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: After defeating Wisconsin last week the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team got dismantled 72-51 Sunday at Iowa to drop to 6-7 in the Big Ten and 18-8 overall. Did the Gophers’ chances of getting an NCAA bid go up in smoke in Iowa City?
-Dorr: I went to the Wisconsin game, with more interest than usual because Princeton’s Jared Berggren (15 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks in a thrashing of Ohio State Sunday) was playing for the Badgers. And Minnesota came away with a win that I thought might propel them to bigger and better things. Then they took a 21-5 lead seven minutes into Sunday’s game in Iowa City and if I hadn’t watched the Gophers the past six years under Tubby Smith, I would have thought they were going to win. Instead, I wrote down the time at which I thought they would lose that lead and put it down as five minutes into the second half. I was wrong – they lost it before halftime, playing like they had never seen a zone defense before, getting outscored 26-6 over a 12-minute span. I’d play a zone against Minnesota also. They have only one real shooter, Andre Hollins. On a good night, if Austin Hollins is hitting, they have two. Tubby appeared to give up in the second half, taking out leading scorer Andre Hollins with nine minutes to go because he had four fouls. He never went back in the game. I don’t know if Rodney Williams is hurt or not but in the 10 minutes he played he did nothing, except letting the ball go through his hands with a dunk in sight. The team can still make the NCAA tournament. After all, their RPI was 13 before that game. But they’re fading fast and that prediction of a 10-8 Big Ten season might have been too high.
-Marxhausen: Games against Iowa are not supposed to be lost when making a bid for the NCAA Tournament. The win against Wisconsin was huge and unexpected, but it helped Minnesota’s resume. Coming back after that and losing to Iowa was a push back in their bid. Minnesota’s next two games are more unlikely wins against No. 14 Ohio State and No. 1 Indiana. Then they finish out the season against Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue. If they win three out of the five they have a very decent chance at making it past the bubble. Upset victories over Ohio State or Indiana would boost the notable wins category for the Gophers along with their wins against Memphis, Michigan State and Wisconsin. The season is very long and very arduous. The Gophers are falling apart in the second half and lack the consistency to dominate every week. They have a very talented team that lacks individual performances from their playmakers. They are hanging on by a thread and it is up to the players to decide if they want to make the tournament or not.
-Larson: If you’re a longtime follower of Gopher basketball, or football, you knew that after beating Wisconsin, a loss at Iowa was right around the corner. A big victory is usually followed by a disappointing loss. And, after watching coach Tubby Smith and his players dancing (?) and whooping it up in the locker room after the Wisconsin game, you not only felt a loss at Iowa was coming, you were ready to bet on it.
Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams were supposed to give Minnesota a dominating presence up front but that hasn’t happened very often. They’ve rarely had impressive games at the same time. And, Minnesota’s bench hasn’t provided much of a spark? As I said earlier, the Gophers will need an impressive showing in the Big Ten Tournament to gain a NCAA bid.
•Question: Who’s the best men’s basketball team in the Big Ten? Indiana and Michigan State are currently tied for the top spot with 11-2 records. (Note: The Hoosiers and Spartans met Tuesday night at Michigan State.)
-Dorr: I’d say Indiana. What makes Minnesota’s record more frustrating is that Minnesota whipped Michigan State soundly to open the season, beat a good Illinois team on the road, and then lost a close game at Indiana. Indiana looks like a more well-rounded team than Michigan State but I guess you can never count Tom Izzo’s teams out, even with a loss to Minnesota. I’d say Michigan is still in the running for best Big Ten team.
-Marxhausen: If someone were to decide who is currently the best in the Big Ten the choices would be drawn down to only Michigan State and Indiana. Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State have done very well this season and have pulled out some big games, but they lack the raw tenacity that Indiana and Michigan State have in every game. Michigan State has a core group of players in junior Keith Appling, freshman Gary Harris, sophomore Brandon Dawson, junior Adreian Payne and senior Derrick Nix. They are a solid starting lineup that produces big numbers in big games. Nix and Payne dominate the paint, Dawson has an athletic build like LeBron James, Appling can score and pass, and Harris is a good knockdown shooter. Be that as it may, Indiana has arguably two of the best players in the NCAA, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Head Coach Tom Crean likes to play 7-8 players a game, with solid minutes to the first seven. With five players averaging double-digit points a game, Indiana can spread the ball around and get production from a lot of weapons. For instance, in the most recent game against Purdue, Oladipo was taken out for an ankle injury and Will Sheehey came in and filled his roll. Sheehey finished the game with 22 points, going 9-9 from the field. There is a reason why Indiana is second (82.9 points a game) in the NCAA in points and fourth (.502) in field goal percentage. When it comes between the two, I like the star power that Indiana has and its ability to dominate on offense and defense.
-Larson: Tough choice. I’ll go with Michigan State, mostly because of coach Tom Izzo. In addition to a talented roster, the Spartans have that devastating half-court defense that opponents rarely do well against. Two weeks from now, though, Michigan could be deserving of that No. 1 tag.
•Question: You have two picks on who’s going to win Sunday’s Daytona 500, NASCAR’s season-opening event. Who are your choices?
-Dorr: I was hoping we’d have a question this week about the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dropping wrestling as an Olympic sport, or maybe outdoor hockey, which I decided halfway through the first period on Sunday was unwatchable because completing one pass is almost impossible, and completing two IS impossible. I was going to say that IOC stands for Idiotic Olympic Committee. But now I can’t use that line and on top of that have to make picks for the Daytona 500 where they will be using the new Gen-6 cars that not much is known about. You could pick Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon, since they are in the front row after qualifying last weekend. (What do you think the old-time NASCAR drivers think about a woman qualifying for the pole?) But the start order will not be determined until Thursday of this week. I’ll put down Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski but it’s too early to tell. Watching Patrick and Gordon fight it out would be fun but it’s not likely.
-Marxhausen: All the hype seems to be surrounding Danica Patrick as she wins the Daytona pole position, leading up to the race and clocking in the fastest lap in the recorded history of the Daytona track. But she hasn’t established herself as a top-tier driver yet and there are many talented drivers ahead of her. She does rank in my top 20, but she is around the No. 20 spot. The likes of Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch make out my top five right now. It is pretty uncommon for back-to-back winners at the Daytona 500 so Matt Kenseth is out. Brad Keselowski is ranked No. 1 in more than one poll, so I like his odds as well as the experienced Jimmie Johnson to win the Daytona 500.
-Larson: Danica Patrick is getting a lot of media attention after winning the pole position. She’s coming off a 2012 season in which she competed in just 10 Sprint Cup events, with her best finish being 17th. It will be interesting to see if other drivers treat her differently if she causes a wreck and/or forces cars out of the race. Like any “500,” all the cars are fast and the driver’s stamina and car’s endurance become key factors. And, a rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover in your pocket doesn’t hurt.
I’ll go with Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch as my picks. And, some GoDaddy.com commercials during the race would be nice.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.