Minneapolis and St. Paul city coaches working to promote underdog players

Thanks for checking out Basketball Across Minnesota, my weekly look at some of the state’s best hoops stories, from preps to pros. —Marcus Fuller

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Larry McKenzie is a Minnesota High School Hall of Famer as a coach and has several state titles to his credit, but he’s baffled by the lack of attention for downtown players in the Twin Cities .

The Minneapolis North coach even took to Twitter earlier this month to vent his frustration, saying “still baffled as to why colleges and universities in Minnesota aren’t recruiting kids from Minneapolis conferences. and St. Paul”.

It wasn’t just a podium moment for McKenzie, who said the boys and girls who stood out from the Minneapolis and St. Paul City conferences were missing from the rosters of Division I, Division II schools. and Division III in the state and surrounding areas.

Recruiting has been even tougher during the pandemic, so McKenzie created the Minnesota Black Basketball Coaches Association in 2020, largely to bring together coaches of color to help figure out how to improve opportunities for players.

“I’m puzzled because we have talent,” McKenzie said. “For our programs and our children to go unrecognized makes you scratch your head.”

The Gophers’ men’s and women’s programs haven’t had city conference players on their rosters in nearly a decade, but McKenzie hopes the Division II Northern Sun and Division III MIAC conferences will also consider showing up in more downtown gymnasiums.

“Private schools and the cost of going to those schools is high,” McKenzie said. “But there are other ways to subsidize kids if they really want to recruit them and find ways for them to play in those schools. My team GPA is 3.4, so you’re not just talking about kids who play basketball.”

After taking over North, McKenzie coached the Polars to back-to-back state championships in 2016 and 2017, giving him six overall after his four rounds at Patrick Henry in the early 2000s, which included coaching his son and ex -Gopher, Lawrence .

Looking at budding stars who have left town to play at other high schools, recent names that stand out are Tre Holloman and Kerwin Walton, who transferred to Cretin-Derham Hall and Hopkins, respectively.

It makes what the Polars have done this season so much more rewarding for McKenzie, who said it was his most experienced team in nearly 30 years of coaching. Led by Division I prospect and senior Willie Wilson, North has already won this season over perennial powerhouses DeLaSalle and Minnehaha Academy. The only losses were to Chicago Simeon and Class 4A No. 1 Park Center in the George Floyd Jr. Memorial Classic Championship.

“For the first time in my career, I’m starting five seniors,” McKenzie said. “It’s the most experienced team I’ve had.”

To say the Polars topped the Minneapolis City Conference would be an understatement with a 61-game winning streak, but the gap could close with rebuilds at Edison, South and Southwest.

Edison coach Ahmil Jihad resumed a program that had barely a handful of combined conference wins in three years, but he now features the state’s second-leading scorer, Micah Young (29.3 points per game) and Lebanon Tushar (26.9). Still, Jihad said only one college coach has stopped to see his players in four years.

“It’s been a process of building a basketball culture basically from scratch,” Jihad said. “One of the reasons we launched the [MBBCA] is to make sure everyone is aware of what’s going on and what we can do to complement each other. We don’t have the resources, but if we stick together and stay in touch, we can support each other as much as possible and get things done.”

Much like the North Boys, the Como Park Girls have been the standard for the St. Paul City Conference for nearly a decade. The program that former WNBA player Alexis Gray-Lawson helped launch towards a winning culture has continued its success since returning to his home state of California in 2020.

Como Park coach Olonda England, a former Gray-Lawson assistant, thinks her side could make their first appearance in a Class 3A state tournament since 2016. She tested her daughters with early games against big names. powers such as Hopkins, Stillwater and St. Michael-Albertville.

Playing tougher competition paid off with a victory on Saturday against undefeated and No. 1 Class 3A Austin. Senior Ronnie Porter, England’s daughter, is averaging 20 points, five assists and a 4.3 GPA at Como Park, but has no Division I or Division II offers.

“I don’t know why they’re watching our city kids, especially with the stats of a lot of them,” England said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking because they have what it takes. These girls are complete even without the basketball team. It’s time to start changing the narrative.”

Time may be running out for the city’s seniors, but the future is bright.

On Friday, the McKenzie Polars will play rival South, which is led by sophomores Jerome Williams Jr. and 6-8 Chiang Ring, who some coaches believe may have the most upside of any big-under. -State classes.

Fuller’s Five

Five Minnesotans who stood out this week:

Mason Lund, Sartell

The 6-6 Southwest Minnesota rookie had a big enough game to be heard in the Twin Cities with a school-record 51 points in a win over St. Francis.

Amir Coffey, Los Angeles Clippers

The ex-Gopher is driving social media crazy with coffee emojis after his career-high 21 points in Sunday’s win over Atlanta, and his 18 points, seven assists and four steals in Wednesday’s win over Denver.

Kristen WatsonHayfield

The sophomore guard scored 32 points in her team’s 13th straight win last week, but she led the Vikings 14-0 all season with regular play.

Ronnie Porter, Como Park

The senior guard had 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists to help the Cougars beat No. 1 Class 3A Austin 74-69 in the Rochester Hoops Challenge.

Pharrel Payne, Cottage Grove Park

The 6-9 Gophers rookie was sidelined eight games with a hip injury, but he led the Wolfpack with 22 points and 12 rebounds in a 58-52 win over Owatonna in the Rochester Hoops Challenge.

Statistically speaking

1 – The Gophers women won at Rutgers last Thursday for the first time in program history, 62-49, as head coach Lindsay Whalen missed the game after suffering an appendectomy.

40 – Marking game of the season for Karl-Anthony Towns in Wolves’ fourth consecutive victory against Houston on Sunday.

100 – The Center Sauk girls’ winning streak in the Central Western Conference came to an end last Friday after a loss to Montevideo.

Games to watch

Totino Grace boys vs. Cretin-Derham Hall at Hamline U, Saturday, 6 p.m.

The No. 1 Class 3A Eagles will look to stay undefeated against Minnesota Schools in a four-star point guard clash with Taison Chatman against Michigan State rookie Tre Holloman.

Hopkins Girls at Eden Prairie, Friday, 7 p.m.

Future Gophers clash when Royals point guard Amaya Battle takes on Eagles forward Nia Holloway. Both girls are also former North Tartan AAU teammates.

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Basketball Across Minnesota will be published weekly on starttribune.com. Don’t be a stranger on Twitter after reading, because discussing these stories makes them even more fun to share. Thanks Marcus (@Marcus_R_Fuller on Twitter)

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