MINNEAPOLIS -- It is a shame that interest in the state boys' basketball tournament, once the centerpiece of all Minnesota State High School League activities, has plummeted to its current depth.
The preliminary fan count for state semifinals, third-place and championship games, all played at Williams Arena or the adjacent Sports Pavilion, was 43,527. That's downright embarrassing for four classes.
When the state quarterfinal games, almost all played at outstate sites, are added to the total attendance figure it likely will be close to the 75,000 that last year's tournament drew. But that figure is embarrassing when compared to the record 140,313 fans who attended the tournament in 1971, the first year of the old 2-class system.
It's sad that attendance has plunged because the skill level of Minnesota basketball is probably at the highest point in state history. Division I recruits like Jake Sullivan of Tartan, Brent Lawson of Maple Grove and Johnnie Gilbert of Patrick Henry helped their teams to state. Sullivan is headed to Iowa State, Gilbert to Oklahoma and Lawson to St. Francis (Pa.)
Among Division I signees who didn't make it to state are Jay Anderson of Faribault (signed with Oregon), Adam Boone of Minnetonka (North Carolina) and Andrew Skoglund of Hopkins (Iowa State). Junior center Rick Rickert of Duluth East should be able to name which major university he wants to attend in the fall 2001-02.
Speculation has it that the State Basketball Coaches Association is appalled by the decline in attendance and fan interest. Some speculate that coaches may ask school superintendents to vote for a 3-class tournament where all 24 teams would play in the Twin Cities.
In the 4-class format quarterfinal games are played at outstate sites, with only the 16 winners advancing to the Twin Cities.
From 1913 through 1970 the tournament had one class. From 1971 through 1994 it had two. In 1995 and 1996 it conducted a Sweet 16 tournament. The last four years there have been four classes.
After the Class AA third-place game Saturday coaches Lynn Peterson of Staples-Motley and Dave Thorson of DeLaSalle were asked for their analysis of the four-class setup.
Peterson said he is past the point of liking or disliking four classes.
"I thought the Sweet 16 was good," Peterson said, "but then again we were the Class A school that had the greatest benefit of the Sweet 16, going down and playing four games, getting a chance to play against larger schools. When four classes came in there were some things that were good that I probably wasn't aware of.
"It's here. It's been here four years. It's to the point that it doesn't make any difference how you feel because whether you want one class or 100 classes the state high school league is going to set the standard for how many classes you have. You need to play with that. If you don't like that, then don't play."
Thorson coaches at one of the state's most competitive private schools. DeLaSalle played in the last three Class AA championship games, winning in 1998 and 1999.
"I understand in particular those schools that might be a little smaller that might have a heck of an experience," Thorson said, "but at the same time I would like a crack at the 4A schools as well.
"I understand the state high school league's position. But for those of us who have smaller teams and would like to compete against the 4As -- our non-conference schedule is loaded with teams that are about 17 times bigger than we are -- so it's a double-edge sword."
This season the Islanders played Florida champion Gainesville, Wisconsin power Milwaukee Vincent and highly regarded Iowa City West.
State's next marquee recruit?
Litchfield freshman John Carlson could be one of the state's next prized recruits.
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound, 15-year-old already is a man among boys. He's ambidextrous and can bang under the boards with anyone. At state he averaged 12.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, shot 53 percent from the floor and added four steals and two assists.
Carlson's father and coach, John, said his son is a special individual. The younger Carlson is also a standout football and tennis player.
"Last year he played varsity tennis," the elder Carlson said. "There's not a lot of pressure at third doubles in varsity tennis but him and his partner were like 29-1. We went to the state tournament as a team so he has experienced this before.
"This summer we played in a couple tournaments where we played against (Johnnie) Gilbert and some of the best big kids in the state, and he did fine there.
"Probably the thing that got him over the hump was when he started on our varsity team as a football player at tight end. He's a great tight end. He set a school record for touchdown catches. As a ninth-grader playing varsity football in the league we play in, against Albany and Melrose and teams like that, that takes a special person.
"He's kind of been through the wars at a very young age, plus he's been around it so long. He knows what it takes, and he's got a good role model in his older brother (Alex)."
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