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 Minnesota Vikings were busy last week. They traded wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks for three draft picks (first and seventh round this season and third round next season) and also released veteran corner back Antoine Winfield and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley. The Vikings signed former Green Bay standout wide receiver Greg Jennings and veteran quarterback Matt Cassel, who played for Kansas City last season. The team also re-signed unrestricted free agent offensive tackle Phil Loadholt. The Vikings signed five of their six other unrestricted free agents.

So, what do you think of those transactions and are the Vikings a better team today than they were before last week?

-Dorr: Except for the people who are from Minnesota, football fans in Florida can’t figure out why the team would trade someone as good as Harvin. All I can figure out is that he must have done and/or said things that the team just couldn’t deal with.  Harvin appeared to be one of the top talents in the NFL and now he’s gone. Jennings should be a good player, although I’d be surprised if he plays five years at his present level. Cassel could be a help. Winfield’s production had slipped and he wanted a lot of money for someone who doesn’t play all the downs. The Vikings had a tough choice with Winfield and decided not to retain him. I have no idea if they’re a better team or not and I don’t think anyone will know that until next fall.

-Marxhausen: The Vikings are addressing major concerns on their roster and are trying to ride the success from last year with improved personnel. Harvin declared he was unhappy with his role on the Vikings and wished to be traded last season. After showing that he was the top offensive weapon behind Adrian Peterson, he sat out half the season, leaving much to the imagination of Viking fans. On one hand you have an unhappy Harvin and on the other hand you have Greg Jennings and a first-round draft pick, I would choose the latter any day. The Vikings have addressed the concern about a deep threat by signing Jennings but they have more needs to fill, including another receiver. One of the team’s two first round draft picks in April could solve that. Signing Loadholt was huge and the tackle positions are set, with Matt Khalil on the left side. And, so is the center position in John Sullivan. The two guard positions are weak and could use some fine-tuning as well. Other concerns are the corner back position, middle linebacker and defensive tackle. Releasing Brinkley leaves only Audie Cole at middle linebacker. Talk has gone around that the Vikings were flirting with the idea of free agent Brian Urlacher, but nothing has happened yet. Winfield was released by the Vikings, but could be looking for a restructured contract with the team. The Vikings are a better team today than they were last week, but many pressing concerns still overshadow the team and it needs to address them in the draft and free agency before the season starts next fall.

-Larson:  The Vikings apparently couldn’t handle Harvin and he became a distraction. He lost some value when the kick-off distance changed, resulting in so many kick-offs not being returned. Still, speed is a key factor. Adrian Peterson ran away from a lot of defenders last season after he broke into the open. Jennings will provide an immediate boost to the passing game and most observers feel the Vikings will get a good receiver in the first round, maybe speedster Cordarelle Patterson of Tennessee. Cassel solidifies the quarterback position. And, isn’t it time for 2012 back-up quarterback Joe Webb to be moved to another position where the team can find a way to use his athletic ability?

Retaining Loadholt was good. Releasing Winfield was not – he certainly didn’t show his age the past few seasons when he was the team’s best tackler and playmaker on defense. Maybe the team and Winfield can still make a deal. Brinkley wasn’t great but who’s going to replace him? Yes, the Vikings are a better team than they were a week ago, but not by a large margin.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team will face Pacific 12 Conference regular-season champion UCLA in the opening round of the NCAA South Regional Friday night in Austin, Texas. UCLA (25-9) was seeded No. 6 in the regional while Minnesota (20-11) was seeded No. 11. How far do you think the Gophers will go in the regional?

-Dorr: If you can figure out the Minnesota team, let me know how you did it. The Gophers had a schedule ranked third-toughest in the country and at one time were 15-1. Then they went 5-11, although one of those was a win over No. 1 Indiana. They also beat ranked Memphis, Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin. Indiana has a No. 1 seed, Michigan State No. 3, Wisconsin No. 5, Memphis No. 6 and Illinois No. 7. Minnesota also led the Big Ten in rebound margin (8.1 a game). Minnesota beat USC by 14 points and UCLA split with the Trojans, losing to them at home. UCLA beat Stanford – a team Minnesota beat by 3 points – by 6 points and 8 points. UCLA lost its No. 2 scorer, Jordan Adams (15.3 points a game) for the season last Friday.  Some stats are misleading: UCLA was 28th in the country in scoring (74.7) and Minnesota was 149th (68.4), but that’s only six points difference. I don’t pretend to know how this up-and-down team will do. They’ll likely face No. 3 seed Florida if they do win.

-Marxhausen:  UCLA wanted nothing more than to be placed in the West region so that it could stay close to home. The Bruins have a decent resume with a 25-9 overall record and Pac-12 championship, but one fatal mistake that could not be avoided crashed their hopes of making a sudden impact at the NCAA tourney. Last Friday in the Pac-12 semifinals, UCLA’s Jordan Adams played a pivotal role in the 66-64 victory over Arizona before breaking his foot late in the game. The NCAA selection committee looks at injuries and adjusted their seeding as such. Without Adams the Gophers will have an easier time getting past the Bruins to a second-round game against the Florida Gators. That is as far as the Gophers will go. All Minnesota has to do against UCLA is show up and play its game. After UCLA the Gophers will have a tough time against coach Billy Donovan and the Gators.

-Larson:  The Minneapolis Star Tribune had a photo Monday of two Gopher players and coach Tubby Smith at a press conference after it was announced that the Gophers were in the tournament as a No. 11 seed and would be facing sixth-seeded UCLA. Smith managed a smile. Players Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams looked like…..well I’ve seen pictures of prisoners on death row who looked happier. Other than the surprising upset of Indiana, it’s been mostly doom and gloom for Minnesota the past month, capped off by a dismal 51-49 loss to an average Illinois team in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament last week. How can a team with the supposed talent Minnesota has score less than 50 points in a game? How can the team’s star player, heralded Trevor Mbakwe, play 27 minutes and only score eight points?  The turnover with 14 seconds remaining that led to Illinois’ winning basket pretty much summed up Minnesota’s season. A season that will end Friday in Texas.

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•Question:  The seeding and pairings are set for the NCAA men’s tournament. What do you think of how the teams are stacked up for the regionals? And, pick six teams (total) you feel have the best chance to end up in the Final Four.

-Dorr: As far as how the teams are stacked up for the regionals, I have little idea what goes into determining that. The UCLA coach is disappointed that his team wasn’t placed in the West regional and he thinks the Pac-12 teams were stiffed by the NCAA committee. Some don’t think Gonzaga deserves a No. 1 seed. And a guy from Iowa I talked to on Sunday in Sarasota thinks the Hawkeyes should have been in the tourney. It seems certain there will be some upsets, likely some big ones. So I’ll pass on picking six teams for the Final Four this early in the game. There are some interesting sidebars for Minnesota basketball fans. Former Gopher Colton Iverson led Colorado State to a 25-8 record and his team is a No. 8 seed. Iverson led the team in scoring (14.6), rebounds (9.7) and shot 60 percent from the field. Justin Cobbs, also a transfer from Minnesota, averaged 15.5 points a game for California which is 20-11 and has a No. 12 seed. Nate Wolters from St. Cloud averaged 22.8 as South Dakota State’s point guard, 5.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists, and shot 41 percent on threes. And then, of course, there’s  Wisconsin’s Jared Berggren of Princeton, 13 miles to the south of Milaca, who averaged 11.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, and was named to the Big Ten’s all-conference defensive team. Maybe Gary can talk me into picking six teams next week.

-Marxhausen:  In the East region I see the No. 1 seed Indiana facing No. 2 seed Miami (Florida) in the elite eight with Miami stretching it all the way to the final four. In the South Region I see many upsets happening early and often. Kansas has a strong team, but I feel it will fall to Michigan on the way to the Final Four. No. 4 Michigan will face No. 3 Florida in the elite eight with Michigan going on to the Final Four. In the West region there are no upsets with No. 1 Gonzaga taking on No. 2 Ohio State in the elite eight and Gonzaga moving on to the Final Four. Finally in the Midwest Region, No. 1 seed Louisville will cruise past the competition to the Final Four as they beat No. 2 Duke in the elite eight. My Final Four are Louisville, Michigan, Gonzaga and Miami (Florida). My two bonus picks are Indiana and Florida.

-Larson:  As usual, some good teams have a bone to pick with the selection committee. What the heck are Liberty (15-20) and North Carolina A&T (19-16) doing in a play-in game while Maryland (22-12, with two wins over Duke and a win over North Carolina State) and Virginia (21-11, with wins over Duke, North Carolina and Wisconsin) are on the outside looking in. Defending-champion Kentucky was 21-11 and not selected. The Wildcats would be favored against at least 15 teams in the field.

So much for the grumbling. I like Michigan State over Louisville in the finals of the Midwest Regional, Georgetown over Kansas in the South Regional, Ohio State over Gonzaga in the West Regional and Indiana over Miami (Florida) in the East Regional. My bonus picks are Duke and Michigan. It should be a great tournament.

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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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