Sunday, March 28, 2010

MSU football team's spring practice begins Monday

The Minnesota State football team will begin spring practice Monday afternoon, hoping to build on consecutive 10-win seasons. The spring practice period allows for 15 workouts over the next 27 days, culminating in the spring game April 24.
The Mavericks have some rebuilding to do, having lost four starting offensive linemen, a quarterback, two running backs and the top two receivers. Defensively, two linemen, two defensive backs and a linebacker are gone.
Quarterback Steve Pachan returns, having started nine games at quarterback, and top rusher Jake Aberg gained 1,201 yards. Those two will be working behind a new line, with mostly new receivers.
The defense may have to carry the team early, with the top three tacklers — linebacker Dan Fehlberg, linebacker Matt McQuiston and safety Jesse Hamilton — back.
Last season began with 10 straight victories before things went wrong, losing the regular-season finale at St. Cloud State and the playoff opener at home against Hillsdale College. With consecutive postseason appearances, the expectations around the program clearly have changed, but it looks to be quite a challenge to meet that mark again this season.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Heartbreak for Sibley East

I was there when the Minnesota State men's basketball team let a 16-point lead slip away in the regional tournament at Winona State, and I thought that might be the most stunning loss I'd ever see.
But after Sibley East lost a 20-point lead with six minutes to play and fell 60-59 in overtime to Braham in the quarterfinals of the Class AA boys basketball tournament, I have now seen a more gut-wrenching defeat.
Sibley East was cruising. Marshall Bjorklund was dominating the inside, and the defenders were harassing Braham's perimeter players. The story of victory and advancing to the semifinals was nearly written.
But that's why every laptop has a delete key.
Braham got hot from 3-point range, and a press seemed to interrupt Sibley East's rhythm. The ball stopped going inside as turnovers cut short several possessions.
As Braham crept closer, you could see that free throws would become important, and the Wolverines, who made their free throws in the section tournament at about 74 percent, were shaky.
Braham's confidence grew as Sibley East's shrank, but the Wolverines still held a one-point lead in the final seconds. However, a questionable call on Braham's final possession allowed the winning free throws, and the stunning rally was complete.
This is a loss these players will remember for the rest of their lives. Sibley East was 24-4 this season, but it's tough to lean on positives after such a shocking defeat. It's too bad that three seniors had their careers end this way.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sibley East's Bjorklund is the real deal

If you've not seen Sibley East senior Marshall Bjorklund play basketball, you only have a few games remaining. And you should try to get a look at this kid.
The 6-8 senior center is averaging 25.1 points and 15.0 rebounds and has led the Wolverines to the state tournament for the first time in 12 seasons. He holds program records for points, rebounds and blocked shots.
His skills were dsiplayed Friday night in the Section 5AA championship game against Foley. He had 30 points and 17 rebounds, and equally impressive were the three assists, passing out of the double- and triple-teams to open shooters.
Bjorklund, the younger brother of former WNBA player Tera Bjorklund, is smooth and powerful. He jumps well, has good hands. He hardly shows any emotion on the court. He just plays hard.
Too bad for the local universities that he's headed off to North Dakota State next season. If Bjorklund ever decides that Division I is not for him and he wants to move closer to home, he'd sure look good in Mavericks' purple.
And coach Matt Margenthaler has been known to welcome a Division I transfer or two in his tenure.
Bjorklund will be tough to stop at the state tournament. There aren't a lot of big centers in Class AA, which makes Sibley East a tough draw for any team.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Few thoughts on NCAA men's basketball tournament

The first day of the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament is one of the three really good dates on the sports calendar, joining Super Bowl Sunday and the final round of The Masters. The first Thursday of NCAA games is far better than the Monday championship game just because of volume.
So before that day begins, here's a few predictions on what will happen:
It's tough to pick against Kansas. The Jayhwaks have a veteran point guard, a big horse in the middle and a lot of young, athletic perimeter players as complements. No. 2 seed Ohio State doesn't have the depth to pull the upset, making Georgetown the only team likely to threaten Kansas.
Kentucky relies on too many young, albeit talented, players to win this tournament. West Virginia would be a threat, but count on coach Bob Huggins to do something that gets his team beat. New Mexico is an intriguing, unknown entity in that region.
It's been a long time since Duke played up to its seed, and this year will be no different. The Blue Devils rely on too much jump-shooting to win six games. They'll get a good test from Louisville or Cal in the second round, Texas A&M in the third round and likely Villanova in the region finals. That's too many consecutive games to be at your best.
The West bracket seems the toughest to predict. Syracuse has been tremendous all season, but losing in the first round of the Big East tournament with the center getting injured has cast doubt on the Orange. Kansas State is dangerous, which would make for a great region final.
The Gophers play Xavier in the first round in a who-cares game. It should be competitive, which is code for ugly but close, but neither team can handle Pittsburgh in the next round.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

St. Cloud State celebrates basketball championship

The championship game of the Central Region men's basketball tournament wasn't artful or pretty, but St. Cloud State sure likes the way it turned out.
The Huskies scored the last 13 points over the final 1:30 to defeat Augustana 84-75 in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight.
The Huskies made 18 turnovers and hit only 25 of 39 free throws, but they proved that they were better than the No. 4 seed in the tournament, taking out top-seeded Minnesota State in the semifinals and third-seeded Augustana in the championship.
Again, the Huskies' role players were key as Josh Ortmann scored 17 points, Brett Putz had 13 points and Theo Rothstein added 10 points. And starter Andrew Bernstetter, who didn't score in regulation time, had six points in the overtime, including a go-ahead 3-pointer.
Many fans thought St. Cloud State was the best team coming in, and it's no surprise that they won. It'll be interesting to see how this team plays at the Elite Eight because it's built for halfcourt, grind-it-out basketball that's usually successful as the games become more important.

Monday, March 15, 2010

No Minnesota State, but still good basketball in town

Even though Minnesota State was eliminated from the Central Region men's basketball tournament Sunday, there's still going to be an interesting championship game Tuesday between Augustana and St. Cloud State at Bresnan Arena.
Augustana and St. Cloud State were the best teams in this tournament. The Vikings' fullcourt, 3-point shooting attack has been effective, though the defensive prowess of their two opponents in questionable. If Augustana is able to control the pace, and get open shots from the arc for Cody Schilling, David Foster and Cameron McCaffrey, the Vikings will win.

The Huskies favor more of a halfcourt game that features rugged Matt Schneck, a post player without peer in this tournament. If St. Cloud State can make it a halfcourt game, and the inside-outside duo of point guard Taylor Witt and Schneck dominates, the Huskies will win.
The contrast of styles makes this an intriguing matchup, made even more appealing if you don't care who wins. And there should be plenty of good tickets available.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Season ends for MSU men's basketball team

It wasn't a shock that Minnesota State was eliminated by St. Cloud State in the semifinals of the Central Region men's basketball tournament Sunday, but it was surprising at how this season, which looked so promising just three weeks ago, came to a sudden end.
Playing at Bresnan Arena used to nearly guarantee a victory, but the Mavericks lost three of their last four home games. For most of the season, the Mavericks were the stronger team in the final five minutes of a game, but that was not the case in the last three weeks as other teams executed better in clutch situations.
A team that could put up some lofty offensive numbers was really held in check by physical opponents who mixed in a good deal of zone defense.
It's tough to find fault in a 25-5 season, especially one that includes a Northern Sun conference championship. This was the sixth straight appearance in the national tournament, and the Mavericks are 149-41 over that span.
But it's got to be tough to come up short again in the region tournament. Eventually, the Mavericks will likely break through and get to the Elite Eight, but it won't be this year, and it's a long time until practice begins again Oct. 15.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Random thoughts from region basketball tournament

After sitting through four games that lasted from noon until 10:30 p.m., here's a few observations on what took place in the quarterfinal round of the Central Region men's basketball tournament Saturday at Bresnan Arena.
Augustana looked tough, though it might be because New Mexico Highlands didn't put up much of a fight. If the Vikings shoot the ball like they did in the first half Saturday (59.3 percent), they're going to be tough.
Mesa State got past Winona State by making free throws when the Warriors didn't. Mesa State is going to have to play better in Sunday's semifinals to advance.
No surprise that Taylor Witt and Matt Schneck led St. Cloud State to the 82-77 victory. The Huskies had some problems at the free-throw line late, but Witt is a clutch player.
In four games, there were 172 fouls called, and teams combined to make 177 of 240 free throws. These games had little flow because of all the whistles.
You could say Minnesota State was lucky to beat Colorado School of Mines, but depth is one of this team's strengths and that was clearly the difference in an 84-80 victory. The Mavericks looked nervous in the first half, and this team needs a dose of confidence before Sunday's semifinal game against St. Cloud State. Not sure how you accomplish that before then.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Let the basketball begin

The Central Region men's basketball tournament begins Saturday at Bresnan Arena, and it could be the best day of basketball that venue has ever seen.
In the first game at noon, Chop Tang, the former Mankato East standout, brings his New Mexico Highlands teammates to town to face Augustana. This game has the potential for a track meet between two gifted offensive teams so the team that makes an occasional stop will win. I'll take Augustana.
In the second game at 2:30 p.m., Mesa State takes on Winona State. Mesa State was the top seed in the region for the first month of rankings but faltered late. Guard Mike Dominguez might be the most gifted offensive player in the tournament. Winona State needs to replace leading scorer David Johnson, who is out with a leg injury. I'll take Mesa State, though this should be close. It's tough to ever count out Winona State.
At 6 p.m., the Mavericks take on Colorado School of Mines. This looks like the most lopsided first-round matchup, though Minnesota State has struggled the last couple of weeks. The Mavericks should be too big, deep and athletic for Mines, who need to contro the tempo.
The nightcap pits St. Cloud State and Metro State. These teams both won conference tournaments, and it comes down to the Huskies' inside strength vs. Metro's athleticism. It's tough to pick against St. Cloud State, considering they have the intangible of getting screwed in the seeding process.
For an extensive preview of the tournament, check out Saturday's print edition.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

East, West play in section semifinals

Only twice in the last 12 seasons has the Mankato West and Mankato East boys basketball teams both missed the section championship game, but both teams are on the road for tough section semifinal games Saturday.
East plays at top-seeded Hutchinson, who won 72-55 at the East gym in December. The Cougars have won 15 of the last 19 games and will need strong games from guard Alex Welter and centers Sam Onsomu and Brody Ziegler to advance.
West plays at second-seeded Willmar. The teams have one common opponent: West defeated New Ulm handily early in the season, and Willmar beat New Ulm by six in the section quarterfinals. Shooters Preston Brunz, Ethan Tramp and Nick Kaus will need to score well for the Scarlets to win.
The section championship game will be played Thursday at Minnesota State's Bresnan Arena.

Monday, March 8, 2010

MSU will host basketball regional

As expected, Minnesota State received the No. 1 seed for the Central Region men's basketball tournament, which will be played Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday at Bresnan Arena.
It's the sixth consecutive national-tournament berth for the Mavericks, who have watched the previous five host teams for the region advance to the Elite Eight.
Two weeks ago, it would have seemed that the home court would be enough to carry Minnesota State to its first final-eight appearance, but the Mavericks have dropped the last two games at Bresnan Arena and don't seem bulletproof anymore.
The Mavericks open with Colorado School of Mines, a surprise eighth seed, in the quarterfinals Saturday. A victory there would push Minnesota State into a semifinal game against St. Cloud State and Metro State, which should be a fun quarterfinal game. The Huskies got screwed in the seedings, staying at No. 4 despite winning the Northern Sun tournament Sunday.
The other quarterfinals games match Mesa State and Winona State and Augustana and New Mexico Highlands, which features former Mankato East standout Chop Tang.
It should be a pretty good weekend of basketball at Bresnan Arena, though with students on spring break, it's going to leave the community to create a homecourt advantage, which seems unlikely.
Things have gone right to put the Mavericks in a position to advance out of this tournament. Now it's up to them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Prediction for Central Region rankings

The NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament brackets won't be announced until sometime after 8 p.m. today, but I was right on with the Northern Sun individual awards earlier this week so I thought I'd take a stab at the Central Region rankings.
Keep in mind that I have only a slim idea what the regional committee takes into account when deciding which eight teams from the Northern Sun and Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference will advance to the national tournament. This is based on polls leading up to today and a gut feeling about how this has operated in the past.
1. Minnesota State. The Mavericks don't seem so deserving, having lost three of the last five games and the last two home games, but you can't throw away the entire body of work. Minnesota State is 24-4, with three losses coming to Augustana and St. Cloud State, other top teams in this region.
2. Mesa State. It seems the committee has preferred to have both conferences represented in the top two. Again, Mesa State has struggled to finish the season, but the Mavericks have been the best team in the RMAC, and we'll see what that means next weekend.
3. St. Cloud State. It seems the Huskies got screwed by the committe last week, showing up in fourth, and despite advancing to the championship game of the Northern Sun tournament, which began at 2 p.m., it's unlikely the Huskies will jump all the way to No. 1. And No. 2 probably goes to an RMAC team.
4. Augustana. The Vikings had a legitimate chance of overtaking Minnesota State, having swept the Mavericks, but they lost in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, too.
5. Metro State. Metro holds the spot after defeating Highlands in the RMAC tournament.

6. New Mexico Highlands. The most dangerous team in the RMAC, and senior forward Chop Tang is returning to Mankato.
7. Winona State. It's been an up and down season for the Warriors, who needed the victory over Mary in the Northern Sun tournament to guarantee this spot.
8. Southwest Minnesota State with a victory in the Northern Sun championship. Otherwise, Colorado School of Mines or Fort Lewis grabs this spot by default.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Maybe the Mavericks woke the Mustangs

Surprised that Southwest Minnesota State took out top-seeded Minnesota State in the quarterfinals of the Northern Sun men's basketball tournament Wednesday. Maybe you shouldn't have been.
The underdog Mustangs defeated Winona State 81-67 in the tournament semifinals Saturday and will play St. Cloud State in the championship game at 2 p.m. Sunday. St. Cloud State trailed by one with three minutes to play but rallied to defeat Wayne State 74-66 in the semifinals.
The Huskies will play in the national tournament and might get the homecourt advantage in the regional. Southwest needs to win Sunday to get the league's automatic berth.
The pairings will be announced at 8 p.m. Sunday, and it still seems like Minnesota State has a shot at the top seed for the regional. Of course, the Mavericks have lost their last two home games so who knows if that's an advantage?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Southwest shocks MSU men in tourney opener

Southwest Minnesota State shot better than 60 percent and defeated Minnesota State 80-78 in the quarterfinals of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference men's basketball tournament Wednesday at Bresnan Arena.
The loss keeps the Mavericks from hosting the tournament's final four Saturday and Sunday and puts into jeopardy the chances of hosting the Central Region tournament the following weekend.
The Mavericks were still ranked No.1 in the region before Wednesday's loss, and No. 2 Mesa State and No. 3 Augustana have also lost this week. That means the Mavericks will hold up as the top seed and host unless St. Cloud State, which is now hosting the conference tournament, jumps up from No. 4 by winning two more games. That kind of jump this late in the season seems unlikely.
But the Mavericks have lost three of the last five games, including the last two home games, and certainly any swagger or confidence the team had has vanished. Minnesota State has been beaten by more physical teams, and the execution at crunch time has been poor.
What looked like a promising March run has turned into a nightmare of losses, and if nothing else, the region has shown to be wide open.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Educated guesses at Northern Sun basketball awards

The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference announces its individual awards Wednesday, and though the coaches vote on the selections, here's a guess at who wins what.
For the men:
Player of the year: Matt Schneck of St. Cloud State.
Coach of the year: Matt Margenthaler of Minnesota State.
Newcomer of the year: Jefferson Mason of Minnesota State.
Freshman of the year: Cameron McCaffrey of Augustana.
Defensive player of the year: Mason.

For the women:
Player of the year: Jheri Booker of Minnesota Duluth,
Coach of the year: Chris Kielsmeier of Wayne State.
Newcomer of the year: Maurika Hickman of Concordia-St. Paul.
Freshman of the year: Alex Feeney of Augustana.
Defensive player of the year: Meghan Rettke of Minnesota State-Moorhead.

For more on each guess, pick up the print edition Tuesday. Check back Wednesday to see how I did.