It might be anyone’s guess whether Nate Mason’s injured left ankle allows him to play Wednesday night against Illinois but ESPN basketball authority Fran Fraschilla is clear about the senior point guard’s importance to the Gophers.
Mason hurt his ankle December 23 and didn’t dress for last Saturday’s game with Harvard. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said recently he didn’t know about Mason’s availability for Illinois.
The Gophers, 1-1 in Big Ten competition so far, have both Illinois and Indiana (Saturday) at home before playing four of their five following games on the road. Without Mason, the likelihood of two wins this week diminishes and could be difficult.
“If he’s not the best point guard in the Big Ten, it’s a very short list and he’s on it,” Fraschilla told Sports Headliners by telephone Sunday. “To have him return as quickly and healthy as possible is critical.”
Without Mason, freshman Isaiah Washington started at point guard against Harvard. The 6-foot-1, 160-pound Washington hustled for a team-leading 13 rebounds and was effective defensively, but he had only two assists and made just four of 17 field goal attempts.
Washington’s shooting (34 percent made field goals) and decision making with the basketball have frequently been disappointing through the first 15 games of the season. There have been high expectations about Washington after he became one of the nation’s most acclaimed point guards while playing at St. Raymond’s in New York City.
Fraschilla watched the former state of New York Mr. Basketball in AAU basketball even before he arrived in Minneapolis. Fraschilla said it’s typical of a talented freshman to be struggling early on in his career. “Just trying to do too much and not yet understanding that he has to value the ball and shot selection a little bit more than he did on the AAU circuit—and that will come.”
But if Mason can’t play tomorrow night (or is sidelined longer), the Gophers have to hope Washington matures fast. In Mason’s absence, Pitino is likely to continue using Washington as his starting point guard. Even when Mason returns, Washington is all but certain to potentially be the highest impact player off the bench. Minnesota’s lack of depth is the team’s biggest weakness.
“He (Washington) now needs to understand that every possession in the Big Ten is going to be critical,” Fraschilla said. “One play can make or break your season. One great decision, or bad decision, can affect whether you help your team get to the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully that was the lesson coming out of nonconference play for him.”
The depth issue gives Fraschilla pause about Minnesota’s success this winter but he likes the skills of several players including the shot-blocking of both center Reggie Lynch and power forward Jordan Murphy. Murphy also has 15 consecutive double-doubles in points and rebounds this season.
By Saturday night he could have the most NCAA consecutive games of double-doubles to start a season since Tim Duncan in 1996-1997. ”I became a really big fan of his early in the year when he got off to such a great start,” said Fraschilla who thinks Murphy can be named a first-team All-Big Ten player this year.
The Gophers were 7-0 and ranked in the top 15 nationally when Fraschilla was the ESPN analyst doing their game with Miami. Since losing to the Hurricanes, Minnesota has dropped out of the top 25 rankings and hasn’t looked like the same team that had impressive early wins against Providence and Alabama.
Minnesota’s other starting guard Dupree McBrayer was injured and missed the Miami game. That forced Washington into the starting lineup alongside Mason. Washington scored 14 points but made some mistakes, including five turnovers, that contributed to the loss. Bench players totaled two rebounds, no points and no assists against No. 10 ranked Miami.
Depth was a concern even before the season because sophomore forward Eric Curry is out until next fall following ACL surgery on his left knee. The 6-9 Curry showed during his freshman season while averaging over five points and five rebounds that he was going to be an impact player coming off the bench and Minnesota’s best sub.
Prior to the Miami game there was talk the Gophers might challenge Michigan State for the Big Ten title and Minnesota looked like the league’s No. 2 team. Fraschilla thinks the Gophers still can finish high in the conference standings and earn their way into the NCAA Tournament. “I would say right now they still have a chance in my mind to be the third best team (after Michigan State and Purdue) in the conference,” he said.
Whether Minnesota can equal or better last season’s 11-7 Big Ten record will have much to do with Mason’s injured ankle. Fraschilla refers to Mason, who was all-Big Ten last season, as the team’s “catalyst.”
“You can’t ask a team that doesn’t have the depth that the Gophers have, and are trying to break in a talented but erratic freshman point guard, to play without their team leader for very long,” Fraschilla said.
Shorn Morris, the Big Ten Network analyst who was at Williams Arena for the Harvard game, also sees Minnesota as the league’s third best team behind Michigan State and Purdue. The upcoming games with Illinois (0-2, 10-5) and Indiana (1-1, 8-6) will tell more about the Gophers but he’s not ready to label them must-win opportunities.
“I think it’s really important (to win those games), especially when let’s not forget they’re already 1-1,” Morris told Sports Headliners last weekend. “They dropped a road game at Nebraska. You want to make sure you take care of the two…home games here.”
With one regular season game remaining today and the playoffs ahead, quarterback Case Keenum—a humble 29-year-old NFL journeyman—is now a power player for not only the fate of the Vikings but his own future.
The Vikings, who likely will defeat the Bears Sunday, can finish with an unexpected and impressive 13-3 regular season record. They will then have a first round bye and be among the favorites to earn their way to the February 4 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
Head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is holding NFL opponents to league bests of 280.9 yards per game and 16.1 points. The unit excels against both the run and pass. There are terrific playmakers on the line and beyond the line of scrimmage. Tackle Linval Joseph is a “wall” to run against, while end Everson Griffen ranks with the league’s top pass rushers and sackers. Linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith are standouts, too.
Zimmer is a master at defensive game preparations. His schemes, along with the execution of the players, can have opponents frustrated whether trying to pass or run. Opponents can be forced into costly turnovers and sometimes the Vikings turn those miscues into points.
It’s expecting a lot, though, for the defense to carry the Vikings through two wins in the playoffs and on to the Super Bowl. Certainly the offense must not only avoid giving opponents points with fumbles and interceptions, but also at times that unit must sustain drives resulting in field goals and touchdowns.
The Vikings have a good—not great—offensive team. The rebuilt line, led by new acquisitions from last year, is solid. Pass catchers Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen are enjoying exceptional years. The power-speed combo of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon has more than made up for the departure of Adrian Peterson at running back.
All of which leads back to Keenum, the spring of 2017 free agent newcomer who apparently no one, including the Vikings, wanted to be their starting quarterback. But the Vikings had no choice other than to promote expected backup Keenum to starter when starter Sam Bradford was lost for the season with a left knee injury early in the season. Keenum, who never established himself as a No. 1 quarterback with the Texans and Rams, has been Mr. Super Sub leading the Vikings to 10 wins in 13 games.
Keenum has completed an NFL fourth-best 67.3 percent of his passes, while throwing for 21 touchdowns, and has just seven interceptions. His career-high 98.1 passer rating is among the best in the league.
He has also extended plays and made them successful with his scrambling. He senses when tacklers are closing in and often avoids them. At maybe 6-feet tall, he is short enough to duck under pass rushers and sometimes run for first downs. NBC TV analyst Cris Collinsworth referred to Keenum’s escapes from tackles as Houdini-like in last week’s win over the Packers.
Keenum’s mobility has impressed offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “…Typically, if you’re going to drive the ball against these good defenses, somewhere in a long scoring drive, the quarterback has to do something with his feet,” Shurmur said. “He’s been able to do that.”
Shurmur is highly regarded as an offensive coordinator who has been successful with Bradford and now Keenum. While Keenum’s ascension to a place among the NFL’s more productive quarterbacks is surprising, it’s not inexplicable. In college at the University of Houston he became the NCAA all-time leading career passer with 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns. But he had a less than successful NFL Combine and was considered suspect because of his height, going undrafted by league teams and signing with the Texans as a free agent.
Keenum had a bias against him coming into the pros. The two NFL teams he played with prior to joining the Vikings—the Texans and Rams—were struggling to become winners and never committed to Keenum, who at 29 is more experienced and mature than he was with those franchises.
Keenum’s performances in the Vikings playoff games could well determine whether Minnesota wins twice and makes history by being the first NFL team ever to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The stakes couldn’t be higher in January for he and the Vikings.
If Keenum leads the offense successfully he seems a cinch to be the team’s quarterback next season. The Vikings are paying him a reported $2 million and he has never performed before like a quarterback who deserves much higher compensation. He is a free agent after this season and could be in position to leverage something like a multi-year deal for $15 million per year.
What Keenum must not implode in the playoffs so that later he can negotiate for the big money and the security a new contract will deliver. Even if the Vikings lose on their way to the Super Bowl, he remains in a strong negotiating position with the Vikings if he avoids a disastrous game performance.
Bradford and Bridgewater are also free agents after this season but they don’t have anywhere near the leverage for new deals that Keenum does. Bradford is 30 years old with a history of knee problems including ACL surgeries. The Vikings reportedly are paying him $18 million this season. There is some speculation Bradford will decide to retire after this season.
Bridgewater, 25, suffered a horrific knee injury about 16 months ago and it’s still not known whether he can resume his career as a fulltime starter, or even effective sub. He gushes positivity and is a hit in the locker room. In a popularity contest, he probably would be voted the starter. But in the real world Bridgewater, who reportedly earns about $2 million on his present deal, has to decide how much he can command in the open market next year in money and potential playing time, with teams like the Browns and Redskins perhaps interested.
It seems unlikely the Vikings will offer Bridgewater a big contract, even if Keenum disappoints in the playoffs. A complete flop by Keenum seems unlikely since both his leadership and play have been so steady this season. His worst outing was his first game as a starter. He had a passer rating of 65.9 with no touchdown passes, but he’s been a lot more productive since that game against the Steelers September 17.
It will be known soon whether Keenum delivers for the Vikings and himself. He has evolved into a team MVP candidate and widely distanced himself from Bradford and Bridgewater who because of past injuries and inactivity are risky bets. Maybe Keenum will turnout to be a one-year wonder but right now he appears to be the Vikings’ best choice for the 2018 season.
How is everyone’s holiday season? Just sitting around this week? While you huddle near the fireplace, space heater or stove, consider testing your knowledge with this year-end Minnesota Vikings Holiday Trivia Quiz?
Earn a nifty score and impress your friends at a New Year’s party. No party plans? Well, take the quiz anyway. The following 20 questions could be a nice diversion from playing Solitaire.
Score 16 or more correct answers and qualify as a consultant for future quizzes. Answer 12 to 15 right and I am still impressed. Get half correct, or fewer? Well, as they say in sports, “There’s always next year.”
Here are the questions, with the answers following after question No. 20. Later your hands might be quivering from the cold weather, but send an email and let me know your score.
1. If the Vikings win Sunday against the Bears, Minnesota’s final regular season record will be 13-3. What year did the Vikings last lose only three games or fewer in a season?
2. Who are the three teams that have defeated the Vikings during the 2017 regular season?
3. Name the Vikings players invited to participate in the 2018 Pro Bowl in Orlando.
4. Wide receiver Adam Thielen, 27, is having a breakout season for his home state team. Name the Minnesota town where he was a four-sport prep athlete.
5. What’s the name of the Vikings’ practice facility and front office headquarters in Eden Prairie?
6. How many surgeries has Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer had on his right eye?
7. Name the Viking offensive coordinator who resigned his position during the 2016 season.
8. Who was the Viking that tackled Aaron Rodgers and the hit resulted in a broken collarbone for the Packers’ great quarterback?
9. The Vikings have two starters and one reserve that played college football at Notre Dame. Can you name the three players?
10. Since the franchise’s first season in 1961, the Vikings have played the majority of their home regular season games at Met Stadium and in the Metrodome. Name the other facilities in Minnesota where they have played during the regular season.
11. What was the final score last Saturday night when the Vikings defeated the Packers in Green Bay?
12. After Vikings long snapper Kevin McDermott was injured during the Packers game, who took over his duties?
13. Where did Vikings’ quarterback Case Keenum play his college football?
14. The Wilf family has owned the Vikings since 2005. Who did the Wilfs purchase the franchise from?
15. What is Bud Grant’s real name?
16. Back in October the Vikings defeated the Bears 20-17 in Chicago. How many times have the Vikings won in their last 10 games at Soldier Field?
17. When the Vikings defeated the Redskins this season, how many different players scored touchdowns for Minnesota?
18. Sam Bradford’s knee has been the subject of much angst this fall. Is it the left or right knee that has been so troublesome?
19. This ex-Viking punter is heard on the team’s gameday radio broadcasts and shows. Who is he?
20. A former Vikings first round draft choice, this athlete also played baseball for the New York Mets. Who is he?
Trivia Quiz Answers
1. Who could forget (hopefully not you) that the 1998 Vikings went 15-1 during the regular season before “crashing” in the NFC title game at the Metrodome.
2. The 2017 Vikings have been defeated by the Steelers, 26-19; the Lions, 14-7; and the Panthers, 31-24. They have won 10 of their last 11 games heading into Sunday’s season-closing game against the Bears.
3. Linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wide receiver Adam Thielen are the four Vikings selected for the Pro Bowl. Admirers of safety Harrison Smith lie awake at night trying to figure out how he was left out.
4. Thielen’s home town is Detroit Lakes, Minnesota where he played football, basketball, baseball and golf. Three other native Minnesotans on the Vikings roster are wide receiver Michael Floyd, fullback C.J. Ham and kick return specialist Marcus Sherels.
5. Winter Park is the name of the team’s practice facility and front office headquarters. The Vikings will move into a new state-of-the-art complex in Eagan next year.
6. Mike Zimmer has reportedly had eight surgeries on his right eye in the last 12-plus months. A difficult ordeal, but he’s a tough guy.
7. With the Vikings offensive struggling in November of 2016, Norv Turner resigned as offensive coordinator. Assistant tight ends coach Pat Shurmur was promoted to coordinator, and this year his name is mentioned for possible 2018 head coaching vacancies in the NFL.
8. It was, of course, Anthony Barr who made the now infamous tackle on Rodgers that has sidelined him for most of the season. This was a “layup” answer so presumably most everyone scored a point.
9. The three former “Golden Domers” are wide receiver Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph and safety Harrison Smith. All are 28 years old and were teammates in South Bend.
10. You are a Purple trivia genius if you got this one correct. The answer is TCF Bank Stadium (2014 and 2015 seasons), U.S. Bank Stadium (2016 to present) and Memorial Stadium. The Vikings were forced to play one regular season game at the University of Minnesota’s old Memorial Stadium in 1969 because of a scheduling conflict at Met Stadium.
11. I am guessing that five years from now a lot of Vikings fans will still remember Minnesota dominated the Packers last Saturday night in a 16-0 win. Christmas came early for all Green Bay-hating Vikings fans.
12. Kevin McDermott’s replacement was David Morgan, a backup tight end and the reserve long snapper. Morgan got the job done without a miscue at Green Bay.
13. Case Keenum was an NCAA record-setting quarterback at the University of Houston where his coaches included former Gopher wide receiver Tony Levine who was assistant head coach of the Cougars.
14. Red McCombs, who made his fortune in the car business in Texas, sold the Vikings in 2005 for a reported $625 million after purchasing the franchise for supposedly $250 million about seven years earlier. McCombs used to preach that the Metrodome had “the loudest fans in the NFL.” Would you buy a used car from this man?
15. The legendary former Vikings head coach has been known as Bud for most of his 90 years but his real name is Harry Peter Grant.
16. The Vikings’ win at Soldier Field this fall was only the team’s second in the last 10 games there. The other victory was in 2015.
17. Five Vikings scored touchdowns in the team’s 38-30 win against the Redskins. That is the second highest total in team history.
18. Sam Bradford set an NFL record for completion percentage last season after being acquired by the Vikings but this year his troublesome left knee has kept him sidelined for all but two games.
19. Greg Coleman, who punted for the Vikings from 1978-87, is heard on gamedays giving his analysis including his “Sunday Sermon” where he mixes Biblical and football metaphors.
20. Ouch. I couldn’t resist ending with a difficult question. D.J. Dozier, a former Penn State running back drafted No. 1 by the Vikings in 1987, later played outfield for the New York Mets.