Basketball devotees have waited all season for Wednesday, when they get to sit back and spend four days enjoying one of the most talented groups of high school players to grace the boys’ state tournament stage.
Anticipation is highest for the Class 4A bracket at Target Center, which is bursting with elite teams, juicy matchups and Division I-level star power.
“I would say the matchups are as good as any tournament I can remember,” said Armstrong coach Greg Miller, whose team played five of the eight teams in the field during the regular season. “There are so many good teams and great players. I know everyone is excited.”
The obvious favorite is No. 1-seeded Champlin Park. The Rebels (29-0) feature the deepest starting lineup in the state, led by guard McKinley Wright, who has signed with Dayton and was named the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year. Center Theo John (Marquette) is a shot-blocking brute in the lane and guards Brian Smith (Waldorf), Marcus Hill and D.J. Hunter can all take over portions of games when needed.
Despite the Rebels’ undefeated run, the feeling is that they’re not invincible. There are weaknesses that can be exploited but it would a very good team to exploit them. And this tournament has plenty of those.
“They’re the favorite, but they’re not the prohibitive favorite like in the other classes,” said Kevin Alsteens, better known by his blog name, TC Hoop Czar. “Any of six or seven teams can win it.”
Take Champlin Park’s first-round opponent, unseeded Chaska. The high school league only seeds teams one through five and matches up the three unseeded teams randomly. But the Hawks are dangerous. Chaska has 6-5 senior swingman Myles Hanson, who has topped 40 points twice this season, and underrated support in guards Alex Strazzanti and Andrew Kallman, who plays more like a power forward.
“What’s puzzling is that even though Champlin Park has been the best team all year, they have to face a team like Chaska in the quarterfinals,” said Alex Conover of the Northstar Hoops website. “What more do they have to do?”
Next up is perhaps the most eagerly awaited quarterfinal, with No. 5-seeded Wayzata taking on No. 4-seeded Lake-ville North.
The Trojans, appearing in their first state tournament since 1959, don’t have a big name leading their charge. But there is little drop-off throughout a lineup that features the tournament’s best three-point shooting team.
Lakeville North has the pedigree. The Panthers, making their sixth consecutive tourney trip, are led by 6-10 forward Nathan Reuvers (Wisconsin), whose long arms, impeccable timing and ability to hit from outside set him apart.
“Wayzata plays the best purely team basketball, but Lakeville North plays good team basketball, and they have a star in Reuvers,” Miller said.
Most know Maple Grove guard Brad Davison (Wisconsin) by now, but the state’s most physical guard has a running mate in Tywhon Pickford. The Crimson is favored against surprise entrant Andover in the quarterfinals; it routed the 11-18 Huskies by 25 in the regular-season finale.
The winner will face either Apple Valley or Cretin-Derham Hall in the semifinals.
Mention Apple Valley and most think of junior Tre Jones — for good reason. The 6-2 junior, who Monday was named winner of Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year award, is a transcendent talent. A lockdown defender, he is more explosive offensively than his older brother Tyus. While he has played varsity since ninth grade, his grade-level peers had success together at other levels, bringing that chemistry to the team this year.
“There are a lot of guys on this team I’ve grown up and played with since middle school,” Jones said earlier this year. “It’s been so much fun to go out and play with them.”
Cretin-Derham Hall is the tournament’s most unpredictable team. The Raiders (21-8) have the second-most losses in the field, but many are losses to quality teams such as Apple Valley (71-59 on Dec. 13), Lakeville North, Wayzata, DeLaSalle and East Ridge, which they avenged in the Section 3 semifinals. They feature junior Daniel Oturu, a 6-8 power forward who has verbally committed to Minnesota. Oturu averages 19.5 points and an eye-popping 16.5 rebounds per game.
“Cretin-Derham Hall is the most Jekyll and Hyde team in the tournament,” Alsteens said. “They’ve gotten destroyed by some teams, but they’ve beaten Stevens Point (Wis.), which won the Wisconsin [Division 1] state title and Iowa City West, which won the Iowa [Class 4A] state title. They’re hot and have good chemistry right now.”
It all adds up to a what many hope will be a tournament to be long remembered.
“I’m looking forward to the whole thing,” Alsteens said. “All of it. Whatever final you end up with will be a great game.”