Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics

March Madness will feature plenty of Minnesotans. Does that make the state a basketball hotbed?

What is beyond debate, according coaches with decades on the Minnesota basketball scene, is that state-produced talent is better and deeper than ever.

UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers shown during the Big East Conference Tournament Championship on March 7.
Huskies guard Paige Bueckers shown during the Big East Conference Tournament Championship on March 7.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

For basketball fans in Minnesota, nothing beats what’s in store the next few weeks. 

The girls state high school tournament wraps up this week, and the boys tournament the week after. Meanwhile, both NCAA Tournaments are underway and continue through early April, when the women’s Final Four will take over the Target Center. You won’t find Minnesotans in every March Madness game across the various networks, but enough are out there if you know where to look.

More Minnesotans of both genders are playing Division I basketball than ever, with several recently achieving national prominence. Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren at Gonzaga. Tyus and Tre Jones at Duke. And Paige Bueckers at Connecticut.

Does that make Minnesota a “hotbed” for basketball, as some locals claim?

The answer: Maybe.

Article continues after advertisement

Here’s something to think about: The Minnesota-based web site PrepHoops.com ranked the top 100 boys nationally in the Class of 2022. Only two are Minnesotans: Point guard Trey Holloman of Cretin-Derham Hall at No. 57, and center Pharrel Payne of Park of Cottage Grove at No. 84. That’s a lot fewer than states like Florida (11), California (10) and Texas (9). Hardly hotbed material.

But the corresponding girls’ site, PrepHoopsGirls.com, tells a different story. Though it only ranks 76 players nationally, eight are Minnesotans, topped by forward Maya Nnaji of Hopkins at No. 7. The boy/girl breakdown squares with a recent trend: Minnesota annually sends about twice as many girls to Division I basketball as boys.

PrepHoops.com and PrepHoopsGirls.com annual rankings show 94 Minnesota girls committed to play D1 basketball from 2019 through 2022, compared to 48 boys. The Class of 2021 was particularly one-sided — 33 girls and nine boys.

Regardless of gender, however, coaches with decades on the Minnesota basketball scene say state-produced talent is better and deeper than ever. 

Part of it is opportunity. Kids are playing more, and at younger ages. Local traveling AAU programs provide outlets to play against top national competition. More college coaches nationwide can put eyes on top prospects at spring and summer showcases without slogging through brutal Minnesota winters.  

“I think Minnesota has been one of the best kept secrets in basketball for a very long time,” said Minneapolis North High Boys’ Coach Larry McKenzie, winner of six state titles. “People are now starting to appreciate the talent we have in this state.”

St. Thomas Women’s Coach Ruth Sinn, who led the Tommies to three Division III Final Fours and eight Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships before the school reclassified to D1, sees the same thing on the girls’ side.

“You’re seeing more and more high level young ladies coming out of this state,” she said. “And the number of them able to compete at a high level has increased. In large part it’s because of the high school programs, the AAU programs, and all the developmental programs here, even the trainers. You’re seeing it across the nation as well.”

A new level of depth

Though Minnesota lacks the basketball pedigree of New York, Philadelphia and Indiana, it’s produced its share of quality players. Future NBAers Kevin McHale (Hibbing), Jim Petersen (St. Louis Park), Randy Breuer (Lake City) and John Thomas (Minneapolis) came through Dinkytown. 

Article continues after advertisement

Khalid El-Amin (UConn) and Troy Bell (Boston College) starred in the Big East, while Devean George of D3 Augsburg won three NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. All were from Minneapolis.

Women had their standouts as well. Carol Ann Shudlick (Apple Valley) of the Gophers won the 1994 Wade Trophy as the country’s top player. Lindsay Whalen (Hutchinson) led the Gophs to the 2004 Final Four before winning two Olympic gold medals and four WNBA titles with her hometown Lynx. Tamara Moore (Minneapolis) starred at Wisconsin, had a career in the WNBA and made history as the only full-time woman head coach of a NCAA men’s program when she took over at Mesabi Range College (Virginia, Minn.). Tayler Hill (Minneapolis), identical twins Coco and Kelly Miller (Rochester), Rachel Banham (Lakeville) and Nia Coffey (Minneapolis) went on to the WNBA. 

What Minnesota didn’t have back in the day was depth. Until the last decade or so, most Minnesotans filled D2 and D3 rosters here and in neighboring states. 

Gopher men’s assistant Dave Thorson and Augsburg women’s head coach Ted Riverso remember those times. Thorson was a Gophers men’s assistant from 1990-94, then won a record nine state titles in 23 seasons at DeLaSalle High in Minneapolis before returning to the college ranks. 

In Thorson’s first stint at the U, he recalls only five or ten Minnesota boys each year meriting D1 recruiting attention, with maybe two or three getting offers. Now he evaluates 25 a year. Riverso, who coached D3 St. Thomas to the 1991 NCAA title and later spent eight seasons at the U as an assistant, says many more girls now are drawing D1 interest.

So what’s changed? More schools playing Division 1 basketball — about 350, according to the NCAA. Regional D2 and D3 institutions like North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota, South Dakota State and St. Thomas all moved up to D1 while still recruiting Minnesotans. 

The South Dakota State women, coached by Pine Island’s Aaron Johnston, have won for 20 years with Minnesota kids. The North Dakota State men reached this year’s Summit League final with six Minnesotans, including top scorer Rocky Kreuser, and Minnesotans featured prominently on their four NCAA Tournament teams since 2009.

The AAU circuits, sponsored by sports apparel giants Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, have increased Minnesota’s national profile. Programs like Howard Pulley Basketball, D1 Minnesota and Grassroots Sizzle on the boys’ side, and North Tartan, Minnesota Stars and Minnesota Fury on the girls, play in most of the big national summer tournaments. That helps.   

“The kids we had in the ‘90s, winning titles, a lot of those kids never played AAU,” said Riverso.

Article continues after advertisement

“Now you very rarely see a player who hasn’t played AAU from a very young age. Some of these AAU programs have 5th grade teams, 4th grade teams. They have a ball in their hands at a younger age, and it’s in their hands more as they get older. They’re coming up a little more skilled.”

Same with the boys. “When you look at the sheer number of quality AAU programs, quality coaches out there, and high school developmental programs,” said St. Thomas Coach John Tauer, “kids in the state if they so choose can have a comprehensive and year-long experience in basketball they weren’t going to get 20, 30 years ago.”

Social media has also increased visibility, especially for girls. Videos of players and plays can go viral in an hour.

Faith Johnson Patterson, the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer now coaching at the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, said watching Delta State great Lusia Harris at the 1977 AIAW Large College College Championship at Williams Arena significantly influenced her career. Johnson Patterson starred at Wisconsin before getting into coaching, leading Minneapolis North and DeLaSalle Highs to a combined eight state titles. 

“What has happened with women, especially since the Lynx got here, is that we started seeing ourselves actually having opportunities,” she said. “When I was playing, I really didn’t even know girls could play basketball in college. I just saw the men playing on television.

“Bringing (the Lynx) here, and for women to actually see women play, really opened up eyes and spiraled participation in girls sports here. That really started it, along with the four class system (in high school basketball). It felt like it was possible to reach and play in the state tournament. That was always televised. Exposure for women started to happen at that time, and we need to see ourselves in those positions.”

Gophers and Tommies benefit

Coaches talk a lot about “closing the borders” and keeping top Minnesota kids home, as if it’s that easy. 

Here’s the hard truth: Kids want to play on television. In March. Here’s another hard truth: They’re not guaranteed to do that at the University of Minnesota, which has landed only six NCAA Tournament bids since 2000. If you’re still baffled why Suggs, Holmgren, the Jones brothers and Bueckers left the state, or why Bo Ryan and Greg Gard enticed so many Minnesotans to cross the border and play at Big Ten power Wisconsin, start there.

“This is not rocket science,” Thorson said. “It’s a simple as that — playing in the NCAA Tournament. You want to be on TV. You want to be a part of that. You want to get to The Dance. That’s a huge piece of it.”

Article continues after advertisement

Until the Minnesota men make the tournament regularly — and this year’s 13-17 record under first-year Coach Ben Johnson suggests it may take time — it’s hard to blame top-end kids for leaving the state. The Gopher women, without an NCAA Tournament appearance in Whalen’s four seasons as coach, may have found a way around it, landing four of this year’s top five Minnesota prospects — Mara Braun (Wayzata), Amaya Battle (Hopkins), Malory Heyer (Chaska) and Nia Holloway (Eden Prairie) — according to PrepGirlsHoops.com

St. Thomas, in the mid-major Summit League, could benefit from Minnesota talent more than the U, offering second-tier prospects an option to stay home that’s a step up from the D2 Northern Sun Conference. 

The Gopher and Tommie men each signed two players from this year’s PrepHoops.com Minnesota top 10. The U landed Payne and Park Center guard Braeden Carrington, with Totino-Grace forward Ahjany Lee and East Ridge guard Kendall Blue committing to the Tommies. The St. Thomas women signed guard Amber Scalia of Stillwater, younger sister of U’s Sara Scalia. She’ll team with outstanding freshman point guard Jade Hill, Tayler Hill’s younger sister. 

“I think we’re going to be a really attractive option for a lot of those kids,” Tauer said. “Obviously we aren’t going to keep them all here and the Gophers aren’t going to keep them all here, but I think a sizable chunk of our roster will be Minnesota kids.”

Below are some of the Minnesotans to watch in the NCAA Tournament, compiled from various sources. (This is by no means a complete list; feel free to add anyone we missed in the comments below.)

MEN 

Gonzaga: C Chet Holmgren (Minneapolis)

Wisconsin: G Brad Davison (Maple Grove), F Tyler Wahl (Lakeville), C Steven Crowl (Eagan) and C Ben Carlson (Woodbury)

Colorado State: F David Roddy (Minneapolis) and Coach Niko Medved (Roseville)

Baylor: G Kendall Brown (Cottage Grove)

Iowa State: G Gabe Kalscheur (Edina)

Davidson: G Michael Jones (Woodbury)

Indiana: F Race Thompson (Plymouth)

WOMEN

Connecticut: G Paige Bueckers (Hopkins)

Kansas State: C Ayoka Lee (Byron)

Utah: G Gianna Kneepkens (Duluth) and F Jenna Johnson (Wayzata)

North Carolina: G Alyssa Ustby (Rochester)

Nevada-Las Vegas: F Nneka Obiazor (Eden Prairie)

Creighton: G Lauren Jensen (Lakeville)

Iowa: C Monika Czinano (Watertown)

South Dakota: C Hannah Sjerven (Rogers), G Liv Korngable (Rochester), G Macy Guebert (Apple Valley), C Natalie Mazurek (Eden Prairie)

Florida: Head coach Kelly Rae Finley (Edina)