Ask the Sportswriters

Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times  editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.

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•Question:  Former Minnesota Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders was named the team’s new President of Basketball Operations last week. He replaces David Kahn, whose contract was not renewed after what was his fourth season in that post. Saunders coached the team from 1995-2005 and guided the Timberwolves to eight-straight playoff appearances before being fired by owner Glen Taylor. What do you think of the move and what does Saunders have to do to get the team back in the playoffs?

-Dorr: It was a good move, if for no other reason than public relations. Kahn didn’t seem to know much about basketball, and even though some good pieces of the puzzle were put in place during his tenure, I think that was the perception by most fans. The team needs another scorer or two to move up in the standings. I think the best thing will be that Saunders and Coach Adelman are likely to have a good rapport and figure out what the team needs most.

-Marxhausen: Saunders had a big thing going for him all those years as head coach – a star player named Kevin Garnett. It just so happens that the Timberwolves are in the same boat as they were when Saunders was the head coach as well as the new President of Basketball Operations. The first key to put the team in the running for the playoffs is to make sure Kevin Love does not leave. He has to entice him to stay and play for a mediocre team when they are without him, but a playoff team with him in the lineup. Also, losing Ricky Rubio at this point would prove highly detrimental because of his play-making ability at such a young age. The next key is to keep Rick Adelman on as head coach because he knows how to mentor and mold these young players. He has the history and experience of a winning coach and is essential to keeping the team afloat.

-Larson:  Saunders is a good, and popular, choice for the position. While coaching the hapless Washington Wizards he likely picked up on a lot of things NOT to do when building a team. The first thing he should do is add a clause in Kevin Love’s contract prohibiting knucklehead knuckle pushups. Love is a great player but his constant whining over his contract and the make-up of the team makes me wonder if he will ever be happy in Minnesota. The Timberwolves had a decent roster this season and were improved from the 2011-2012 season. Saunders needs to add a player(s) to that mix. And, if Rick Adelman decides to leave, Saunders is the logical choice to return to the bench.

-Johnson: Without question Flip Saunders was a great basketball coach.  Will he be a great President of Operations for the Timberwolves?  I had to research a bit to see exactly what the President of Operations of basketball does.  Among other things, his responsibility is to align the goals and objectives of the organization with its activities.  With this in mind, I think Saunders will be a great fit for the Timberwolves.  His philosophy around building a competitive basketball team will be embraced by a nucleus of talent already in Minnesota.  I think he will also excel in identifying talent in the market that the Timberwolves can bring in to support Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.  Maybe this is the change Minnesota finally needed to see playoff basketball again.

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•Question:  The Big Ten Conference recently announced a new alignment for its football teams beginning in 2014. The new alignment has Minnesota in the West Division with Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. The East Division will include Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Indiana and newcomers Rutgers and Maryland. Each school will play the other six schools in its division and two schools from the other division in 2014 and 2015. Starting in 2016, schools will play the other six schools in their division and three schools from the other division as the conference moves to a nine-game conference schedule. What do you think of the new alignment and how do you feel it will affect Minnesota’s program?

-Dorr: I don’t know enough about how, or if, they are going to keep rivalries alive. Minnesota and Michigan have the longest-running trophy game in college football and should be allowed to keep that going. But it doesn’t sound like that will happen on a regular basis. As far as divisions go, it should be a good one (weaker) for Minnesota. There will be years now in the conference when the schedules will be unfair because the cross-over games could be against weaker opponents or stronger opponents. There will be some complaining about that. As someone who has followed the Big Ten for more than 60 years, the addition of the new schools is not something I look upon favorably. But they didn’t consult me.

-Marxhausen:  I do not see much of a difference from the previous alignment to the new realignment for the Gophers. Minnesota is not a traditional powerhouse like Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Gophers have not been able to string decent seasons together since Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber were in the backfield for coach Glen Mason (2003-2005). The consensus surrounding the new alignment is that the Big Ten West is much weaker than the Big Ten East. The West is considered weaker because teams like Minnesota and Illinois are in it. I do not see much of a difference for the Gophers except that they might not have to play teams like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State on a regular basis, which could improve their bowl eligibility. But other than that, they are the same old Gophers.

-Larson:  The new alignment was based on geography and it made sense to keep new members Rutgers and Maryland in the East Division. On the surface the new format looks good for Minnesota. But, if the two, soon to be three, games against East Division foes turn out to be a combination of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State or even Rutgers, the Gophers are back in a gopher hole. Minnesota’s soft non-conference schedule this fall (Nevada-Las Vegas, 2-11 last year, New Mexico State, 1-11, Western Illinois, 3-8) may result in six victories and a bowl bid. After 2013 the Gophers, with nine conference games and just three non-conference games, will have their work cut out to gain the postseason. A positive development, though, is that Minnesota will not be able to schedule FCS teams in the future, meaning the Dakota schools won’t be able to kick the Gophers around anymore.

On a related note, Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague was absolutely giddy Monday when he announced Texas Christian University (TCU) has replaced South Dakota State on the 2015 home schedule. Teague, still reeling from the fiasco created last fall when Minnesota dropped North Carolina (at an estimated cost of $800,000) from its 2013 and 2014 schedules, told Charlie Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that, “The financials are terrific for us.” That’s right, “terrific.”  Let’s hope so.

-Johnson: Minnesota lucked out being placed in the West Division, given the teams in the East Division.  The East Division includes teams that have won the Big Ten championship 9 out of the last 13 years.  Keep in mind that both Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for the BCS Championship last year.  I like the structure of the scheduling.  I don’t like the admission of Maryland and Rutgers.   I think the Big Ten has a great tradition of holding a strong presence in the Midwest and I would have liked to see it stay that way.  With the continuous restructuring of conferences in recent years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more changes in the next few years.

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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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