Ask the Sportswriters

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.

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•Question:  The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has been narrowed down to the “Sweet 16.” What are your thoughts so far?

-Dorr: There have been lots of good games that have gone down to the wire. There have been 28 games where the margin has been 10 points or fewer, 17 of those where the margin was five points or fewer. There were so many good games involving Big Ten teams, including the last-minute loss by Purdue on Sunday night. I’ve watched more games this year than I have in many years. The two big upsets of No. 2 teams were great for the tournament, especially the loss by Duke. I haven’t talked to one person who was sad to see Duke lose. We knew basketball wasn’t very good in the western part of the country but didn’t know it was so bad. There is no team west of Waco, Texas (Baylor) left in the field, the first time in  27 years there are no teams from the Mountain or Pacific time zones. TV ratings, so far, are up.

-Marxhausen:  Like always, my bracket is not in the best shape at the moment. Out of the 16, 11 of my picks are still in contention with all Final Four teams remaining. In the South Region, Kentucky is looking strong with a potential upset in Indiana waiting for them. Baylor will have a hard time against a tough Xavier team. In the West Region, Marquette will have its hands full against a dominant Florida team which had its way with Virginia and Norfolk State. Michigan State has not faced any difficulties yet and will have its hardest matchup against Louisville, which is defending really well. Syracuse has surprised me, staying in it thus far after losing its center, but I feel it faces its downfall against Wisconsin. Ohio State is looking strong and I feel the Buckeyes will topple Cincinnati next round. North Carolina is going against Ohio and will be having a hard time without injured star guard Kendall Marshal leading the way. Kansas has looked shaky, so I think North Carolina State has looked strong enough to beat the Jayhawks.

-Larson:  We continue to see how much one or two standout players allows the mid-major and smaller schools to compete with the big boys.  Two of my picks for the “Elite Eight,” Missouri and Duke, both No. 2 regional seeds, were taken out in the first round by No. 15 seeds, Missouri by Norfolk State and Duke by Lehigh. Two of my other “Elite Eight” picks, Syracuse and North Carolina could bow out in the next round. It’s great to see Wisconsin, led by former Minnesota prep players, move on but the Badgers appear to live or die with the three-point shot and that can be dangerous. Overall, the Big Ten has been impressive. As Luther says, close games have made the tournament interesting and fun so far. Once again, there will be no bracket money coming my way.

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•Question:  What have been the biggest surprises so far in the tournament?

-Dorr: Obviously, the two wins by No. 15 teams, Norfolk State and Lehigh, and the advancement by No. 13 Ohio after it beat Michigan in the first round, in what was a surprise to me. I also thought Syracuse, without one of its top players, wouldn’t make it past the second round. But I hadn’t seen Syracuse play this year either. I’m not surprised by the fact that there are four Big Ten teams left, and Purdue could easily have made it five Sunday night against Kansas, but for some poor shot selection late in the game. How about the fact that there have been at least eight players, maybe more, from the state of Minnesota on teams in the NCAA? And, while not a surprise, it has been fun to watch Princeton’s Jared Berggren with Wisconsin. He had a school-record seven blocked shots in the win over Montana and then played a big part in the win over Vanderbilt.

-Marxhausen:  My biggest surprise came when a perennial powerhouse program such as Duke lost in the first round or when another No. 2 seed in Missouri lost out right away. I had Duke losing to Baylor in the “Sweet 16,” but I had Missouri going to the “Elite Eight,” which caught me more off guard than the Duke loss. Virginia Commonwealth made quite the impression again, almost squeaking two tournament victories after being shunned all season and almost losing out on getting into the tournament. Besides teams losing, I think the biggest surprise is all the close games. Low-seeded teams are coming to play and are making games closer than the top seeds would like. The games are not complete blowouts, which in turn keep fans watching closely.

-Larson:  The state of Ohio having four of the “Sweet 16” (Ohio State, Ohio, Xavier, Cincinnati)teams is a surprise and the Ohio State-Cincinnati game today (Thursday) could be a good one, especially if fomer Cincinnati star Oscar Robinson (“The Big O”) is there to fire up the Bearcats. Missouri’s early departure was the biggest surprise. The Tigers were touted as one of the top teams in the country throughout the regular season.

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•Question:  The Minnesota State High School League is celebrating 100 years of  prep basketball in Minnesota, with the 2012 tournament now underway. Here are four questions about the Minnesota Boys State Basketball Tournament:

1. Who would you consider the best boys team to compete in the tournament?

2. Who would you consider the best player to play in the tournament?

3. Name your all-time team, including starters and three bench players:

4. What state tournament coach would you choose to coach your all-star team?

-Dorr: Talk about an impossible task, given the fact that I’ve been watching state tournaments since the 1950s, although there were a couple years preceding that when all I could do was listen to WCCO Radio. And the last 10 to 15 years I have been out of state when the tournament takes place. Taking all of that into consideration, I’d take Bob McDonald of Chisholm, on longevity if nothing else, as the coach. He’s taken 11 teams to state, spanning 38 years from 1973 to 2011, and is closing in on 1,000 wins in his career. A close second would be Ken Novak Jr. of Hopkins, although he’s done it in a different era that allows players to transfer from other school districts. I’ve not seen any of the Hopkins teams the past decade and I hear they’ve been great. But I’ll take Edina and its three straight titles in the 1960s. Best player is nearly impossible to choose but I’ll take Mark Olberding of Melrose. And I’d put Ron Johnson of New Prague, Randy Breuer of Lake City, Barry Wohler of Bird Island and Khalid El-Amin of Minneapolis North on the all-star team, with Dean Veenhof of Edgerton, Bob Zender of Edina and Terry Kunze of Duluth Central as bench players. And then I could give you a list of at least 10 other players who could be on that list, especially since it doesn’t include anyone from recent years.

-Marxhausen: My top team is the 1995 Minneapolis North squad, with Khalid El-Amin leading the way. They went 30-0 and this was the first of their three-peats. My top player is Khalid El-Amin. In 1995, 1996 and 1997 he led Minneapolis North to three state championships. He started on the team as a freshman and is three-time Minnesota state player of the year.

My all-tournament team has Khalid El Amin of Minneapolis North, Jim McIntyre of Minneapolis Patrick Henry (1944, 1945), Mark Olberding of Melrose, Randy Breuer of Lake City and Isaiah Dahlman of Braham. Bench players are Cody Schilling of Ellsworth (2006, 2007, 2008), Dave Tschimperle of Hopkins (1951, 1952, 1953) and Bob Zender of Edina. Jack Evens of Bloomington Jefferson is my coach. He coached there for 26 years before retiring, finishing with a 554-193 record. He compiled eight state appearances winning four championships.

-Larson: Of course, tiny Edgerton’s unbeaten (27-0) 1960 state champions are nearly every state tournament follower’s favorite team. But, the Dutchmen aren’t the tourney’s best all-time team. That honor belongs to Hopkins 2009 (31-0) state champs, a team whose starting five all went on to play Division I college basketball. Closely following that team are Edina’s 1967 team (27-0) and the 1995 Minneapolis North team (30-0). Those Edina state-champion teams of 1966, 1967 and 1968 were coached by Duane Baglien and led by 6-foot-8 center Bob Zender. The Hornets were not crowd favorites, mainly because they came from the “cake-eater” community of Edina. Baglien died last year and Zender in 2010.

Best player? Mark Olberding of Melrose in the early 1970s. A man among boys. I feel fortunate to have seen the 6-7 block of granite Olberding (another “Big O”) play about 25 times during his high school career. Only the foolish or very, very brave challenged Olberding for a rebound.

All-tournament team? Put Olberding, 7-foot Randy Breuer of Lake City (coached by former Foley coach Jerry Snyder) in the late 1970s, and Isaiah Dahlman of Braham’s 2004, 2005 and 2006 state champs across the front line. It’s Minneapolis North’s Khalid El-Amin and Terry Kunze of Duluth Central (1961) in the backcourt. The three aces coming off the bench are 6-6 Frank Wachlarowicz of Little Falls (1975), 6-6 Ron Johnson of New Prague (1955, 1956) and 6-1 guard Terry Porter of Marshall.

Coach? I like Luther’s choice of Bob McDonald of Chisholm. A wonderful coach. And, I want to see my guys sporting crew cuts. Could you imagine that? My assistant would be Rocori’s Bob Brink, who’s taking his Spartans to the state tournament for the 13th time this week, then retiring. I remember Brink coming in to take over the Rocori program in the early 1970s and interviewed him many times while sports editor at the St. Cloud Times. Great quotes.

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Do you have an opinion on any of this week’s questions? Do you agree or disagree with the sportswriters? Let us know by sending an e-mail to editor.millelacscotimes@ecm-inc.com or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.

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