Fox Sports North will be a 12:05 p.m. start February 23 from Fort Myers against the Blue Jays.
Did anyone else notice the Timberwolves and basketball Gophers announced home game attendances of over 10,000 and 11,000 respectively when they played head-to-head last week? The Wolves rank last in NBA attendance while the Gophers haven’t sold out a game all season and didn’t even come close to filling 14,625 seat Williams Arena on February 5 despite playing border rival Wisconsin.
If former Hopkins star Zeke Nnaji, now a 6-foot-11 freshman force for Arizona, had joined the Gophers to play with 6-foot-10 sophomore Daniel Oturu, Minnesota would have its best “Twin Towers” since Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson played together in the late 1970s.
In its 2020 NBA mock draft yesterday, Nbadraft.net projected Oturu going No. 8 to the Wizards in the first round, and Nnaji being taken at No. 16 by the Nets.
The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team is 6-7 in Big Ten games, with a 12-11 overall record. Included in the conference record are four road losses by a total of 27 points, including a double overtime 83-78 defeat at Purdue. Often Minnesota has been one key contributor away from winning additional games during the 2019-2020 season.
Sophomore center Daniel Oturu, on the John R. Wooden Award watch list for the best college player in the country, has emerged as a star in scoring, rebounding and defending. Frequently redshirt sophomore guard Marcus Carr is a second force, including a headline grabbing 35 point game in Minnesota’s home upset win over then No. 3 ranked Ohio State.
Often, though, the team doesn’t receive enough help from a third or even fourth contributor. There are exceptions like redshirt sophomore guard Peyton Willis’ career high 21 points in last week’s dominating win over Wisconsin, or sophomore guard Gabe Kalscheur’s 34 points in an impressive nonconference neutral court victory against Oklahoma State.
Oturu and Kalscheur are from Minnesota but the majority of the roster is comprised of players from other places. Gophers fans wonder why coach Richard Pitino’s program doesn’t have more players from the state of Minnesota with such a “stocked cupboard” of high school talent. During the last 50 years both the quality of talent and numbers of impressive state players has improved dramatically.
Al Nuness, a Chicago native, captained the 1968-1969 Gophers and not long after his graduation from the U became an assistant coach at his alma mater. He transitioned after that into a business career and has lived most of his life in the Minneapolis area. He has long been a knowledgeable observer of high school basketball here.
Nuness told Sports Headliners prep basketball in the state “has grown like crazy,” and he gives much of the credit to AAU programs like the Howard Pulley organization that started years ago. College coaches are coming to the state in big numbers, during the summer and at other times of the year, to recruit Minnesota players. “These college coaches are all over Minnesota basketball,” Nuness said.
Former Illinois basketball player Stephen Bardo, now a TV analyst, praised the Minnesota prep scene during the telecast of last week’s game with Wisconsin in Minneapolis. He said “per capita” this area compares favorably with other recruiting hotbeds in the country.
“Absolutely, per capita it does,” Nuness agreed. “I think the thing that has happened in Minnesota is it’s become a city game. Just like in Chicago, just like in New York, just like down in Memphis, it’s become a city game. The kids are playing it. They’re playing it in St. Paul. They’re playing it in Minneapolis. They’re playing it in the suburbs around the city. It’s really taken off.
“(And) the size of kids. We’ve never had this many kids, this athletic, at this size.”
Recruiting was an easy subject to talk about at the Badgers-Gophers game. Wisconsin has probably recruited more Minnesota bred players over the years than any major program in the country other than the Gophers. Last Thursday evening the Badgers started three players from Minnesota and they total five on their roster, plus a player from nearby Prescott, Wisconsin. The Gophers started Minnesota natives Oturu and Kalscheur, and they have three more on the roster with Michael Hurt, Jarvis Omersa and Brady Rudrud.
In seven seasons as Gophers coach, Pitino and his staff have an inconsistent record in bringing state talent to the Minneapolis campus. Oturu and Amir Coffey, a superb guard-forward on last season’s team who departed early for the NBA, were terrific gets from the metro area, but in two of the last three recruiting classes no players from the state signed on for scholarships with the Gophers.
Unless the staff signs a Minnesotan this spring or summer, make that three of the last four years. To the staff’s credit they did sign two four-star players from out of state last fall. The signing of Jamal Mashburn Jr. from Florida and Martice Mitchell of Illinois is impressive for the 2020 class. Pitino’s 2019 recruiting class has two four-star players in German forward Isaiah Ihnen and Texas guard Tre’ Williams. Neither Pitino nor any of his key assistants have ties to the state.
Among the Badgers starters is junior Nathan Reuvers from Lakeville North, and he ranks among the best and more versatile forward-centers in the Big Ten. His presence next to Oturu in the Minnesota lineup would transform Pitino’s team into a much more formidable opponent and certainly make the Gophers a lock for the NCAA Tournament. A wish list of former preps from the state playing elsewhere could begin with someone like Reuvers and go on for awhile. Here’s a sample:
Arizona freshman Zeke Nnaj, from Hopkins, is one of the best freshmen “bigs” in the country and he might be even more effective paired with Oturu. He is among the Pac-12 leaders in field goal percentage and rebounding. Nnaji and former DeLaSalle standout Tyrell Terry, now a freshman guard at Stanford, ranked among the top dozen scorers in the Pac-12 last week. In the same conference is junior guard McKinley Wright from Champlin Park, who finished third in Pac-12 assists last season.
Down in Austin, Texas is junior forward and Longhorns starter Jericho Sims from Minneapolis. His dad Charles played for the Gophers and brother Dominique was a defensive back for the Minnesota football team many years ago. Over recent years the Gophers haven’t had many players with family ties on the basketball roster.
Gophers fans are resigned to having minimal hope of landing a McDonald’s All-American from the state. There never was that much local optimism that Duke sophomore point guard Tre Jones, from Apple Valley, would play for Pitino and his staff. The same was true of Duke freshman forward Matthew Hurt from Rochester who has played a lot of minutes for the Blue Devils. Now this year Minnehaha Academy’s Jalen Suggs, one of the elite point guards in America and a likely McDonald’s All-American soon, has committed to playing for Gonzaga.
Pitino has a career Big Ten regular season record of 46 wins and 76 losses in six-plus seasons. He has only one winning season in the Big Ten. Two of his last three teams have earned invites to the NCAA Tournament. He is 1-2 in the tournament including last year’s upset of higher seeded Louisville.
More talented Minnesotans on the roster would certainly have helped during the Pitino era. And it’s not always the most obvious prep talents who can turn out to be difference makers in college. Freddie Gillespie, a redshirt senior forward from East Ridge, is a starter and contributor for a Baylor team ranked No. 1 in the country. He transferred to Baylor from Division III Carleton of the MIAC. Minnesota native Jared Nuness, Al’s son and an assistant on the Baylor staff, helped bring the late developing Gillespie to Baylor who now has pro scouts looking at him.
Vinnie Shahid, who played at Hopkins, is a starting guard and impact player at North Dakota State. He has been leading the team this season in scoring after being named the Summit League Newcomer of the Year in 2018-2019. He was also the conference tournament MVP in 2019.
At Wofford sophomore guard Ryan Larson is a starter after playing with Oturu at Cretin-Derham Hall. In high school Larson was a “chemistry player,” making teammates better with both obvious and subtle contributions. Larson might be the type of prep player that could have been persuaded to walk-on with the Gophers with the possibility of eventually earning a scholarship.
Pitino’s teams, even his best ones, have lacked depth. There have to be a lot of Minnesota preps with so much passion for the home town Gophers that they would be willing to walk-on—even though their skills might not be quite worthy of Big Ten scholarship offers. Players who excel in perhaps just one or two skills like three-point shooting, or being tall and physical enough to come off the bench for limited minutes and push around opposing “bigs.” Players with such skills could provide specialization and depth without using up limited scholarship inventory.
Nuness was asked whether the Gophers, if they annually had more quality players from the state (not necessarily McDonald’s All-Americans), could contend for Big Ten titles. “I think they could do that. (But) not every year they would be able to,” he answered, and also emphasized scholarship inventory certainly restricts how many recruits the staff can take from Minnesota and elsewhere.
Right now, though, no Minnesotans are headed for Dinkytown next summer. The Badgers, wouldn’t you know, have two of the better metro area preps committed to their 2020 class—forward Ben Carlson of East Ridge and center Steven Crowl from Eastview. Prior Lake forward Dawson Garcia, who after Suggs is probably the most prized senior prep in the state, is bound for Marquette. Big time scoring guard Kerwin Walton from Hopkins is uncommitted and reportedly considering Minnesota for next season.
Good news? Treyton Thompson, a four-star forward from Alexandria, Minnesota playing as a junior prep in Indiana, has verbally committed to be part of the 2021 class.