Thank you for checking out Basketball Across Minnesota, my weekly look at some of the state's top hoops stories, from preps to pros. — Marcus Fuller
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In May 2019, Austin Andrews' commitment to play Division II basketball at Minnesota Duluth didn't send social media shockwaves across the recruiting landscape, but it did grab the attention of some college coaches at a higher level.
Shortly after his decision, the 6-6 forward's phone started buzzing with messages from Division I programs wondering whether he'd consider talking with them.
After all, Andrews had played AAU basketball for the adidas-sponsored D1 Minnesota program that featured McDonald's All American Dawson Garcia.
And Andrews was one of the leading scorers on a historic Eden Prairie team that finished 26-0 in a pandemic-stricken season, highlighted by a big win vs. a Minnehaha Academy team led by Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren.
Instead of taking those calls, Andrews said, "No, thank you."
Two years later, that decision is a big reason why the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs are one of the top Division II men's hoops squads around. They were ranked as high as No. 5 in the country after a 16-0 start this season and were No. 11 in this week's NCAA D-II poll.
"The day that I committed, right after I actually heard from three new D-I schools," said Andrews, now a sophomore All-America candidate. "In my head and in my heart, I knew it didn't matter to me. I found a place that I wanted to go to. Ten years after I'm done, nobody was going to be like, 'Were you D-I or D-II?' "
Andrews, who was the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) freshman of the year last season, is averaging nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds this season. He's one of five players from Minnesota among the top six scorers for UMD, including fellow sophomore starters Josh Brown (Park Center) and Charlie Katona (Shakopee).
In a loaded 2020 state class that featured Suggs and Garcia at the top, UMD coach Justin Wieck turned the program around by landing three top-25 players in the state. Andrews helped him recruit Katona and Brown.
"I felt like our basketball program needed a little shot in the arm," said Wieck, who took over at UMD in 2018. "The first thing we wanted to do is get re-established in the Twin Cities area. That's where most of our guys are from. The level of basketball down there is tremendous, whether it's D-I all the way through D-III. There's a ton of really good players."
Minnesota Duluth is the top Division II team from the state, but it's not the only program at that level that is contending nationally while relying on Minnesota talent. The Bulldogs suffered only their second loss this season last Friday, falling 89-80 at No. 14 Augustana in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Four of Augustana's top six players are from Minnesota, including leading scorers Tyler Riemersma (17.3 points per game) from Bloomington Jefferson and Isaac Fink (16.5) from Springfield. The 6-8 Riemersma leads the NSIC in rebounding at 10.4 per game.
Don't be surprised if Minnesotans continue to dominate the NSIC in years to come with some of the state's top Class of 2022 players going the D-II route, as well.
Duluth signed two players from PrepHoop.com's top 25 seniors in Shakopee's Nick Katona and Rosemount's Caleb Siwek. And Augustana signed four players from the top 26 (Morris Area's Jackson Loge, Edina's Brady Helgren, Hibbing's Ayden McDonald and Hutchinson's Sam Rensch).
One of the biggest signs of progress in the talent level at Division II is when the Gophers are snatching away players. Former Northern State (S.D.) All-America Parker Fox, a 6-8 Mahtomedi native and spectacular dunker, transferred home to play for new U coach Ben Johnson.
"Parker's a great player and a freak athlete," Andrews said. "Last year playing against him definitely helped me. I think that experience drove us all to get stronger, faster and better in the offseason. And you can definitely tell the difference this year."
On the women's side, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State are tied for first in the NSIC overall standings with 12-2 records. Both teams have met in the NSIC tournament championship game and beat one another the past two years, but St. Cloud State swept the regular-season series this season behind four fifth-year seniors, including Hutchinson native and leading scorer Tori Wortz.
"Tori has been tremendous for us and was an honorable mention All-American last year," St. Cloud State coach Lori Fish said. "She wills us to win in the big moments. She graduated last year, but with COVID was granted another year. She had the opportunity to go to optometry school but decided to wait another year."
Five Minnesotans who stood out in the week:
Ayoka Lee, Kansas State
The 6-6 Byron native makes the list again this season, this time for setting the NCAA scoring record with 61 points Sunday against Oklahoma, breaking a Division I record shared by ex-Gopher Rachel Banham.
Sara Scalia, Gophers
The Stillwater native scored 31 points on 7-for-13 shooting from three-point range Sunday, but the Gophers suffered their third straight loss in Big Ten play at Michigan State.
Demarion Watson, Totino-Grace
The Iowa State recruit made his presence felt on both sides of the floor with 17 points and seven blocks in Friday's 64-61 win against Class 4A No. 1 Park Center, including slowing down Gophers recruit Braeden Carrington in the second half.
Emma Dudycha, Austin
The senior guard scored a team-high 22 points Monday to help the Class 3A No. 1 Packers erase a 14-point deficit and escape No. 8 Mankato West 57-52. They face No. 7 Mankato East on Friday.
Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
The former Minnehaha Academy star had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Orlando's win Sunday against Chicago, and two of his slams blew up social media, including when he put MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan on a poster.
7 — Scholarship players the Gophers men had in back-to-back games, meeting the Big Ten minimum to play, including in last Saturday's win vs. Rutgers.
29 — Points, a career-high, for former Gopher Amir Coffey, who helped lead the Clippers to a franchise-record comeback trailing 35 points in Tuesday's win against Washington.
71 — Combined points for Timberwolves' Big Three of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D'Angelo Russell in Sunday's 136-125 win vs. the Brooklyn Nets.
200 — Career victories for Southwest Minnesota State men's coach Brad Bigler, who reached the milestone Saturday after beating Bemidji State.
Games to watch
Minnetonka girls vs. Chaska at St. Michael-Albertville, Saturday, 2:15 p.m.
The defending Class 4A champs and No. 2 Hawks have won 12 straight games since losing to No. 1 Hopkins, but they'll face another tough task against the No. 3 Skippers.
Gophers men at Wisconsin, Sunday, 11 a.m.
Plenty of Minnesotans on both sides of the Border Battle. Ben Johnson's Gophers have leading scorer Jamison Battle, sixth man Sean Sutherlin and improving freshman Treyton Thompson. Badgers have starters Brad Davison, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl.
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Basketball Across Minnesota will be published weekly on startribune.com. Don't be a stranger on Twitter after reading, as chatting about these stories makes them even more fun to share. Thanks, Marcus (@Marcus_R_Fuller on Twitter)