Wednesday morning basketball fans in the Twin Cities will have a tough decision to make. Class AAAA or Class AAA? The options are very enticing as this Class AAA field looks exciting. Seven of the eight teams at state were rated amongst the top ten all year long and the other, Little Falls, is making their third straight appearance.
Little Falls won game their 20th game of the year last Thursday in amazing fashion. For the third straight year the Flyers defeated Apollo in the section final on a buzzer beating jumper. The previous two seasons Dan Kornbaum made the game winner, but this year Kornbaum just tied the game at 49 while Ethan Mustonen sent the Flyer fan base running on to the floor in mass hysteria with a 52-49 victory.
So the good news for Little Falls is they are back at state. The bad news is that once again they have been given a monster of a first round task. Two years ago they lost by 15 points to eventual runner-up St. Thomas Academy and last year they lost by 16 to third place finisher St. Paul Johnson. This year? They get state championship contender DeLaSalle who is 24-4 on the season and as physical as anybody in the tournament.
Guys like John Hertle, Walter Franklin, and LaMonte Hall are a pain to deal with defensively and they combine with the scorers to really make Dave Thorson's Islanders tick. Juniors Jonah Travis and Bretson McNeal average 19.6 and 10.0 points respectively while U of Mary signed wing Jalen Jaspers scores 18.6 points a game plus these guys know how to physically defend as well. Kornbaum will need to get 20 plus in this game and he will need outside help from Mustonen and Alex Scott.
The winner of the Flyer/Islander match-up will take on the winner of the Benilde-St. Margaret's and Grand Rapids contest. Many assume this is a simple Red Knight win but if that's your assumption than you need to do a little more homework. This is a Thunderhawk squad that has beaten Duluth East twice this year, they beat Staples-Motley, beat Cloquet three times, demolished Cass Lake-Bena, and defeated a good Superior (WI) team. At 27-2 their only losses are to other class AAA State Tournament teams Orono and DeLaSalle in games that were close for the most part.
Grand Rapids has two solid players in backcourt seniors Eric Stark and Michael Johnson, who also signed with University of Mary. The Thunderhawks also have some formidable size in Brian Akre and Kevin Rabbers plus the stud of their future in sophomore Austin Pohlen. Grand Rapids is good ut to win they will need all of those players and then some against the deep and talented Red Knights who enter the game at 24-5.
The Red Knights may use up to a ten man rotation that consists of four seniors, two juniors, and four sophomores. The senior leaders are the versatile Peter Crawford, headed to UMD next year and averaging 19.2 points a game, sharpshooter Seth Marx (scoring 13 a contest), and defensive minded Darren Glover. The inside is manned by junior Myles Brand and Evan Battle plus promising sophomore Kyle Washington who has worked his way into the rotation. The rest of the sophomore group plays on the wing including second leading scorer Isaiah Zeirden (16.2 a game), three point shooter Will Dunn, and athletic Sanjay Lumpkin who is the son of former Minnesota Gopher and New Orleans Saints defensive back Sean Lumpkin.
Moving to the other bracket it was Hutchinson who drew St. Paul Johnson in the first round. Hutch will not back down from the Governors using a versatile group led by junior Adam Hjelter and Brad Muckenhirm. These two are the leading scorers of a team that utilizes a ten man rotation and has seven guys averaging between 6.4 and 10.6 points a game. The 25-3 Tigers are a deep bunch and they will have to be to defeat the undefeated Governors.
Johnson can throw as many as 11 active and athletic athletes on the floor and the vast majority of them can harass from baseline to baseline. The highlighting name is point guard Estan Tyler who averages 13.8 points and 3.8 assists per game. When it comes to shooting Estan and sophomore Marcus Marshall (10.5 points a game) are the top options from behind the arc. On the glass Max Rosenbloom grabs 9.1 a game plus he scores 9.9 points on average. Senior Donte Warlick also takes care of the ball and he's one of the state's best passers. In slashers Johnson has the much improved Roosevelt Scott (10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds a game) and active Demitri Conwell (7.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.7 steals a game). And you can't forget the aggressive defense of junior Anthony Lee who leads the team in steals and is third in assists.
The winner of Hutch versus Johnson will face the Orono and Winona winner. Winona received the four seed after a 27-1 year that saw them go undefeated when seven footer Alec Brown was on the floor. Brown teams with 6-foot-7 junior forward Mark Blacklock to give the Winhawks one of the most dominating frontcourts in the state of Minnesota. Winona only gave up 43.9 points a game this year meaning they had the stingiest defense of any team in class AAA or class AAAA basketball.
So Winona has the size but Orono has the guards. The Spartans will try and spread the floor and let junior sharp shooter Jordan Smith and company go to work. Smith averaged 22.3 points per game this season while teammates Brady Wohler and Jeremy Borg pitch in another ten points a night. After their top three scorers Orono has another six guys who score between four and six points a game and most of them are still line-up regulars.
Will the Winhawks have the guards who can take care of the basketball as well as slow down Smith and Wohler? Will Orono's high disadvantage (Borg is about 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 but after that Orono is 6-foot-3 or smaller) compared to Winona cause them to many problems in the paint? Time will tell.