Prep boys basketball preview: Tigers hope practice makes perfect
Northwestern is optimistic despite graduating all its starters and more than 90% of its scoring players.
Northwestern basketball player Harrison Nelson said practice was always fun, but this year, in the COVID-19 era featuring virtual learning, it has taken on a whole new meaning.
“The only time I even get to see my friends is at practice, pretty much,” Nelson said. “I enjoy practice a lot more this season because I get to see my friends. It definitely makes practice special.”
The Tigers are hoping practice makes perfect.
Northwestern got a good early-season test. The Tigers opened the season Saturday, Dec. 5, with an 87-67 loss at St. Croix Central, which won a regional championship last year before everything got canceled due to COVID-19.
“We’re very excited,” coach Nolan Graff said. “The methods we’ve adopted this year are kind of the same ones everyone else has had: we don’t take anything for granted these days. We’re excited to be in the gym. Every day we know could be our last, and that’s kind of the identity we’ve taken as a team. We’re very excited for the direction of the team and where we could possibly be headed.”
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Northwestern, 16-8 last season, graduated seven seniors who accounted for more than 90% of the scoring, including all the starters.
Despite having only two seniors in Nelson and Aiden Kroeplin, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Tigers will have an influx of talent from a junior varsity team that went 22-0 while destroying the opposition by an average of 25 points per game, with no game closer than nine points.
Besides Nelson, juniors C.J. Thompson and Monte Mayberry are expected to lead the team in scoring. John Grohn is only 5-foot-8 and was slowed by injuries last year, but Graff said he is one of the fastest players in the state, while Preston Brilla also contributed. Nelson’s younger brother, Bennett, a junior, will have a big role for the Tigers and is the team’s best defensive player.
“The cupboard isn’t bare,” Graff said. “I think we’re going to be undersized but we play very fast and we’re very balanced. We’re excited.”
Among the up-and-comers are sophomores Jase Nelson (no relation to those other two) and Cole Lahti, who averaged 15.1 and 8.1 points per game last year, respectively, for that dominant JV team.
“They’ve very good for how young they are,” Harrison Nelson said. “Cole is a really good shooter. He’s a very good catch and shoot player, while Jase is very long and lanky and can get to the basket and score over people.”
Nelson, being a senior, certainly isn’t going to wait for guys to develop.
“I want to win now,” he said.
No visiting fans will be allowed for Northwestern’s first two home games, but the Tigers will be allotted two tickets per player. That’s the initial plan, at least. And never fear, iFan.tv is here as the web broadcaster that will carry Tigers games this season.
Everyone will be required to wear a mask. Among other changes, there will be no jump ball to open the contest, and each team will get an extra timeout for each half. Graff said the idea behind not having a jump ball is to keep spacing, as many officials are older and at higher risk for COVID-19. The extra timeout is for more recovery time as some players are more easily fatigued playing with a mask on.
“If we got to wear a mask, we’re going to wear a mask,” Graff said. “If we can’t have fans, we can’t have fans. At the end of the day we’re happy to be playing.”
Practice has never felt so good, much less an actual game.
“It makes practice even more fun than it normally is,” Nelson said. “Not seeing any of your friends all week, other than at practice, it’s hard to explain. It brings us together as a team. We just enjoy being around each other. You have to enjoy every one because you’ll never know when it’ll end.”