Monday, November 27, 2006

Vincent vs. Pius: The First High School Game of the Year, and Assorted Other Thoughts

Well, it was another Thanksgiving weekend of nearly non-stop basketball action. For some reason, I always seem to forget how much hoops gets played during the first major holiday weekend of the season. Way too much happened for me to recap everything that I saw, but I happened to catch most of a couple of games (Wisconsin-Missouri State, Louisville-Dayton, and Kansas-Florida), and snippets of numerous other games.

But the big event of the weekend was my first high school game of the year, the showdown at Wisconsin Lutheran College between Milwaukee Vincent and Milwaukee Pius. When a game between two top-5 teams, involving two of the best coaches in the state and numerous future division one players is taking place within a five minute drive from my home, you can pretty much bet I’m going to be there. So that’s what today’s recap will be, followed by a few short, random thoughts on all other games. Here’s the first high school game of the year:

1) At $7, the ticket to the Vincent-Pius game was $2 more than my ticket to the first UWM game of the year. It strikes me as odd that a high school game would cost more than a division one college game, but it was still $7 well spent.

2) Last year at the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout, some friends and I got our first 2005-6 look at Vincent. During the tournament, guard Diante Garrett put up some nice stats for Vincent, but one of my friends was very vocal in his dislike of Garrett. At the time, I essentially agreed with him, as Garrett seemed to be the type of guy that would take four dribbles when one would suffice. After seeing him on Saturday, though, he’s improved his ball handling economy, and I suspect that my friend might like his game a bit more. I certainly did.

3) You can easily tell that the guys on Vincent have been playing with one another for some time, as they looked a lot more in sync than any team should be in its first game of the year. I guess this is to be expected, since most of the key seniors have been integral players since their sophomore years. Since this is the second straight time that Vincent has had a core of talented players together for three straight years, can we be expecting an all-star cast of sophomores to be inhabiting the V-House next year?

4) One of the things that I enjoy about watching a Pius game is that you know a lot of guys are going to get playing time. From the little that I’ve seen of Coach Joel Claassen, it would seem that he likes to go deep into his bench, regularly rotating players in and out. You can’t help but like that plenty of high school players get a chance to play for a good team. And even better, several of the later substitutions on Saturday really contributed solid minutes, so you know that the 10th man isn’t just going in because the coach wants to make him feel good.

5) I was happy to see that Vincent had a mascot on the sidelines in a Viking costume, since in my mind, not nearly enough high schools have mascots roaming the sidelines. On the downside, the mascot wasn’t given much to do, save for a few hand-springs at halftime. Then again, I’m not sure that the layout of the gym lent itself to mascot antics. Maybe there will be more to do as the season goes on.

6) The much anticipated debut of Korie Lucious for Pius was fairly anti-climactic. While the box score will always reflect that Lucious had 21 points, nine of those points came in the last minute of the contest, when the game was basically out of reach. During the rest of the game there were plenty of turnovers and missed three-point shots. All that said, there were still flashes of brilliance, including a blocked shot, and that aforementioned nine points in the final minute of the game. As Lucious himself has admitted, it may take him some time to integrate himself into the Pius system. Opponents all around are hoping that he takes awhile to get used to Pius, though, since he’ll be just fine when he gets into the flow of things.

7) The Pius debut of 6'10" transfer Montrel Clark was delayed, as he found himself in street clothes on Saturday night. Curiously, my friend Gus spotted him walking around the court with the crowd during one point in the second half. Maybe I missed something, but it just seemed really odd to see a member of one of the participant teams walking amongst the general population during a time-out. In uniform or not, shouldn’t he have been in the huddle?

8) A special nod to Pius forward Matt Chrnelich, who did a nice job of picking up the trash, and tossing in a good number of putback layups. It’s not always the most exciting or skill-based way of getting points, but I’ll take a guy who can consistently get putbacks on my team any day.

9) With Pius having guards Korie Lucious and Tyrone Gordon transfer in, it seemed apparent that one of the two returning backcourt starters from last year, Willie Nellen and Jesse Jackson would have to come off the bench. Jackson ended up in the substitute role, and if it bothered him, he sure didn’t let it show. He was excellent over a couple of stretches in the first half, and it was very apparent that his new teammates have a lot of trust in him. So mark it down–Pius has a very deep backcourt.

10) While watching Milwaukee Vincent play, I couldn’t help but think that the team had a slightly different personality from past senior-laden Vincent teams. Vincent’s usual formula with its great teams involves hard-nosed, methodic, disciplined basketball. This year’s Vincent squad is still disciplined and tough, but they seem to have a bit more flow and excitement to their game. They’d be an exciting team to watch, even if you weren’t a hardcore basketball junkie. With Diante Garrett and Bryquis Perine running the show (just try and show me a better pair of starting guards), you’re almost always going to be in for a good time.

11) A mass exodus of the crowd began occurring after a Diante Garrett dunk with about two minutes to go, which emotionally sealed Vincent’s lead. It seemed a mildly premature exit time, but I’m not complaining, because with only one exit open at Wisconsin Lutheran’s gym, it would have taken most of the rest of the evening to get out of the gym if a quarter of the crowd hadn’t taken a five minute head start.

So Vincent won a huge game to start the year and predictably showed that it will be one of the toughest teams in the state this year. Pius will almost certainly improve as it continues to integrate its new talent with the holdovers from last year. And while a lot would need to occur to make it happen, I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a rematch in Madison in March.

And with that, thoughts on the other random things that I saw this weekend:

–I’m almost sure that Kansas is the most talented team that I’ve seen so far this year, and I’m also pretty positive that no one on their roster was born before 1987. And almost without exception, it appears that the entire roster is made up of freakishly athletic guys. I will officially be making a special effort to watch Kansas games this year, a step which I don’t often take for schools outside of my 5-7 usual favorites.

–It appears that my Dan Monson theorem is shot after this weekend. As longtime readers know, I have long believed that the success of Monson’s Minnesota teams is inversely proportional to the amount of talent on the roster. This results in teams that look very bad on paper actually faring better than expected, and talent-laden teams disappointing everyone. This year, however, Monson took a Golden Gopher squad that doesn’t look that great on paper and guided them over Thanksgiving weekend to an eighth place finish in the eight team Old Spice Classic. It could be a long year in the Twin Cities.

–I have to qualify my thoughts on the Wisconsin-Missouri State game very carefully, as not to be misunderstood. Luckily, I’ve done this roughly 800 times this weekend, so I’m prepared. Thus, I preface my comments by noting that Wisconsin shouldn’t lose to Missouri State. The Badgers, I believe, did deserve their top-10 ranking before the loss, and are good enough to climb back up to those heights again. And top-10 teams shouldn’t lose to Missouri State. All that said, I really thought Missouri State was a solid team. Their defensive pressure made the Badgers look flustered for the first time that I’ve seen this year. Their shooting in the first half was about as hot as I’ve ever seen (even if it was equally cold in the second half). Blake Ahearn is the rare mid-major player that I’d heard of prior to the game, and he won’t be a guy that I forget about all year. Again, if Wisconsin’s as good as I think, they still shouldn’t have lost this one, but that said, I’d keep Missouri State in the back of your head for when March comes around. They’ll be in the tournament, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them advancing.

–I got my first look at Jerry Smith in a Louisville uniform this weekend, as they played Dayton. I only saw the first half, where Smith struggled, turned the ball over quite a bit, and generally looked like a freshman. Looks like I should have stuck around for the second, as Smith’s stat line for the evening ended up being decent. Credit to Rick Pitino for letting Smith, as well as his other freshmen, play through these rough periods.

–The most epic battle of the weekend wasn’t Vincent vs. Pius, or Kansas vs. Florida. It was me against my couch on Saturday night. Following a late Friday night, and an early Saturday morning, I was pretty much exhausted by the time that I realized that ESPN would be offering access to a late night showdown between Kansas and Florida. Add to this fact that my new, intensely comfortable sofa had arrived at my house earlier in the day, and I was in for the struggle of my life trying to stay awake to watch Kansas-Florida. With the sofa repeatedly telling me "Come on, I’m so soft and supportive. Just fall asleep on me now," I missed much of the second half as I gave into its charms. I eventually beat the couch, though, as the game miraculously went to overtime, and I left the couch and climbed into my old, broken recliner. There were no problems staying up after that. I knew I kept that chair around for a reason.


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