It’s been more than a decade since I moved to Minnesota from that nebulous place called Back East, and I still can’t figure out whether Minneapolis and St. Paul are basketball towns.
At times I stumble into people with impressive knowledge and understanding of the nuances and I think, maybe. But I’ve never found enough with the savvy and passion like those in Boston or New York, my previous stops along a meandering trail, where championships are the standard and fans can spot a fraud a mile away.
Maybe things would be different if the Minneapolis Lakers remained beyond 1960, and their long rivalry with the Celtics played out here instead in L.A. (Trying to imaging Wilt Chamberlain ordering the potato salad at Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale. Nah, not seeing it.) It’s hard to maintain interest when you go 30 years without an NBA team, and while scandal and NCAA sanctions neutered the best seasons of Gophers men’s basketball. At the Y in my neighborhood, the conversation leans NBA, but not Timberwolves; NCAA, but not Gophers. Small sample, I know. But the passion is clearly directed elsewhere.
The Lynx’s four WNBA championships brought a new group of fans to the hardwood side, while satisfying others who waited decades for a team that played the game the right way — with teamwork, defense and, yes, passion. There’s a trust that Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve knows what she’s doing, a trust we’ve never had in those running the Target Center’s other tenant.
So what can we expect from the three most visible basketball teams in town — the Timberwolves, Gopher men and Gopher women? The Lindsay Whalen-coached Gopher women come with the highest expectations, a preseason No. 23 ranking after last year’s 21-11 finish and WNIT bid. The Timberwolves started 3-0 for only the third time in their 31 tortured seasons before losing Wednesday night in Philadelphia, but their road to the playoffs through the demanding Western Conference is uncertain. The Gopher men figure to struggle without Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey.
Let’s look a little closer, in order of likely 2019-20 success:
Year Two for Whalen, the former Minnesota and Lynx star, technically begins Tuesday afternoon against Missouri State. About 500 people turned out at Williams Arena in mid-October for an open scrimmage against the team’s male practice players, a standard exercise with an unexpected result: The men won, 75-67, pulling away with a 10-3 closing run.
Caught off guard, Whalen chose to emphasize the positives, like the return of guard Gadiva Hubbard from right foot surgery that kept her out all last season. “It wasn’t fun sitting on the bench at all,” Hubbard said. “I’m happy I can contribute while I’m on the court now.” Whalen also liked the post development of Kehinde Bello, the twin sister of teammate Taiye Bello, the Big Ten’s top returning rebounder.
After losing top scorer Kenisha Bell to the WNBA, Whalen wants her team to spread the floor and shoot more 3-pointers. Hubbard gives them an additional shooting threat along with All-Big Ten junior guard and top returning scorer Destiny Pitts (16.3 points per game). Expect the Gophers to start Bello in the middle with four guards around her, a small lineup that will need to scrap for rebounds.
“Taiye is great, but everybody else is going to have to pick up the slack.” Whalen said. “We managed last year, so we’ll see. That’s kind of a work in progress.”
Four years after the death of Flip Saunders, and three years after owner Glen Taylor entrusted the future of the franchise to Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves are on to their third chief basketball officer in four years. Former Houston Rockets executive Gersson Rosas retained interim coach Ryan Saunders, Flip’s son, who installed Karl-Anthony Towns as the club’s on and off-court leader.
“We want to build something that’s sustainable,” Rosas said. “It’s not just getting to the playoffs or having a winning record. For us, it’s building a foundation of success that over time will allow us to contend at the highest level, and that’s for a championship….The commitment we have, to our players and our owner, is to do something that’s never been done here.”
The Wolves began the season with a different look and different vibe, from hiring a DJ to liven up Media Day to implementing a faster-tempo style with more 3-point shooting. Towns is clearly tired of losing, tired of being blamed for it, and tired of being pushed around. He organized a team-building trip to the Bahamas over the summer, and most of the team was in Minneapolis working out two weeks before camp opened.
“When we’re truly competing and playing, things that are said and done don’t affect what happens off the court. That’s a big thing,” Towns said. “When we’re competing and talking junk toward each other and hitting people and really getting aggressive at each other, that doesn’t affect our relationship off the court. That lead to great practices.”
Free of Jimmy Butler’s aura and bullying, Towns started strongly, averaging 32 points and 13.3 rebounds his first three games before he and Joel Embiid grappled Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Their bad blood and taunting continued on social media. Both were ejected and on Thursday the NBA handed down two-game suspensions for both players. A healthy Robert Covington and a more consistent Andrew Wiggins will to vital to the Wolves’ success. Can the inexperienced Saunders get more out of this team than Thibodeau did?
“Don’t get it twisted just because he’s wearing tailored suits and he looks good on the sidelines, at 32 years old or 33 or whatever he is,” Towns said. “We have to make sure we do everything we can for him. And he’s got a side where he’s a dog, especially when it comes to doing things right and doing what he asks of us.”
Richard Pitino begins his seventh season in Dinkytown, two more than a lot of people expected — including, perhaps, him. Murphy, a senior, and Coffey, a junior, led the Gophers to their second NCAA Tournament berth in three years before departing for the pros. Without them and the injured Eric Curry (right knee surgery), Pitino could be in for a tough season unless a pair of sophomores, shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur and rugged center Daniel Oturo, make major strides.
The 6-4 Kalscheur led the Gophers in 3-point shooting (41 percent) and foul shooting (75 percent), while the 6-10 Oturu averaged 10.8 points while leading in blocks (46) and field goal percentage (55.1 percent). Transfer guards Marcus Carr (Pittsburgh) and Payton Willis (Vanderbilt) may benefit from the Gophers spreading the floor instead of pounding it inside to Murphy, a three-time All-Big Ten selection who averaged a double-double his final two seasons.
“He was amazingly productive,” Pitino said of Murphy. “It’s almost impossible to replace a guy with those statistics. Fundamentally, we’re going to have to be great. Everybody’s going to have to understand the value of team rebounding, because he would get a lot of rebounds off pure talent, will and heart.”