SSC boys basketball preview: Star power lost, but still competitive

Jackson Purcell of Eastview goes to the basket in a January 2020 game against Prior Lake.

Conference play begins Jan. 14

South Suburban Conference boys basketball will have a different look when league play begins Thursday, Jan. 14.

Gone are several marquee players from the 2019-20 season who have moved on to Division I college programs, such as Eastview’s Steven Crowl (Wisconsin) and Prior Lake’s Dawson Garcia (Marquette) and Tyree Ihenacho (North Dakota). There will be a couple of new head coaches.

And there are uncertainties. Will COVID-19, which already has delayed the season, allow it to be completed? And will there be a state tournament? As of this week, the Minnesota State High School League has not committed to holding winter sports state tournaments after canceling them for the fall season.

Instead of 26 regular-season games, South Suburban Conference teams will play 18, all within the league. Virus permitting, the regular season will wrap up March 12, followed by some sort of postseason.

In this edition, we preview the eight SSC boys basketball teams in the Dakota County Tribune and Sun Thisweek coverage area:

Apple Valley

Coach: Patrick Buchanan.

Last season: 8-20 overall; reached Class 4A, Section 3 semifinals.

First game: at Lakeville South, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: Buchanan, recently the head coach at Mayer Lutheran, takes over for Zach Goring, who coached the Eagles to three state championships in 11 years. Buchanan takes over a rebuilding team that will be led by senior forward Noah Friedt, a physical force who will play Division I football at St. Thomas. Guard Kortland Johnsen averaged 7.5 points a game last season. Bobbie Jackson, Nick Deluca, Tayvion Gardner and R’moni Warner also saw playing time last season.

Burnsville

Coach: Jonte Flowers.

Last season: 8-19 overall; reached Class 4A, Section 3 quarterfinals.

First game: at Eastview, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: The Blaze figure to emphasize defense. Flowers, their new coach, played on two NCAA Division II championship teams at Winona State and was Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Defensive Player of the Year four times. Top returning player is junior Yarin Alexander, who averaged 13.3 points a game last season. Khalif Bettis averaged 6.7 points as a ninth-grader.

Eagan

Coach: Kevin McKenzie.

Last season: 9-18 overall; reached Class 4A, Section 3 quarterfinals.

First game: vs. Shakopee, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: Sophomore Emmanuel Schmitter was the second-leading scorer on the team last season (10.1 average). He also was one of four Eagan players to attempt more than 100 three-pointers on a team not hesitant to shoot from long range. Other core players include 6-foot-8 junior center Logan Schmidt, senior guard and captain Max Robinson, and senior forward Cole Nelsen.

Eastview

Coach: Paul Goetz.

Last season: 24-4 overall; tied for South Suburban Conference championship; reached Class 4A, Section 3 finals.

First game: vs. Burnsville, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: The Lightning were ranked second in Class 4A and preparing to play Lakeville North for the section title when the pandemic abruptly ended the 2019-20 season. It denied a senior-dominated group a chance to go to the state tournament for the second consecutive year. But there are some pieces in place this season, starting with guards Jackson Purcell, Grayson Stalboerger and Kenji Scales, along with forward Zach Spann. Purcell, Scales and Spann each averaged at least five points coming off the bench for last year’s team.

Farmington

Coach: Tharen Johnson.

Last season: 11-16 overall; reached Class 4A, Section 1 quarterfinals.

First game: vs. Lakeville North, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: Basketball observers have picked Farmington as a team that could make a jump in 2021 because of a large number of returning players. That group includes senior guard Isaac Ask, who led the team in scoring with a 14.1 average last season. Also back are junior forward Kyle Hrncir (11.1 average) and seniors Gabe Bassett, Jake Cochnauer and Max Darrington. Guard Eli Green also should contribute after missing most of last season because of an injury.

Lakeville North

Coach: John Oxton.

Last season: 17-11 overall; reached Class 4A, Section 3 finals.

First game: at Farmington, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: Oxton, whose 605 victories are fourth among active Minnesota high school head boys basketball coaches, almost always has a team that’s in the picture for conference or section championships. This year’s group is expected to be no different. Senior forward Will Blascziek led last year’s team in scoring with a 14.1 average. Forward Cooper Laufenburger averaged eight points. Forward Matt Miller and guard Noah Nephew are returning varsity players. The next young standout in the Panthers’ pipeline could be 6-foot-6 sophomore Nolan Winter, who played for the Howard Pulley 15-and-under AAU team last summer and is drawing attention for his perimeter shooting.

Lakeville South

Coach: Joe Janquart.

Last season: 21-7 overall; reached Class 4A, Section 1 finals.

First game: vs. Apple Valley, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: The Cougars were one of four South Suburban teams still alive in the playoffs (Eastview, Lakeville North and Shakopee were the others) when the pandemic brought a halt to the 2019-20 season. The loss of forward Riley Mahlman – who is enrolling at Wisconsin this month to begin his college football career – is a blow, but there’s plenty left for another run at conference and section titles. Senior Reid Patterson (17.6 scoring average last season) is one of the state’s best guards. Forward Avery Mast averaged 11.5 points as a sophomore. Junior Sam Fliehe and senior Trystan Ressler are two more players likely to be factors for South this year.

Rosemount

Coach: Lance Walsten.

Last season: 11-16 overall; reached Class 4A, Section 3 semifinals.

First game: at Prior Lake, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Outlook: The Irish are another team that could be poised to climb in the South Suburban standings after tying for sixth last year. They return their top four scorers, led by junior shooting guard Caleb Siwek, who averaged 19.6 points in 2019-20. Senior forward Noah Loehr averaged 11.4 points. Point guard Sean Sullivan and center Zach Wenthe, both seniors, also return to the lineup.

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