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Coach Ben Johnson’s Job Safe for Now

February 05, 2023 - 1 Comment

 

The Gophers have been playing Big Ten basketball for over 115 years. A last place finish this winter in the Big Ten standings (all but certain) will be the program’s second straight in the basement.

That’s never happened before but the 2023 Gophers are historically bad. They have one conference win after last night’s embarrassing 81-46 loss to Maryland—the largest margin of defeat ever for a Minnesota Big Ten home game.

No Gopher team since World War II has won only one conference game. Minnesota’s record is 7-15 overall, 1-11 in league games and the Gophers are stumbling through a seven game Big Ten losing streak.

There are eight games remaining on the regular season schedule and the Gophers are expected to lose them all.  They might not but Minnesota faces an ambitious challenge trying to match last season’s dismal 4-16 conference record.

The results of head coach Ben Johnson’s first two seasons leading the program are painful and they substantiate concerns of critics about his hire as a former college assistant with no experience leading a program. But let’s be clear: he is going to be the Gopher head coach for the foreseeable future.

How long? If Johnson directs the program into a competitive position where the Gophers are contending annually for upper-level positioning in the standings, he will be a hero and working in Dinkytown indefinitely.  But if the program can’t come out of the abyss by next winter, then athletic director Mark Coyle could be thinking one additional trial year for the 42-year-old Minneapolis native.

It’s delusional to think Johnson will be terminated after this season.  The cost to buyout his contract after two years is almost $8 million.  The buyout amount (calculated on remaining years of his $1,950,000 annual salary) is reduced by 25 percent, 50 precent and 75 percent after years three, four and five respectively.

Also, Coyle doesn’t do knee-jerk reactions with coaches he hires.  Patience with men’s basketball will be the mantra for a while. This comes in an environment where interest in the program has reached apathy status and program revenues are light years from their potential in an athletic department that counts on basketball to be a cash cow to help the budgets of other sports.

Ben Johnson

Johnson’s supporters argue he has a difficult task with a program rebuild.  Previous coach Richard Pitino was fired after the 2020-2021 season, with his last team producing a 6-14 Big Ten record. Only once in eight seasons did Pitino win more than half of his conference games.

Johnson didn’t want to or couldn’t retain key leftover personnel in center Liam Robbins, and guards Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur. Collectively, their talent surpasses any Johnson and staff have brought to town so far.

In the college sports transfer portal era, there is more potential than ever to successfully remake a roster in a hurry.  Johnson scored with transfers Jamison Battle and Payton Willis in 2021, and with Dawson Garcia last offseason, but overall has come up short in filling needs.

So far players coming in from high school haven’t been difference makers.  The present freshmen class is the first one Johnson and his assistants had a head start in recruiting.  The first-year group is an athletic bunch but on the court they lack cohesiveness, judgment and scoring skills.

Forward-center Pharrel Payne is 6-foot-9, the other three freshmen are 6-4 to 6-7 and are also similar in offensive abilities as shown so far.  Braeden Carrington, Jaden Henley and Joshua Ola-Joseph look athletic driving to the basket but don’t convert consistently and show minimal outside shooting accuracy.

The roster not only lacks talent and experience, but the pieces don’t complement one another. The Gophers don’t excel at any aspect of play.  Offense, defense, rebounding and playmaking are all subpar. Even the free throw shooting is atrocious, with Minnesota making 60.9 percent of attempts and ranking No. 352 in the nation.

It’s dicey to question the effort of players but it’s easier to comment on focus and mental lapses.  In last night’s debacle the Gophers made one of their 16 turnovers when they errored (against no pressure) inbounding the basketball after a made Maryland basket.  In another game, a Gopher player was backdoored three times for scores in less than 10 minutes of playing time.

As limited as the personnel is, the Gophers should be playing better than a team that has consecutive losses twice by 35 points and once by 20.  Questions can be asked about the impact of the coaching regarding ball movement, cuts to the basket, creating open shots, second chance points, offensive and defensive rebounding, minimizing turnovers, forcing turnovers, covering open spaces in the zone defense, defensive switches, lack of defensive intensity and team confidence.

Injuries have sidelined two Gophers, forwards Isaiah Ihnen and Parker Fox, for two consecutive seasons. Difficult to know what difference their presence would have made. Ihnen has averaged 3.1 points in two previous seasons.  Fox has yet to play Division I basketball after a high scoring Division II career.

As of late both Carrington and Dawson haven’t played because of injuries.  Dawson’s absence, as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, is significant but he could play as soon as Tuesday night at Illinois. With Dawson in the lineup the Gophers defeated Ohio State and had three league losses by a combined nine points.

Evans with Gopher fan Arnie Tietz.

For the more optimistic Gophers fans, it’s wait for next year mode. That’s when hyped center Dennis Evans and shooting guard Cameron Christie arrive. Evans, perhaps the best prep center in the country, will help the interior defense a lot and Christie, a prep sharpshooter, is a welcome addition to a team that can’t shoot straight (41.4 percent on field goals, ranking No. 315 nationally).

But like they say on Wall Street, there are no guarantees for the future.  In addition to Evans and Christie, the Gophers need to add more potentially effective players.  They also need to retain the ones they have, including Battle, Garcia and the current freshmen.

It’s been suggested the Gophers can’t win for awhile because the program is too low.  But it only takes a couple of the right players and the right coaching to throw the switch, though. Quick turnarounds happen every year in college basketball.

With Gophers fans wondering if this is the historically worst of Gopher basketball, positive changes can’t come soon enough.

 

Don’t Bet on Cook’s Future with Vikes

February 03, 2023 - (0) comments

 

Dalvin Cook has rushed for over 1,000 yards each of the last four seasons, but the 27-year-old may have played his last game for the Vikings as the club figures out how to manage the payroll.  For 2023 the franchise is currently projected to be more than $24 million over the salary cap as allowed by the NFL.

A league insider told Sports Headliners he would move on from the player and what he said was an  $11.8 million salary cap hit in 2022, and save $8 million in 2023.  Cook is one of the more expensive running backs in the NFL and the source calls him a “luxury” that the team can no longer afford.

Cook, who has often been sidelined with injuries, has played a lot of football during his six-year pro career.  He may no longer be the resource he once was.  Last season he played in four more games than the year prior, but he had only 15 more carries and 14 more total rushing yards.  His yards per carry of 4.4 was the lowest of his career.

Dalvin Cook photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings

The importance of running backs for the more successful NFL teams isn’t what it used to be. Some clubs aren’t paying high salaries to running backs including the 2023 Super Bowl Chiefs who start a seventh-round rookie.  The Vikings could replace Cook with a running back by committee approach led by veteran Alexander Mattison who is three years younger.

Vikings’ all-world receiver Justin Jefferson, now approaching his fourth season, has emerged as the bell cow on offense, replacing Cook. “He’s not the guy anymore on offense,” said the source.  “It’s Jefferson, and they gotta extend Jefferson.  Get a new deal for him.”

The source, who prominently worked in NFL front offices in the past and remains knowledgeable about the league, isn’t optimistic the Vikings could generate trade interest in Cook.  “If you could get a third (round pick) or something for Dalvin, that would be great but I don’t think they’re going to get it, and I think they’ll end up releasing him.”

The authority, speaking in an interview this morning on condition of anonymity, sees the Vikings also moving on from veteran linebacker Jordan Hicks as they figure out the salary cap that will be set at almost $225 million per team for 2023.  They could also be intent on downsizing deals with wide receiver Adam Thielen and safety Harrison Smith.

Jefferson is likely to become the NFL’s best paid wide receiver, with his cap hit perhaps reduced by receiving a large signing bonus.  The Vikings are also likely to extend quarterback Kirk Cousins who in 2023 will be in the last year of his deal expected to carry a salary cap hit of about $36 million.

If Cousins isn’t offered a one-year extension, it won’t send a positive message to the 34-year-old or the team. Last season he led the offense to eight comeback victories in Minnesota’s 13-win season.

The source quoted above doesn’t buy into fan interest for sending Cousins to the 49ers for either of two inexperienced quarterbacks (Trey Lance or Brock Purdy), plus perhaps a draft choice. “I think it would weaken the Vikings because I don’t think those guys at this stage of their careers are nearly as good as Kirk,” he said.

It’s believed that by extending Cousins, the Vikings could save about $15 million with the salary cap for 2023.  That’s significant for a franchise looking for creative ways to stay within the cap.

The source expects either Ejiro Evero from the Broncos or Brian Flores from the Steelers to be the new defensive coordinator. He thinks head coach Kevin O’Connell wants to continue the 3-4 defensive scheme used by fired coordinator Ed Donatell but will be anticipating more blitzing and pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Schemes, of course, can be an asset but there is also consensus the Vikings need to upgrade their defensive personnel.

That includes a new deal to keep defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson and figuring out linebacker Za’Darius Smith.  Smith was an elite sacks and tackles for loss performer for the first part of the season, but a knee issue changed his productivity.

Worth Noting

Gophers All-American center John Michael Schmitz plays in the 74th Senior Bowl Saturday and will draw evaluation from NFL teams including the Vikings. Garrett Bradbury, the Vikings’ center who missed several games last year with back problems, is a 2023 unrestricted free agent. The NFL Network will televise the Senior Bowl from Mobile, Alabama, with game time at 1:30 p.m. central.

Evan Hull, the former Maple Grove all-state running back, will also play in the Senior Bowl after choosing to leave Northwestern.  As a redshirt junior last fall he rushed for 913 yards on a 1-11 Northwestern team.

In the Rivals national listing of the top 150 prep basketball prospects for the class of 2023, Gopher signee Cameron Christie from Rolling Hills, Illinois is ranked No. 140, while another shooting guard, Taison Chatman from Totino-Grace, is at No. 40.  Chatman is a verbal commit to Ohio State.

The Gophers’ other 2023 signee, Dennis Evans, the 7-foot-1 center from Riverside, California, is ranked No. 11 and only one prep center is rated higher.

Minneapolis native Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, was featured recently in a New York Times story.  He is missing his rookie season while rehabbing from offseason foot injury. Author David Gardner reported Thunder coach Mark Daigneault gave Holmgren a book from a Holocaust survivor to help him cope.

Michael Fulmer, who the Twins acquired last season from the Tigers, remains an unsigned free agent after posting a 3.39 ERA with the two teams in 2022. The right-handed reliever could fill a need for the 2023 Twins but be aware left-handed hitters hit .337 against him last season while he held right-handed batters to a .188 average, per stats from Baseballreference.com.

Former Minnesota slugger Miguel Sano, released by the Twins last year, seems like a potential fit in Japanese baseball but is still hoping to catch the interest of an MLB team.

Cory Provus, Twins radio play-by-play voice who stays busy in the baseball offseason working football and basketball games for the Big Ten Network, is the latest guest on the Behind the Game public access TV program with co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson. The Chicago native, who has been with the Twins since 2012, is a graduate of the renowned S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0C10RLkOnMQ

Jack Larson, the longtime GM at Xcel Energy Center, is no longer in that role, with Jim Ibister the interim replacement.

I am speaking to the CORES lunch group Thursday, March 9 at the Bloomington Event Center.  Organizer Jim Dotseth will be sending out a meeting notification to past CORES attendees later in the month.  Reservations can be made by emailing dotsethj@comcast.net.  CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

Randy Shaver, the KARE-11 news anchor and former sportscaster with the station, has been tireless in efforts to encourage funding for cancer research including through high school football games (Tackle Cancer).  His annual Rush to the Cure event will be June 4 and 5.   https://randyshavercancerfund.org/events/rush-creek-golf-classic-gala/

 

Wolves Owner: KAT Return Not Imminent

February 01, 2023 - (0) comments

 

All-NBA Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t played in a game for the Timberwolves since November 28 because of a severe right calf strain.  The Timberwolves have 29 regular season games remaining and are intensely competing for favorable playoff positioning and home court advantage.

Initially there was thought that the Wolves’ forward-center, who was averaging 20.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in 21 games, could return in January.  Team owner Glen Taylor talked with Towns Monday and the 27-year-old veteran implied it will be another couple of weeks before he is ready to play.

Glen Taylor

Towns was named All-NBA Third team after last season when he averaged 24.6 points and 9.8 rebounds. “It can’t be soon enough for me,” Taylor told Sports Headliners about a KAT return.

Jordan McLaughlin, a key reserve at point guard, hasn’t played in a regular season game since December 9 because of a left calf injury. Taylor spoke to McLaughlin on Monday and the 26-year-old hopes to be back “within a week.”

McLaughlin’s return apparently will be prior to KAT’s.  “That’s what my understanding would be,” Taylor said.

The Wolves expect a sellout crowd tonight at Target Center to watch their game against the Warriors.  Taylor said both attendance and TV viewership are on the upswing in the New Year as the Wolves play better basketball.

The Wolves, 27-26, are eighth in the Western Conference ultra-competitive positioning for the playoffs that can change nightly.  The Warriors, 26-24, are fifth in the standings.

Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are expected to take over the majority share of ownership in the Wolves and WNBA Lynx in less than 12 months.  The two men are on an installment plan to purchase the teams from Taylor.

Although Lore and Rodriguez exercised in writing their option for a second payment in December, Taylor said payment won’t be made until March 28. “They requested that they could delay (from a December 31 payment date)…and I had written them back and said I’ll accept their new date.”

Does Taylor expect the ownership sale for $1.5 billion to eventually take place?  “Yes, I do,” he answered.

Remembering Ken Lien of Minnesota Mr. Basketball

The Minnesota basketball community lost a pioneer last week when Ken Lien, 72, passed away from blood cancer after being in hospice since November.  The longtime Bloomington resident loved basketball and for 40 years owned and chaired the Minnesota Mr. Basketball program, among the oldest such programs in the country annually recognizing the best prep player in the state.

”Outside of his love for his family, he loved going to a basketball game in any gym in the state and knowing probably half the people in the gym,” his son Jon wrote via email. “He truly had a love and passion for giving players opportunities through coaching, summer programs, and with Mr. Basketball.”

Ken Lien

Ken was a fan of this column and a friend for many years.  Two weeks ago, I texted this: “Ken, thinking about you and grateful for our friendship. We enjoyed a lot of conversations, storytelling, and exchange of information. The Sid (Hartman) stories were favorites. Those darn Gophers just can’t revive the glory days. Thank you for helping me with my column, my friend!”

Ken would have turned 73 on February 17, a birthday date he shared with wife Mary Kay. He also liked to remind others that the February 17 birthday club included basketball legend Michael Jordan and former Vikings coach Denny Green.

Heartfelt condolences to Mary Kay, sons Eric and Jon, and other family members. A memorial event will be held Monday at the Washburn-McReavy Bloomington Chapel with visitation at 10 a.m., services at 11 a.m. and lunch afterward.

Worth Noting

Wishing the best for Mike Wilkinson, who is battling pneumonia. He is the author of the coach Murray Warmath biography, The Autumn Warrior.

The No. 1 ranked Gopher men’s hockey team has played in front of five consecutive home sellout crowds.  Minnesota is second in the nation in attendance, averaging 8,980 per game and is behind only North Dakota’s 11,325.

Among Division I programs, the Gophers were third nationally in home attendance last season averaging 7,913, while trailing North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Two groups that support local sports, the Twin Cities Dunkers and the Capital Club, ironically both have programs next Wednesday.  At Interlachen Country Club Dunkers members will hear from University of St. Thomas sports leaders, including athletic director Phil Esten and multiple coaches as the Tommies progress in their second school year of Division I sports.

The Capital Club, meeting at Mendakota Country Club, will hear from five local women sports executives sharing their insights and success stories: Wendy Williams Blackshaw, Minnesota Sports and Events CEO & president; Meka Morris, Minnesota Twins executive vice president and chief revenue officer; Lara Juras, Minnesota Vikings executive vice president and chief people & culture officer; Carin Anderson, Minnesota Wild senior vice president; and Andrea Yoch, president and co-founder of Minnesota Aurora FC.

Happy 54th birthday today to former Gopher basketball player Walter Bond.

The University of Minnesota announced today that as part of her world tour, Beyoncé will perform July 20 at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Deacon’s Lodge near Brainerd is the choice for Minnesota’s top public golf course on the Men’s Journal list of the best in each of the 50 states. Best Golf Courses in America: The Top Courses in Every State (mensjournal.com)

 

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