Even before DeLaSalle’s basketball team departed the Target Center floor as back-to-back state champion last March, coach Dave Thorson booked a return trip.
“As we were getting our medals, Thorson came up behind myself and a couple other guys and said, ‘We’re coming right back here next year,’ ” senior guard Mike Pucci said.
And here the Islanders are, ranked No. 1 in Class 3A and favored to complete the three-peat. Thorson’s bold declaration failed to unnerve the team. Neither did an injury that delayed star senior forward Reid Travis from joining the lineup, nor the resulting 4-3 slow start this season.
Travis, who has signed with Stanford, returned to help Geno Crandall (North Dakota), James Lawson (Sioux Falls) and additional talented players post a 19-0 run. The Islanders begin the state tournament against St. Paul Central at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Williams Arena.
The spotlight will be more intense on a team going for three consecutive state titles led by Travis, the only member of Minnesota’s “Big Three” recruiting class in the state tournament. Rashad Vaughn, who committed to UNLV a month ago, played in Las Vegas this season while Apple Valley and Duke-bound Tyus Jones were upset in the section finals.
Rather than wilt, the Islanders are taking a cue from their confident coach.
“It’s nice to have more focus on you because people can appreciate how hard we’ve worked to get to this point,” Crandall said.
Playing without Travis, a 6-8, 235-pound specimen, forced the team to run the offense differently. Three players took turns leading the team in scoring in the first nine games without Travis: Crandall and juniors Jarvis Johnson and Sacar Anim.
“Coach Thorson is probably going to hate me for saying this, but with Reid out, Coach probably let us play a little bit more free,” Crandall said. “Your instinct as a guard is to throw it to the open man, and Reid is always so open.”
Basketball fans, Pucci said, will enjoy watching Reid’s final games.
“Reid might not be as flashy as Rashad or Tyus, but nobody works harder than him,” Pucci said. “It shows on the court when he’s got four guys hanging on him and he still finishes the play.”
Travis, who averaged more than 19 points and eight rebounds per game, felt frustration watching teammates battle in losses to Apple Valley and Eden Prairie.
“We sweated it because we want to win every game we play in, but we understood that the real test is in March,” Travis said. “Falling a little bit did help make us a better team now.”