Falls Park, the birth place of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is located just a few blocks north of the modest downtown. Like the birth place of most cities, there is no shortage of commemorative plaques detailing the history of the place. If you read closely though, it soon becomes clear that these plaques don’t just tell the story of what is. They tell the story of what could have been.
With better timing and slightly better geography, Sioux Falls could have been a metropolis, rivaling or even eclipsing the bigger cities of the region, including Minneapolis, Omaha and Kansas City. According to the historic markers in Falls Park, for a time, it appeared as though several major railroads would intersect in Sioux Falls, but they went through Omaha instead. Plan B was to utilize the Big Sioux River to power flour mills, but current wasn’t strong enough, and the water falls that give Sioux Falls its name just weren’t tall enough. Now, 135 years after it was granted a city charter, the good people of Sioux Falls will be voting Tuesday whether to build an events center in order to lure away conventions from Fargo and Sioux City. In a lot of ways, the largest city in South Dakota is a city of what could have been.
A few miles south of the birthplace of Sioux Falls is Augustana College, or the Division I basketball powerhouse that could have been. If the river flowed a little faster, or the railroads went a little farther north, there is no reason why Augustana couldn’t be a major college basketball program. If either the milling or railroad industry had taken off, Sioux Falls would have been significantly bigger, and Augustana would have several thousand more students than its current 1,700 or so. If either industry was successful, they could have been the Lutheran Creighton, with a few deep runs in the NCAA tournament. If both industries had taken off, who knows how successful they could have been. College basketball success isn’t limited by size or location. Why should the town of Lawrence, Kansas have more championships than Chicago and New York combined? Why should a small college founded by Methodists in a city otherwise known for a movie about their minor league baseball team have four national championships in the last 20 years.
Augustana clearly isn’t Kansas or Duke, but they have experienced plenty of success in their own sphere of the college basketball world, and this season could be special for the Vikings. They were ranked 8th in the Division II pre-season poll, picked to win their conference, and featured a pre-season 2nd team All-American and an Honorable Mention All-American. They’ll be more of a challenge than Bemidji State, and the Gophers will not be able to sleep walk to a win. Like most Division II teams, their best players are in the back court. Cody Shilling, the all-time leading scorer in Minnesota high school basketball history, is that aforementioned 2nd team All-American. He averaged better than 21 points per game last season, and is competent though not excellent from behind the three-point line. He does excel at getting to the free-throw line, more than six attempts per game last season, and making free-throws 88% of the time. Cameron McCafferey is the honorable mention All-American, and is more of an outside shooting threat with 58 made three-pointers last season. At 6’5” and 6’1” respectively, they won’t be undersized. The Vikings also feature a pair of Division I transfers, Drae Murray, a 5’9” point guard from Sam Houston State, and Evan Pierce, a 6’3” guard who never took the court for Wagner. With only four players 6’7” or taller, and only one 6’8”, Minnesota should have a major size advantage, and unlike Bemidji State, none of them appear to be an outside shooting threat.
The Gophers enter their second and final exhibition game with a few questions answered and at least one big question still unanswered. Ralph Sampson and Trevor Mbakwe showed they will be a force to be reckoned with on the inside, as long a someone can get them the ball. For now, Andre Hollins has answered the point guard question with his eight assist, zero turnover performance against Bemeidji State. The last big questions is who else? In an article in the Star Tribune new Gopher beat writer Amelia Rayno attempted to pin the success of the upcoming season on the “Big Three” and added Rodney Williams of all people to Sampson and Mbakwe. The Gophers will need someone else to step up, but it is way too soon to assume that will be Rodney Williams. The title of her article should have been the Big Two plus Who? because it is anybody’s guess if anyone else will emerge as a scoring threat and who that will be.
Ideally, that scoring threat will come on the perimeter. A big season by Williams would be great to see, but it won’t solve the problem of a lack of diversity of scoring threats. Sampson III and Mbakwe can score near the basket, and so can Williams. One of the Hollinses or Julian Welch becoming a double-digit scorer is more important to the team than Williams scoring the same number of points.
Welch finally takes the court Monday night after twisting and then tweaking his ankle. He was the early favorite for the point guard spot, and if his lone season of Division I basketball at UC-Davis is any indication, the best outside shooter on the roster. We should get a good look at him at both guard positions, and if Tubby Smith’s wholesale substitutions continue, should give the second team at least someone worth watching. Until someone else finally does step up, Welch is the top candidate to join Sampson III and Mbakwe as a scoring threat.
This will be the final tune-up before the tune-ups that do count. Augustana is a decent team, and Tubby Smith should treat this more like a real game. You should never put too much stock in an exhibition game, but there may be a little to learn from this one.