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U Roster Offers Frozen Four Talent

March 22, 2017 - 1 Comment

 

Wally Shaver has been the radio play-by-play voice of Gophers hockey for 16 years. He thinks the Minnesota team that is only two wins away from earning its way into the Frozen Four could win a national title. “I think this team is talented enough to get it done,” he told Sports Headliners Monday.

The Gophers won national championships in 2002 and 2003 under coach Don Lucia. Three years ago Lucia’s team lost in the Frozen Four finals to Union. Shaver believes the 2017 Gophers compare favorably to past Minnesota teams.

Minnesota has seven players with 10 or more goals. No other major college team can match that. “They’re a very balanced team and deep in scoring,” Shaver said.

Justin Kloos

Minnesota, as usual, has exceptional players like sophomore forward Tyler Sheehy, who is the 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award given to college hockey’s best player. Senior Jake Bischoff is the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, while sophomore goalie Eric Schierhorn is the conference’s goalie of the year for a second consecutive season. Joining those three on the All-Big Ten first team is senior forward Justin Kloos. That collective talent is backed up by other productive players and means opponents can’t concentrate much on controlling just one or two players, or lines.

A hot goalie in college hockey’s playoffs always determines much of a team’s fate. Shaver said Schierhorn had his “ups and downs” during the long season but he suggested the Alaska native “hit the reset button” during Christmas time. Schierhorn has a .935 save percentage in his last nine games. “There is no question he is peaking at the right time,” Shaver said.

Last Saturday Schierhorn stopped 59 of 63 shots in a double overtime loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament. “He was the best player on the ice,” Shaver said.

In that game a penalty set up a winning power play goal for PSU. Shaver cautions that if the Gophers are to advance this weekend and beyond, they must keep penalties to a minimum.

Minnesota, the regular season Big Ten champion, will play Notre Dame on Saturday in one of two games in Manchester, New Hampshire as part of the Northeast Region. Cornell plays UMass-Lowell in the other game, with Saturday’s winners meeting on Sunday in Manchester to determine who advances to the April 6 Frozen Four in Chicago against champions from three other regions.

The Gophers, 21-11-3, are the Northeast Region’s No. 1 seed and the favorite to win two games in Manchester, but Notre Dame, 21-11-5, impresses Shaver, too. He said the Fighting Irish has only one senior and if underclassmen don’t leave the program Notre Dame could be the “odds-on” favorite to win the Big Ten Conference title next season.

“It’s a very good regional and a great matchup for us to start with against Notre Dame,” Lucia said. “We know them, and they know us. We’re excited to get back into the tournament and compete for a national championship.”

The Gophers and Irish didn’t play against each other as nonconference opponents this season but have been frequent foes with Minnesota having a 27-15-3 record in the rivalry. Notre Dame plays its first Big Ten season in 2017-2018, increasing league membership to seven teams. The goal is to become an eight-team hockey league but there is no indication the Big Ten is even close to determining another member.

Worth Noting

Ken Lien

Minnesota boys’ high school basketball fan Ken Lien has seen thousands of games over the years, and he was asked by Sports Headliners to name the teams he believes will win state tournament titles this week. His predicted champs are: Class 4A Champlin Park; Class 3A DeLaSalle; Class 2A Minnehaha Academy; and Class 1A Minneapolis North. His runner-ups, starting with Class 4A, are Apple Valley, Marshall, Crosby-Ironton and Goodhue.

A grand opening ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration is scheduled today at MSP International Airport to introduce the new Minnesota Twins sports bar and restaurant. Twins Grill is located in Concourse C of Terminal 1, and displays memorabilia and graphics recognizing the franchise’s past and present. The 220-seat restaurant offers traditional ballpark food and local craft beers.

Commissioner Bill Robertson and other leaders of the Edina-based WCHA were elated last Saturday when the league’s championship playoff game between Bowling Green and Michigan Tech drew a capacity crowd of 4,466 in Houghton, Michigan. Tech won the game in an electric atmosphere that represented a stark contrast to past years when the WCHA’s playoff title game was hosted in large venues like the Xcel Energy Center in front of meager crowds.

“I have watched a lot of professional, college and high school games, but that environment was one of the best I have ever seen,” said Robertson, who celebrated his 56th birthday yesterday.

George Stewart, the former Vikings wide receivers coach, now is special teams coordinator and assistant head coach with the Chargers. After about 34 years as an assistant coach in college and the NFL, Stewart still thinks about becoming a head coach. “I have a burning desire to do that at some point,” he told Sports Headliners Monday.

Stewart is 58 and head coaches are usually younger, but he mentioned Mike Zimmer was the same age when the Vikings hired him in 2014 as their football boss. Stewart said he wants an NFL head position, and the only head job in college that interested him was at his alma mater, Arkansas.

Stewart worked 10 seasons for the Vikings before deciding earlier this year to move on. When Stewart was a young coach with the 49ers, the legendary Bill Walsh told him 10 years was often long enough for an assistant to stay with one organization. An assistant coach’s instructions can become stale in talking with players after a long period, Stewart said, while explaining why he left the Vikings.

It doesn’t look like Chad Greenway, the newly retired Viking linebacker, is in any rush to decide what’s next in his life. Another former Vikings linebacker, Scott Studwell, told Sports Headliners he would advise Greenway to take six months to consider his future.

Condolences to Greenway and his family after the death last week of grandfather Michael Schoenfelder from Mount Vernon, South Dakota.

 

Pitino to Face another Prove-It Year

March 20, 2017 - 1 Comment

 

Gophers basketball has often been so bad in the new millennium it has caused all but the most optimistic fans to have minimal expectations. That has everything to do with why Minnesota’s breakthrough year in 2017 has been received with such enthusiasm and appreciation. Going from a 2-16 Big Ten Conference record in 2016, to 11-7 this year is encouraging, but future optimism will plunge if coach Richard Pitino can’t build on this winter’s unexpected success.

Minnesota has just three winning records in the Big Ten since the 2000-2001 season. This year Pitino and his players earned a third place finish in the conference, the best work in the new century for the program (the Gophers’ previous best was a 10-6 fourth place finish in 2005). Often Minnesota has ranked among either the Big Ten’s most mediocre or worst teams.

Richard Pitino

The Gophers 11-7 league mark and overall 24-10 record resulted in an invitation to the NCAA Tournament—only the fifth for the program in the last 17 years. The turnaround season was reportedly the best among NCAA teams. This month brought a wall-full of awards from the Big Ten, with Pitino honored as coach of the year and four players recognized for their achievements.

But a year from now Gophers fans will feel down if the team isn’t turning in a report card at least equal to this season. Give the Gophers a B+ or A- for their work in 2016-2017, but ambitions need to go beyond one season, and target success next year and for those following.

The standard for consistency is right next door—just four-plus hours away by car. In Madison there is no doubt each year the Badgers are going to have a winning record, be in the mix for the conference championship, and spend March competing in the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers have finished fourth or higher in the league standings every season since 2001-2002.

It appears the Gophers have the coaches and players to be better next season. The nucleus is even present to create optimism about the team two years from now. Pitino, 35, is still the youngest head coach in power-five college basketball. He has experienced highs and lows in four seasons at Minnesota but has been here long enough now to put a program in place that should annually be consistent and successful.

Pitino made a smart move when during the last offseason he hired former Tulane head coach Ed Conroy, 50, as one of his assistants. Conroy has been a college coach, either as an assistant or head man, since 1990. His presence and experience complements Pitino and the rest of the staff including East Coast recruiting specialist Kimani Young.

Pitino used an eight-player rotation this season and all of those players return next season except for senior guard Akeem Springs who was the team’s fourth leading scorer. That scoring absence could be filled and then some by incoming freshman guard Isaiah “Jelly” Washington, a flashy point producer and playmaker. Close observers will watch to see how the four-star player from New York City fits in with his teammates.

The Gophers played with camaraderie-plus last season. Their teamwork, including a willingness to share the basketball, was one of the key reasons for success. If there were chemistry problems, they must have been minor because on the court the Gophers were a band of brothers. Neither Washington, nor any other player on the roster will be expected to deviate from the togetherness model next winter.

Washington’s presence likely will make the Gophers stronger in at least two ways. First, except for team leading scorer Nate Mason, the Gophers didn’t have a “go-to” closer at the end of games. Second, a must-do for Pitino and staff next season is to develop a quality bench that is three or four players deep. Washington could be an explosive contributor off the bench and join a group of much improved returnees and reserves from last season.

Much more will be expected of reserve forward-center Eric Curry in his second season at Minnesota. He had defensive lapses this winter and sometimes looked flustered at both ends of the court, but he has the potential to be an outstanding all-around player. Others who figure to contribute off the bench include forward Michael Hurt who as a sophomore next fall might be among the team’s best shooters and center Bakary Konate who as a senior needs to play with more on-court savvy.

And then there is junior forward Davonte Fitzgerald who sat out last season because of a major knee injury. The transfer from Texas A&M could come off the bench, or become a starter and give the Gophers a starting lineup with four players who are 6-6 or taller. That development most likely would push Dupree McBrayer to the bench and a reserve role that he played effectively at times last season.

Minnesota’s starters in its final two games were McBrayer and Mason at guards, Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey at forwards, and Reggie Lynch at center. If Fitzgerald becomes a starter, one scenario might have Coffey, who made the All-Big Ten Freshman team, switching to guard.

Amir Coffey

Another option might be to have Coffey coming off the bench as a super sub, and perhaps the best at that role in the Big Ten. The 6-8 Coffey is the team’s most versatile player and could become the most valuable performer on the roster with all the things he can do. His improvement might include developing into the team’s preferred closer in tight games.

Having Mason back as a senior scorer and playmaker is a big plus. While he is no dazzler passing the ball and finding open teammates, the first team All-Big selection makes few ball handling mistakes and will again be among Minnesota’s top outside shooters. McBrayer is Minnesota’s best player at slashing toward the basket and creating his own shot. As a junior he should continue the improvement of his first two seasons.

Lynch, as a junior transfer from Illinois State, set a school record for blocked shots and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Murphy, who made third team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, helped spark an eight-game conference win streak with his rebounding and inside scoring.

But for the Gophers to be better next season, they will need Lynch and Murphy to avoid the foul problems that too often had them sitting on the bench. Without those two on the floor the Gophers were a different team, as their one and done NCAA Tournament game loss to Middle Tennessee State showed. Different defensively, without Lynch and Murphy guarding the basket, and also missing the inside scoring of the two.

In the Middle Tennessee State game the Gophers lost 81-72. In the team’s prior game, Minnesota lost 84-77 to Michigan in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. In those high scoring losses the Gophers perimeter defense was exposed. That has to be fixed next season, and combined with Lynch patrolling the inside could make Minnesota’s defense special.

With so much talent and experience returning, Minnesota is a potential preseason selection for a top 25 national ranking. Publicity is okay but results are better and the Gophers, who were among the younger teams in college basketball last season, should be determined not to be a one-year wonder. To do that Pitino and staff will need to excel at player development.  And the players must build on their strengths and minimize weaknesses, while continuing to keep the identity of a group that does so many things well.

All that will be another step in establishing a program—not just a season.

 

Gopher Lapses Bring End to Season

March 17, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Talk about avoiding foul trouble is the easy part. Doing it is often difficult. Just ask the Gophers who lost their NCAA Tournament opening game yesterday in Milwaukee, 81-72 to Middle Tennessee State.

Gophers center Reggie Lynch and power forward Jordan Murphyhave experienced foul problems in games this year. Earlier this week Murphy was asked about avoiding fouls and staying on the court, not heading to the bench because of concern regarding a third, fourth or fifth infraction. “I think me and Reggie both have to do a better job of just feeling out the refs and what they’re going to call, and how they’re going to let us play,” Murphy said Tuesday.

The Gophers, a No. 5 seed, trailed only by six points at halftime yesterday against the No. 12 seed Blue Raiders. About four minutes into the second half, Murphy, Lynch, and Eric Curry—a key backup at power forward and center—were all in foul trouble. Lynch, who sat out the final eight minutes of the first half because of two fouls, picked up his third within the first two minutes of the second half. The foul came on an unnecessary reach in, and was Lynch’s second misguided foul of the game.

After leading 37-31 at halftime, the Blue Raiders, with Lynch on the bench, raced to a 52-38 lead by 15:31 of the second half.

Lynch came into the game second among NCAA players in blocks. He sent a message in the opening minutes that he was going to be a force inside and the Gophers got off to a 7-0 lead. But after awhile Lynch was benched because of fouls and his replacement, Curry, got lost on defense and allowed easy layups.

Richard Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Gophers coach Richard Pitino expressed disappointment with Lynch and the total defensive effort on his postgame radio show. “We didn’t have our defense the way it needed to be,” Pitino said on 1500 ESPN. “Reggie, we needed him in the game. He gets that third foul just inexplicably. So we ran out of gas, but we just were not guarding. … They’re a very good team. Give them credit.”

The Blue Raiders, a tourney bracket-buster favorite after opening game upsets the last two years against Michigan State and Minnesota, shot the ball impressively, surprised with their rebounding, and at times confounded the Gophers with a half court trap defense. The Blue Raiders also showed off a roster of players with length and multiple skills.

Former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher, who had picked Minnesota to win, was impressed with the Blue Raiders after the game. “They really execute in their half court offense,” Dutcher told Sports Headliners. “Once they got in rhythm, we couldn’t stop them.”

The foul trouble, Dutcher acknowledged, was a major factor in Minnesota’s loss. “When you take your shot blocker out, it makes a heck of a difference,” he said.

The fouls on Lynch, Murphy and Curry changed not only how the team performed, but how those three could play. Foul trouble impacts team assignments and substitutions. It changes aggressiveness, how players can guard and willingness to help teammates. Sometimes it impacts final game results, as was true yesterday.

It was a season of runs for the Gophers including both a five-game Big Ten losing streak and a stretch of eight league wins in a row. In the Big Ten tournament Minnesota got an opening win over Michigan State but a troubling defensive effort against Michigan resulted in an 84-77 loss.

Minnesota finishes with a 24-10 record and those numbers do shine compared with last year’s 8-23 total. With a rebound year and almost the entire roster of players returning next fall, Dutcher suggested that while yesterday’s loss “stings,” it needs to be kept in perspective.

Worth Noting

Pitino’s contract has multiple NCAA Tournament incentives. He earned $50,000 for having his team invited to the tourney and would have received $50,000 more if the Gophers qualified for the Sweet 16. A Final Four spot for the Gophers would pay him $50,000, with $100,000 rewarded for winning the national championship.

There is a small photo of Gophers guard Nate Mason on this week’s Sports Illustrated collage cover of various NCAA players—“March Madness ’17, Where’s Your Team?”

Tournament teams pore over scouting reports and game films of their opponents but there’s little preparation for specific referees and their styles of officiating. The officials aren’t known to teams until 30 minutes prior to tipoff.

A spokesman for the Gophers athletic department said the University of Minnesota received and sold 450 tickets from the NCAA for South Region games in Milwaukee. Tickets are priced at $152 to $200, and they admit patrons to two rounds of basketball. The NCAA doesn’t offer student tickets for its men’s NCAA Tournament games.

Conference USA-based Middle Tennessee State isn’t exactly a University of Minnesota rival, but the two schools meet in football September 16 at TCF Bank Stadium. The first game ever between the programs was in 2010 in Murfreesboro, with the second meeting in 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota is 2-0 against the Blue Raiders.

The Winthrop team Butler defeated yesterday in a South Region game has a roster that includes brothers and Duluth natives Anders Broman and Bjorn Broman. Both are guards, with Bjorn usually a starter.

Dick Jonckowski

Dick Jonckowski, who retired this month after 31 seasons as the Gopher public address announcer at Williams Arena, is doing P.A. work this week for the girls’ state basketball tournament and will work the boys’ tourney next week.

Former Timberwolves basketball boss David Kahn is a potential candidate for the UNLV athletic director job, according to an online story last Tuesday by Mark Anderson with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Eric Musselman, the son of former Wolves and Gophers head coach Bill Musselman, has re-invented himself as a college coach. Musselman coached in the NBA from 1998-2007 but now as head coach at Nevada had the Wolf Pack in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years. Nevada lost its tourney opener last night to Iowa State.

Retiring linebacker Chad Greenway of the Vikings will help lead 10,000 volunteers working the February 4, 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

There will be 300 feet of security surrounding U.S. Bank Stadium for the game, with between 100,000 and 130,000 out of town visitors expected, according to a source helping with planning. Nicollet Mall will be a major site of pre-Super Bowl game attractions, with eight to 10 blocks of activities.

Byron Buxton is listed No. 10 among 10 MLB players who could have breakout seasons in 2017, according to a March 8 story by Fansided.com. The article said the Twins rushed Buxton to the big leagues but the athletic center fielder has the potential to hit 30 doubles, 10 triples, 20 home runs and steal 30 bases.

Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens will be among the more interesting and entertaining speakers at the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Clinic March 30-April 1. Teevens has been a guest on the “Late Show” with Stephen Colbert. Since modifying Dartmouth practices to reduce injuries, Teevens’ teams are 21-9 and shared the Ivy League championship in 2015.

Teevens will speak at the DoubleTree Hotel in St. Louis Park the night of March 30. More information is available about the clinic by clicking on the MFCA advertisement on this page and visiting the organization’s website.

 

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