The expectations of the Central Lakes College Raiders will be different heading into Friday’s first round of the Minnesota College Athletic Conference state tournament.
Last season the Raiders were happy to make the eight-team tournament. This year’s Raider team (25-2 overall, 10-2 in the Southern Division) hopes to dominate it.
“We are led by so many sophomores,” said Raiders head coach Jim Russell. “Last year was a huge learning experience for us when we lost to Minneapolis in overtime after not playing the first half. We learned how good we really were or how good we could be instead of not knowing.
“It’s a lot different approach this year from last. Last year it was thanks for having us. This year we’re coming no matter what and we hope to take it over.”
Russell’s confidence stems from a balanced offensive attack, led by point guard Marcus Ayala’s 16.4 points and sophomore guard Nash Faulk’s 15.5 points a game.
The Raiders are outscoring opponents 89.5-64.6 with that 64.6 points allowed a state best.
“Our intensity on defense has always been a key for us,” said Russell. “If we can bring that intensity and play together as a team on the defensive end, and do all the little things that we need to do, our offense will come.
“After all the years I’ve been a coach, I’ve learned you still have to put the ball in the hole and our shooting will be a key for us. We live and die with our shooting, especially from 3-point range. If we can make them here we go. If not, well, we better play even better on defense.”
CLC’s defense will be tested early as the Raiders face Hibbing in the quarterfinals at 8 p.m. Friday at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
Hibbing is led by two of the top three scorers in the Northern Division. Orlando Edwards Jr. is averaging 20.7 points followed by Phillip Freeman at 19.5. Those two helped Hibbing to a 10-16 overall record and 5-7 division mark.
The teams did not face during the regular season.
“Those two guys are very good athletes and both are sophomores so they understand what’s going on in the league,” said Russell. “They know what the state tournament means. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We have to make sure we stay focused and compete in the sense that we try shutting down those two guys.
“I think we’re playing OK right now, but there are still improvements that we need to make. Hopefully that will come as we’re playing further into the tournament.
“I don’t think we’re peaking yet. Hopefully, we’ll make the adjustments and play a little bit better now that it is tournament time.”
One team that is playing well is Anoka-Ramsey, which secured the No. 3 seed in the South Division after knocking off second-ranked Rochester in the regular-season final 73-64 and fourth-ranked CLC 83-76 a week earlier. Russell said Northland and Vermilion, who tied for the Northern Division title, are also contenders.
“Anoka beat the then No. 1 and No. 3 team in the nation in one week,” said Russell. “Plus, the tournament is at their house. I think they are the team to beat. Us and Rochester are going into the tournament a little wounded because of Anoka.”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5856.