Grand Rapids poses matchup nightmareBOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Alex Illikainen’s performance helped the Thunderhawks maintain a presence in the Class AAA top 10 for most of the season and earn the No. 1 seed in the Section 7AAA playoffs.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Darin Illikainen played hockey during the glory years of the Minnesota Duluth men’s program in the mid-1980s.
His oldest daughters, Morgan and Molly, earned hockey scholarships at Division I universities in each of the past two years.
But after attending a one-week hockey camp and a one-day basketball camp as a second-grader, Alex Illikainen knew which sport he preferred.
“He said, ‘Dad, I love the one day better,’ ” Darin Illikainen recalled Monday. “He had fun whenever he had a basketball in his hand, and he couldn’t say the same for hockey. At that young age, he already knew he loved basketball that much better.”
Standing somewhere between 6-foot-8 and 6-9, it’s obvious the Grand Rapids freshman made the right choice.
“Basketball was more my fit,” the 15-year-old Illikainen said. “Hockey included a lot of bending over, and for a tall kid like me it wasn’t working out too well.”
Hockey’s loss was basketball’s gain. Illikainen’s performance helped the Thunderhawks (21-5) maintain a presence in the Class AAA top 10 for most of the season and earn the No. 1 seed in the Section 7AAA playoffs. Teaming up with leading scorer Austin Pohlen and fellow 6-8 post player Mike Spoden, the Thunderhawks have an intimidating inside-outside presence and are favored to return to the state tournament.
Coach Dan Elhard said he’s lucky Illikainen chose the hardwood.
“He is an incredible athlete,” Elhard said. “He’d be a standout in any sport he tries. He has a lot of hand-eye coordination and natural athletic skills that you don’t see very often. I’m sure he would have been a good hockey player, too.”
Minnesota, Wisconsin and Creighton University are among the Division I colleges already showing interest, though many more will join the recruiting fray if Illikainen continues improving — and growing.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “I want to keep working hard and, hopefully, in a couple years I’ll have that opportunity.”
Elhard alluded that he might be a perfect fit for Bo Ryan’s offense at
“I’m sure Wisconsin likes the looks of him because they like to use those big guys on the perimeter,” Elhard said. “He is effective as far as knocking down shots and handling the ball. It’s going to be fun to see how his skills develop.”
Grand Rapids, which opens with a quarterfinal Friday against either Chisago Lakes Area or North Branch, lost two of its last three regular-season games and needed overtime to beat Moorhead in the other.
“I feel we have a great all-around team,” Illikainen said. “We hit a rough patch, but good teams pull out of rough patches. I’m hoping we can make it back to the state tournament.”
To do so likely would require a third victory over No. 2-seeded Duluth Denfeld (19-7) or a second win over No. 3 Zimmerman (22-4). Grand Rapids beat the Hunters twice by double digits, but Denfeld matches up enough in height and athleticism with Andrew Laughlin, Derek Meger and Sam Humes to cause trouble, and Zimmerman runs the court and shoots 3-pointers well.
Illikainen’s height is not totally unexpected, considering Darin is 6-4 and Alex’s mother, the former Mary Zgonc, is 6-0 and played on a high school state champion at Chisholm and then four years at Minnesota Duluth.
While Illikainen occasionally still dons skates and plays against his two older sisters and seventh-grader Maddy, he prefers to get them on the makeshift court in the alley behind the family home for a three-on-one battle. Perhaps those contests have prepared him for what’s to come in the playoffs.
“There’s some serious Illikainen warfare in the offseason,” their father said. “They’ll get out in the alley, where we have a hoop, and get into some serious foul-laden basketball games.”
Section 7AA: Outside shooting key to Esko’s hopes
If the Section 7AA title comes down to 3-point shooting, Esko has to feel good about its chances.
The Polar League champions boast four players who have made at least 47 field goals from beyond the 3-point line and average 41.9 percent 3-point shooting as a team.
Jackson Lindquist set the school’s career 3-point record as a junior and is 84-for-201 outside the arc this season. Sophomores Casey Staniger (49.6 percent), Marc Peterson (44.3) and Kory Deadrick (37.4) also are deadly shooters.
The Eskomos (22-4), who made a school-record 17 3-point shots vs. Duluth Marshall and 16 on a pair of occasions, received the No. 1 seed in their subsection and open against Pine City on Wednesday.
“We’ve won a few games because of the 3-point shot,” said Lindquist, who averages a team-high 21.2 points per game. “But I’ve been trying to go to the hoop more this year than previous years because when they guard up on me, it opens up everybody else. It makes it tough for people to guard us.”
Coach Mike Devney said his players understand that, if their shots aren’t falling, they have the ability to drive inside.
“They recognize if they’re not hitting (3s), they will take the ball to the hoop and try to get to the free-throw line,” Devney said. “But when you have four kids who can shoot the 3 like we have and you’re shooting 42 percent as a team, you have to stick with it.”
Lindquist believes Esko’s defense is another factor aiding the team’s quest for a third state berth in the past 57 years. The Eskomos allow only 49 points per game.
“I think our defense is way better than anyone expected,” the Polar League player of the year said. “I didn’t think our defense would be anywhere near where we have been. If we can keep our defensive strategy during the playoffs, that will be key. Hopefully, we can slow games down with our defense so teams aren’t getting easy baskets.”
That won’t be easy in a difficult section. Braham (25-1), led by the state’s sixth all-time leading scorer in Tyler Vaughan (3,111 career points), averages 86 points per game and has won 25 straight; Deer River (23-3) averages 82 points a game and has won its past 16 games.
And those are the No. 2-seeded teams in their subsection.
Virginia (20-6) received the No. 1 seed in the bracket opposite Esko as the section adopted the Quality Ratings Formula on the minnesota-scores.net website to seed teams for the first time.
“As of this year, I like the QRF rating,” Devney deadpanned. “It does take into account your schedule. Our other system was pretty good, too. The best thing about both of them is that you don’t have coaches voting. My experience is whenever you have coaches voting, things can get muddy.”
Section 7AAAA: Duluth East favored to repeat
Duluth East is hoping its five-year state tournament trend does not hold true this year. Considering the team’s current roster and playing level, it figures not to come to an end.
The Greyhounds (18-8) played in the 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 state tournaments, reaching title games in ’01 and ’06. But as the No. 1 seed in 7AAAA and winners of 16 of their last 17 games, East is the clear-cut favorite to qualify in back-to-back years.
With the high-scoring backcourt of Johnny Woodard (24.1 ppg) and Taylor Stafford (22.8 ppg, 6.3 assists per game), the presence of 7-foot shot-blocker Akolda Manyang (13 rebounds per game) and the team’s all-around defensive pressure, East creates matchup problems against most teams.
Plus, the Greyhounds have 10 days’ rest before playing either Forest Lake or St. Francis in a semifinal at home next Tuesday.
Second-seeded Blaine (15-11) is the only other team with a winning record in the section.