Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: Minnesota Timberwolves rookie guard Ricky Rubio, a big contributor and fan favorite so far this season, suffered a season-ending knee injury last Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers. Did the team’s hopes of a .500 season and possibly even a spot in the playoffs go down the drain?
-Dorr: It will hurt at the gate, it will hurt the chemistry of the team and it will likely hurt the team’s record. I said two months ago that I thought the team would have a tough time reaching .500 and this will probably make it harder. There might have been an outside chance for the playoffs, and there may still be, but everything – including there being no more injuries – has to go right. Rubio’s play had slipped (in the six games before he was hurt he was shooting 19 percent from the field) but he was still a good addition for the team, one that had made it better. J.J. Barea will have to step up his play if the team is to stay near .500. He is shooting well below his career percentage on field goals and free throws.
-Marxhausen: Going down the drain seems too severe for the outcome of the Timberwolves, and I still see the Timberwolves fighting for that last playoff spot and .500 record. A true difference between this season and last season, is that there is a leader on the court and all the players can fall in behind him. Last Monday night against the Phoenix Suns, Kevin Love shot 11–for-23 (below the average), scoring 30 points and grabbing seven boards, while Nikola Pekovic stood firm at the starting center position, finishing the night with 24 points and eight rebounds. This is not a new story, with Pekovic and Love leading the team in points, but the players playing around them stepped it up and hit their shots to keep the Timberwolves alive. Rookie Derrick Williams came off the bench to score 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds while Michael Beasley and Wayne Ellington also came off the bench and scored 15 apiece. Last season Love would have gotten these numbers, but subsequently you saw the lack of contribution around him. This season is different because of the players stepping up around him. Yes, Rubio and his magnificent passing ability got everyone involved in the offense, but that in turn gave them confidence to knock down shots, making everyone better. Losing Rubio wounded the Timberwolves, but it did not kill their season quite yet.
-Larson: Based on how the Timberwolves have played so far this season, they appear to be good enough to hover at, or above, the .500 mark. If they go into a tailspin, then they had us fooled. The loss of the popular Rubio won’t show up at the gate unless the team goes into a dive.
•Question: Few, if any, sports events draw more analysis and scrutiny than the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and the National Football League college draft. The NCAA tourney begins this week. What’s your prediction on who the two finalists will be in each of the four regionals?
-Dorr: The people that get paid big money to make these kinds of predictions are often way off the mark. And I have not seen 39 of the 68 teams in the field play. How, then, can I make a somewhat-informed decision, especially when the NCAA selection committee picked three No. 1 seeds who lost their last game? Gary has threatened to cancel my contract if I don’t make the picks. And because that contract includes high-end dollars, here goes (if you believe in dart throwing as a method): Kentucky and Duke in the South (Indiana lost a starter to injury, otherwise I’d take the Hooisers), Michigan State and Missouri in the West, Ohio State and Vanderbilt in the East, and North Carolina and Michigan in the Midwest. (Did you notice all but one of those is a No. 1 or No. 2 seed?)
-Marxhausen: I think the West region will have the easiest path for the one and two seeds, so I see Michigan State facing Missouri. I don’t see much of a chance for upset teams in the Midwest either, so North Carolina will be facing Kansas in the elite eight. To keep it dull and boring, I think that Syracuse and Ohio State will emerge from the East. My upset is Indiana beating Kentucky in the sweet 16 to go on to face Baylor in the South.
-Larson: My bracket sheet is usually in the waste basket after two rounds. But, predictions are fun, right Luther? Did the three No. 1 seeds who lost in their conference tournaments just have bad games? Or, are they a bit overrated? I think the surprises will take place in the first couple of rounds and won’t involve the big boys. In the South, it’s Baylor and Kentucky in the finals. In the East, it will be Syracuse and Florida State. Michigan State and Missouri should waltz to the finals in the West and North Carolina and Kansas will make it to the Midwest finals.
•Question: Let’s continue down that path. What’s your prediction on who the Final Four teams will be and who will end up as national champion?
-Dorr: I don’t even have an educated guess. But, since the question requires an answer: Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio State and North Carolina, with Kentucky to win. How’s that for staying with some of the favorites?
-Marxhausen: The South representative will be Baylor and it will be facing Michigan State from the West. The other matchup will be Ohio State out of the East against the Midwest winner, which will be Kansas. The final matchup will be Michigan State against Kansas for the championship. I feel that the Big Ten and the Big 12 are the conferences at the top of their game coming into the end of the season and championship week. Michigan State takes it all.
-Larson: Kentucky will face Missouri and North Carolina will meet Syracuse in the Final Four, with North Carolina defeating Kentucky for the national title. I see none of us has hopped on Duke’s back. Will that be a mistake?
•Question: Were you surprised that the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team received a bid to the National Invitational Tournament? What are the Gophers’ chances of doing well in the tournament?
-Dorr: Definitely not. They should have received a bid. And, if you go by the two games in the Big Ten tournament, some will make the case that they appear to be a better team without Ralph Sampson in the lineup. The guards don’t throw it into the post as much as they do when Sampson is on the floor and seem to have more freedom. Despite the 19 wins, the team still makes you wonder, as it has all year. The Sagarin ratings, devised by a 1970 MIT math grad and a rating system that many swear by, makes the Gophers look good. Minnesota is ranked 51st among 339 Division I schools and its schedule is ranked 27 – that’s right, 27th. Twenty-two schools ranked lower than Minnesota are in the NCAA field. Did the Gophers disappoint? Yes, horribly, even though their best player was out for the whole Big Ten season. But they might not have been as bad as some of us thought. I don’t know the pairings but the Gophers could win a couple NIT games, – or they could fall flat on their faces, as they did often during the season.
-Marxhausen: I am quite surprised with the bid to the NIT after the Gophers having a lackluster year in the Big Ten. The Gophers know what facing adversity is about. Losing their star player at the beginning of the season, the Gophers jumped to a 12-1 record against non-conference opponents to start the season. They faltered when they faced true competition, but fans did see improvement as the season went on, even though the record didn’t represent it that well. The Gophers were not picked to beat Northwestern in the Big Ten tourney, nor were they looked at to be as close to beating Michigan. The NIT committee saw this and wanted to give them a chance. The Gophers looked impressive finishing this season, so I like their chances of doing well in this tournament.
-Larson: As average as they are, the Gophers should be comparable with the final 10 or 12 teams named to the NCAA tourney and those teams that received bids to the NIT. Was Minnesota a good team this season? Nope. A bad team? Nope. Just an average team that is capable of winning some games in the NIT and just as capable of bowing out against LaSalle in its opener. Teams that do well in the NIT are those who are able to put the regular season behind them. Minnesota’s weak inside game will likely be its downfall.
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