The Golden Gophers play their second game of the season against their not exactly rivals from South Dakota State University. It has been several years since the Gophers started playing the state schools that hug the western border of Minnesota, and the novelty has worn off.
Playing regional low-majors is a phenomenon that will never go away. The Golden Gophers need a few easy games early in the season, and since they pay for all the costs associated with the game including travel expenses, lodging, food, etc, it makes financial sense to have teams like South Dakota State drive in than flying in some hyphenated school from the deep south. Meanwhile, Gopher fans aware of the limitations of scheduling, clamor for variety (why not play a Missouri Valley Conference school for once) and wonder why the Gophers can never seem to schedule a game against one of the major college teams that are within a comfortable day’s drive (Nebraska is no longer an option, but Iowa State and Marquette are.)
Not including the plethora of teams in the immediate Chicago area, there are 14 Division I basketball teams not in the Big Ten within a 10 hour drive of Minneapolis representing seven conferences, and there is one Independent, but we only see the Dakota schools. It is time for this to change. The time has come for a Best of the Midwest Tournament. It will bring better basketball to more people, give small schools a chance to win some big games, and give the big schools an option to create rivalries that never had a chance to take off and to keep rivalries that would otherwise be lost due to conference realignment.
I fully realize that spending a long November weekend in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or Des Moines isn’t nearly as glamorous as Maui, Orlando, or even Anchorage, but I’d hope the basketball would make up for it. Realistically, only eight teams could participate every year, and only one team per conference would be represented, so in years that a team isn’t participating, they’d still have the opportunity to play in a half full gymnasium in a far-flung locale, while their fans wait for pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner.
In a perfect world, the Gophers would host the tournament each year at the Target Center and the Xcel Center. They’d be on the opposite side of the bracket, with a potential championship match-up against Iowa State, Marquette, or whichever Missouri Valley school had gripped the nation’s attention the previous march. To get there, they’d have to win a first round game against North Dakota State or South Dakota State, still giving their fans a chance to trek across state lines to take advantage of sales-tax free ugly Christmas sweaters. Iowa State state could play one of the Horizon League Wisconsin state schools in a location that is equidistant from their home cities. Any of the small schools could improve their strength of schedule, get on national TV with a few good games, and save all of us from picking them to lose their eventual first game in the NCAA tournament.
In a less than perfect but more realistic world, the tournament could rotate between some of the larger cities in the area, such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, and Fargo if any of the teams could make it up I-94 during a November blizzard. Conferences with one or more programs in the area could rotate teams over the years, so instead of a Minnesota and Marquette semi-final, it could be a Notre Dame semi-final.
There would obviously be plenty of kinks to work out, such as what would happen to the inter-conference regional rivalries that already exist. Would Marquette and Wisconsin want to play each-other in Omaha, and would Nebraska and Creighton have any interest in playing each other in Milwaukee, but those are issues that could be overcome, especially if it wasn’t a tournament format and instead was just a series of games, something along the lines of the Big Ten-ACC challenge for upper midwest teams.
Of course this will never happen, but it would be a lot better than playing South Dakota State on a Monday in a game that won’t be televised anywhere…
Nate Wolters is a name you already know if you follow college basketball in the five state area. He is far from a household name. If South Dakota State can make the NCAA tournament before he graduates, he’ll have Gus Johnson screaming his name. He is one of the rare players that can take over a game and lead his team to win, regardless of how bad his team is and how good the opponent is. He is Ben Woodside good. He could eventually be Stephen Curry good. Statistically, he already is.
Last season Wolters came out of nowhere to over 19 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game. At 6’4” he has good size for a point guard, and his 40% three-point shooting means he needs to be guarded anywhere on the floor. Wolters has had several transcendent performances over the last two plus years in Brookings. He scored 25 points in a win at Iowa last season, exploded for 36 in an overtime loss to North Dakota State, and broke the 30 point barrier three more times last season. In the Jackrabbits’ first game of this season, he scored 32 points and had 11 assists with nary a turnover. The kid can play. There are simply too many good basketball players these days, and once in a while a great player can fall through the cracks. With what the college basketball world knows about him now, if he was being recruited now, he could play for any number of BCS level programs.
Unfortunately for players like Wolters, basketball is a team game. While a few players can fall through the cracks, entire teams don’t. While he has been dominant, the Jackrabbits have not. They finished last season with a 19-12 record which was aided by two wins over Division II teams and two wins over Centenary, which is now a Division III team. They went only 10-8 in the Summit League despite having the best guard in the conference. Last season was the first time they won more than 14 games in a season.
That isn’t to say they can’t score, because they definitely can. They averaged 82 points per game and as a team shot 41% from the three-point line and almost 50% from two-point territory despite not having much of a post presence. The only problem is that the only thing that eclipsed their scoring success was their defensive mediocrity, including giving up a combined 312 points in three losses to Oakland. In that last loss, Oakland scored 110 points on better than 57% percent shooting from the field and from behind the three-point line.
South Dakota State won its only game this season at home against Western Michigan, but it didn’t do much to quell the defensive worries, especially on the interior. Matt Stainbrook, Western Michigan’s 6’9” center who you’ll never hear of again scored 32 points on 14-16 shooting. He averaged less than nine points per game last season, and his previous career high was 18 points. If some no name from a mediocre MAC school can easily drop 30 points on SDSU, what can Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III do.
In what will be a recurring theme if it’s not already, low to mid-major teams rarely have the size to compete with the literal big boys. SDSU has only one player 6’8” or taller with Division I experience. This will be a huge liability on the defensive end, but as we saw against Bemidji State, it can be an advantage too. Minnesota’s interior players aren’t accustomed to defending perimeter oriented players, and Jordan Dyksta, a 6’8” forward made 51.5% of his three-point attempts last season. He’ll be their biggest player on the floor. He’ll be joined by Griffan Callahan, a 6’4” senior guard who can knock down the three. Tony Fiegan scored 16 points in the season opening win, and at 6’7” is an undersized true-post player. Chad White, a 6’6” junior rounds out their probable starters.
If South Dakota State can knock down their threes and defend the interior, the Gophers could have a challenge on their hands, but if they have an off-night, it could get ugly. Unfortunately, the winner won’t have a chance to play the winner of Northern Iowa and Marquette.