Last night's Best Buy Holiday Classic championship game between St. Paul Johnson and Hopkins was built up by many to be the best match-up in Minnesota all year long. Watching the 17 talented players on the floor it's tough to argue against that statement. The Governors defeated Hopkins 86-78 to win the championship and the victory gives Johnson the label as Minnesota's best team entering 2010.
The match-up was exciting for several reasons starting with talent. Looking at the 17 guys on the floor you had seven pretty talented seniors, six juniors that include some of the state's elite talent, three of the state's best sophomores, and a freshman who is already getting statewide headlines. In addition, both of these teams have several physical and talented athletes who are pretty even across the board in size and speed. In Ken Novak Jr. and Vern Simmons they have a couple of the state's best coaches and both teams are well schooled on both ends of the floor coming into the game undefeated.
So what gave Johnson the eight-point edge when the final buzzer sounded? There were several factors but defensive pressure, depth, and the Johnson ability to pass the basketball stood out. In the Johnson rotation there are ten players that the coaches obviously trust. Consider that senior Prince Williams, who had scored 14 total points in the previous eight Johnson games, was on the floor at the end of game scoring two big buckets and making defensive plays. Also, senior forward Jordan Pluff was named to the six man all-tournament team yesterday and coming into the week he was about the 7th or 8th guy one would talk about when bringing up Johnson's team. But what a difference a confidence makes as Pluff is being talked about now for sure after his 16 point scoring outburst against Hopkins and the ten he put up against Sibley. Compare that to the four points a game Jordan was averaging in the previous seven contests and one can get a better feel for the situation. Overall Johnson has a ton of depth and ten guys who coach Vern Simmons can trust. This made a huge difference yesterday as the Governors just continued to come at Hopkins with defensive pressure in waves.
Johnson is also a very unselfish and very smart passing team. The top distributors are probably senior Donte Warlick and junior Estan Tyler who impressed college, high school, and AAU coaches in the stands alike with their passing skills. Warlick started the game with three gorgeous assists and the rest of the team took cue from there. But in all Johnson is a fantastic passing basketball team both in the open floor and halfcourt attack.
Then there is the defense. Tyler, Warlick, Williams, Demitri Conwell, Max Rosenbloom, Anthony Lee, just about all of the Johnson players bring 100 percent intensity and effort to the floor on the defensive end. The "HOPKINS" across the blue and white jerseys as well as names like Joe Coleman, Siyani Chambers, and others instantly scares a lot of opponents. However, it was quickly certain that Conwell, Lee, and the Governors as a team were not intimidated. They brought pressure from the start and when Hopkins bucked back some it drew the ire of Conwell and Lee who then upped their defensive intensity early (with their play and demeanor) and things never changed. Chambers and Marvin Singleton produced more turnovers than usual and it fueled both the Johnson transition attack and the Governor overall intensity.
The frustrating part about yesterday's game is that these teams won't have a chance to meet in the state tournament. This four-class system will deflect the possibility of a Hopkins versus Johnson rematch and the Minnesota State Tournament will be lesser because of it. Considering that Hopkins still has to get through Minnetonka and Johnson will have to get through St. Thomas Academy in their respective sections you can't just assume these teams will even make state. But for discussion sake it's important to point out that the separation of class AAA and class AAAA won't allow a rematch and that's to bad. High School basketball in Minnesota would love to see it as this match-up was truly of the elite variety and will be hard to top (although a full Tonka team versus Hopkins and Benilde-St. Margaret's against Johnson will be exciting if and/or when they happen).
Joe Coleman - About the only guys who can argue against Joe for early season player of the year honors would be Kevin Noreen, maybe Jacob Thomas, and possibly some outstate players such as Trevor Gruis and Marshall Bjorklund. In terms of juniors Joe is without question currently the most productive player in the Minnesota 2011 class and he may be 2011's top college prospect as well when it's all said and done. Coming into the game Joe was averaging almost 28 points a contest but Johnson held him to about two-thirds of that with 19 points. Joe shot five of eight from the floor and nine of ten from the foul line with six rebounds.
Joe opened the game with a dunk and some free throws. A few possessions later he was able to beat his man with a one dribble right pull-up from about 11 feet that was kissed off the glass. Joe also used a ball fake one direction with a dribble pull-up the other way to clear space for a shot. Joe was fouled on that attempt and went to the line where he made a pair of free tosses. In the first half Johnson's defense limited Hopkins as whole and one result was Joe only getting three field goal attempts up (although he had three sets of free throw attempts).
In the second half Coleman produced a spectacular reverse lay-in as a lob pass was short and off target but Joe caught the ball in the air and on the move resulting in an over the head reverse score. Later Joe hit a contested pull-up jumper in transition from about 14 feet. This score was intriguing because Joe showed great form and lift on the jumper while being contested by the long armed Roosenbloom. Finally, his last make was an explosive right handed drive for two points.
Coleman, as well as Estan Tyler, had Minnesota coach Tubby Smith in the crowd (he was sitting with Royce White) and there has been a Gopher coach at just about every one of Joe's games so far this season. There was some recent confusion if Tubby had actually offered Coleman a scholarship but it was cleared up recently and Joe now does have an offer from Minnesota to go with his Santa Clara offer. Several other schools are now quite interested and seen on the verge of an offer as well.
D.J. Peterson - Peterson missed his first four shot attempts but was able to provide offense as the game wore on. Peterson is more of a distributor but with the Hopkins weapons producing less than usual (Coleman had less attempts than usual and youngsters Chambers and Riley Dearring made a combined four of 18 shots) D.J. picked up his offense attacking the paint and scoring with runners and pull-ups. He made half of his 12 shot attempts plus a pair of free throws for 14 points. Peterson also had 11 rebounds and five assists.
Marvin Singleton - Marvin opened the game with a couple post attempts. The size of 6-foot-6 Chris Smith-Bond gave Singleton trouble on the first possession causing a miss but the next time Marvin attacked the big for a reverse lay-in. Singleton's second field goal was scored on Rosenbloom as Marvin blew by him with the left hand drive and Marvin scored at the rim with his left.
As the game moved on Marvin began to have some turnover issues both when handling the ball and passing and most of them became Johnson transition scores. However, he made up for the mistakes with a strong rebounding effort and several scores in the paint as the half came to a close. As the game moved on Marvin's production moved to the inside and he totaled 18 points on eight of 17 shooting from the floor. Marvin had a double-double as he recorded 11 boards.
Estan Tyler - Tyler is a division one point guard recruit but the way Johnson is in constant push mode (and considering they play with six guards overall) he doesn't always handle the offense in a traditional setting. Estan was in more of a two-guard scoring role yesterday making six of 15 shot attempts including two of four three-point shots. In addition to his threes Estan scored with three offensive rebound put-backs and a full court lay-in. Down the stretch he made six straight free throws to close the game out.
Jordan Pluff - Pluff's energy on the glass and relentless attacking of the rim with the basketball gave Johnson a huge boost. Not only did Pluff score on the offensive glass but he made a run and a couple short jumpers. His contributions off the bench were huge.
Donte Warlick - Warlick opened the game with a couple gorgeous assists to teammates and there is not a player in Minnesota this year who has passed the ball better than Donte passed last night. Plus the young man used his quickness and intensity to apply strong pressure to the Hopkins ball handlers including Donte's pick of Siyani's pocket for an open floor lay-in. Warlick is also a pretty good shooter.
Roosevelt Scott - What stood out about Roosevelt last night was his three point shooting stroke as well as attitude. In terms of personality a team couldn't have a nicer genuine kid that Roosevelt and now that his confidence and skills on the floor are expanding his growth as a player is certainly expanding. Scott fouled out with seven minutes to go but he did score a dozen points.