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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Larry McKenzie is a member of the Minnesota Basketball and Minnesota State High School League Halls of Fame as a coach and has multiple state titles to his credit, but he's baffled by the lack of attention for inner-city players in the Twin Cities.
The Minneapolis North coach even took to Twitter earlier this month to voice his frustration, saying, "still puzzled why Minnesota colleges and universities don't recruit Minneapolis and St. Paul conference kids."
This wasn't just a soapbox moment for McKenzie, who said boys and girls standouts from Minneapolis and St. Paul City conferences are lacking on the rosters of Division I, Division II and Division III schools in the state and surrounding areas.
Recruiting has been even more difficult during the pandemic, so McKenzie started the Minnesota Black Basketball Coaches Association in 2020, in large part to bring coaches of color together to help figure out how to improve opportunities for players.
"I'm puzzled about it because we have talent," McKenzie said. "For our programs and our kids not to get recognized, it just makes you scratch your head."
Gophers men's and women's programs haven't had city conference players on their rosters for nearly a decade, but McKenzie hopes the Division II Northern Sun and Division III MIAC conferences also consider showing up to more inner-city gyms.
"Private schools and the cost of going to those schools are high," McKenzie said. "But there are other ways of subsidizing kids if they really want to recruit them and find ways for them to play at these schools. My team GPA is 3.4, so you're not just talking about kids who just play basketball."
After taking over at North, McKenzie coached the Polars to back-to-back state championships in 2016 and 2017, giving him six total after his four-peat at Minneapolis Henry in the early 2000s, which included coaching his son and ex-Gopher, Lawrence.
Looking back at the budding stars who left the city to play for other high schools, recent names that stand out are Tre Holloman and Kerwin Walton, who transferred to Cretin-Derham Hall and Hopkins, respectively.
That makes what the Polars returned this season so much more rewarding for McKenzie, who said this is his most experienced team in nearly 30 years of coaching. Led by Division I prospect and senior Willie Wilson, North already has victories this season over perennial powers DeLaSalle and Minnehaha Academy. The only losses have been to Chicago Simeon, Class 4A No. 1 Park Center in the George Floyd Jr. Memorial Classic title game and Wednesday night to Edina.
"For the first time in my career, I'm starting five seniors," McKenzie said. "This is the most veteran team I've had."
To say the Polars have dominated the Minneapolis City Conference would be an understatement with a 61-game win streak, but the gap could be closing because of rebuilds at Edison, South and Southwest, which, under coach Keenan Shelton, took Hopkins into overtime in December.
Edison coach Ahmil Jihad took over a program that had barely a handful of conference wins combined in three years, but now he features the state's second-leading scorer, Micah Young (29.3 points per game), and Liban Tushar (26.9). Still, Jihad said only one college coach has stopped by to see his players in four years.
"It's been a process building a basketball culture basically from the ground up," Jihad said. "One of the reasons why we started the [MBBCA] is to make sure everybody is abreast of what's going on and what we can do to complement each other. We don't have the resources, but if we pull together and stay in touch, we can support each other as much as possible and get things going."
Much like the North boys, the Como Park girls have been the standard for the St. Paul City Conference for nearly a decade. The program that former WNBA player Alexis Gray-Lawson help kick-start toward a winning culture has continued its success since she returned to her home state in California in 2020.
Como Park coach Olonda England, Gray-Lawson's former assistant, said she believes her squad could make their first Class 3A tournament appearance since 2016. She's tested her girls with early games against big-class powers such as Hopkins, Stillwater and St. Michael-Albertville.
“I'm not sure why they look over our city kids, especially with the stats of many of them. It's kind of heartbreaking because they have what it takes. ... It's time to start changing the narrative.”
Playing tougher competition paid off with a 74-69 victory Saturday against previously undefeated and Class 3A No. 1 Austin. Senior Ronnie Porter, England's daughter, is averaging 20 points, five assists and boasts a 4.3 GPA at Como Park, but she has no Division I or Division II offers.
"I'm not sure why they look over our city kids, especially with the stats of many of them," England said. "It's kind of heartbreaking because they have what it takes. These girls are the full package even without the basketball side. It's time to start changing the narrative."
Time might be running out for the city's seniors, but the future is bright.
On Friday, McKenzie's Polars will play at rival South, which is led by two sophomores, guard Jerome Williams Jr. and 6-8 forward Chiang Ring, who some coaches say might have the most upside of any big-man underclassman in the state.
Five Minnesotans who stood out this week:
Mason Lund, Sartell
The 6-6 Southwest Minnesota State recruit had a game big enough to be heard back in the Twin Cities with a school-record 51 points in a 90-75 victory over St. Francis.
Amir Coffey, Los Angeles Clippers
The ex-Gopher is making social media go wild with coffee emojis after his career-high 21 points in the 106-93 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, and his 18 points, seven assists and four steals in Tuesday's 87-85 win over Denver.
Kristen Watson, Hayfield
The sophomore guard scored 32 points in her team's 13th consecutive victory last week, but she's been leading the 14-0 Vikings all season with her steady play.
Ronnie Porter, Como Park
The senior guard had 24 points, seven rebounds, and six assists to help the Cougars upset Class 3A, No. 1 Austin 74-69 in the Rochester Hoops Challenge.
Pharrel Payne, Park of Cottage Grove
The 6-9 Gophers recruit was sidelined for eight games because of a hip injury, but he led the Wolfpack with 22 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in a 58-52 victory vs. Owatonna in his second game back. And he dominated with 36 points and six blocks Wednesday in a 67-46 win over Irondale.
1 The Gophers women won at Rutgers last Thursday for the first time in program history, 62-49, with coach Lindsay Whalen missing the game after having an emergency appendectomy.
40 Season-high scoring game for Karl-Anthony Towns in the Wolves' fourth consecutive victory, 141-123 Sunday at Houston.
100 Sauk Centre girls' winning streak in the West Central Conference ended last Friday after a 47-44 loss to Montevideo.
Games to watch
Totino-Grace boys vs. Cretin-Derham Hall at Hamline, Saturday, 6 p.m.
The Eagles, No. 1 in Class 3A, will look to stay unbeaten against Minnesota schools in a matchup of four-star point guards: Totino-Grace junior Taison Chatman vs. Cretin-Derham Hall senior and Michigan State recruit Tre Holloman.
Hopkins girls at Eden Prairie, Friday, 7 p.m.
Future Gophers face off when Royals point guard Amaya Battle goes up against Eagles forward Nia Holloway. They are former North Tartan AAU teammates.
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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 make them even more fun to share. Thanks, Marcus (@Marcus_R_Fuller on Twitter)