Without stars, Wolves’ efforts have been admirable

The Minnesota Timberwolves might be off to the most impressive 5-4 start in pro sports history.

OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, especially after back-to-back home losses to Charlotte and Golden State, both of which saw Minnesota embark on fourth-quarter comeback attempts that fell short.

But the Wolves are definitely treading water, despite the following players being injured: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, J.J. Barea.

That’s four-fifths of the projected starting lineup, plus two valuable backups who the Wolves are playing without.

Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Alexey Shved (1) has played better with every game of experience. Associated Press photo

So who is left getting the job done?

Leading the pack for the Wolves right now is Andrei Kirilenko. His stat line from the exhibition game at the Fargodome last month didn’t jump off the page at you, but I was thoroughly impressed by his court vision and ability to make the extra pass when needed.

Kirilenko is shooting 60 percent from the floor so far, averaging 14 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

Last year’s first-round pick Derrick Williams also seemingly responded in his last game to criticism for not stepping up when called upon. He scored 23 points in the Wolves’ loss to the Warriors on Friday.

Alexey Shved has also looked really good with every game of experience. The rookie looked lost in his first couple of games, but his 22 points and seven assists on Friday night are cause for optimism. He made some great plays in that game.

The Wolves hope to have Pekovic back to soon, while Love and Rubio should return in about a month. Until then, the leftovers will have to try to hang in there. So far, so good.

Final thoughts from the Indiana-Bison game

My trip as part of The Forum’s reporting team in Bloomington, Ind., ended late Monday night. Assembly Hall was as impressive as advertised, as was the top-ranked Indiana basketball team, which beat North Dakota State 87-61.

Figured I would throw a few more thoughts I have from the game:

  • The question I’ve most been asked since we returned to Fargo is this: Did Indiana look like the best team in the country? My response is that it’s simply tough to answer that. NDSU is a good team with reasonably high expectations in the Summit League. But the Bison aren’t a Big Ten team. The Hoosiers definitely showed off some depth Monday night with backups Remy Abell and Jeremy Hollowell. They sparked a key 8-0 run in the second half.
  • Cody Zelleris an impressive athlete. You just don’t see 7-footers that can run the court like he can. And he’s no stick figure either. He’s a tough kid that handles himself well in traffic. NBAdraft.net has Zeller as the projected No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft. I’m not surprised.

    Indiana center Cody Zeller prior to the start of Monday’s game.

  • On the other hand, I thought Marshall Bjorklund handled himself well in the post. Sure, Zeller had 22 points and nine rebounds. But many of Zeller’s eight field goals were on fast-break dunks. That’s not to excuse Bjorklund, but I think we all knew that was going to happen a few times. When the two were in the halfcourt, I think Bjorklund fared well on offense and defense against Zeller. Despite some foul trouble, Bjorklund had 16 points and six rebounds.
  • I had higher expectations for Indiana freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, who scored only four points in 22 minutes. He looked great in scoring 10 points against Bryant (R.I.) on Friday. But inconsistent play can happen to a young point guard like Ferrell. He just never seemed in the flow of the game offensively. But I’ll say this: Ferrell was working his tail off after the Monday afternoon shootaround. While his teammates ate a late lunch, Ferrell remained in the gym with an assistant coach for more than an hour. He spent most of that time shooting and doing ballhandling drills.
  • I did the Indiana postgame media session rather than the NDSU one, which was covered by a couple of colleagues. So I didn’t speak to any Bison players or coaches after the game. But my guess is that at least a few of them would admit to some early jitters. The Bison committed 16 turnovers in the game to Indiana’s 10. And my estimate is that NDSU was called for five or six traveling calls in the game, most coming in the first 25 minutes. One in particular was on a pump fake when a Bison player accidentally jumped off the floor. Pretty uncharacteristic stuff.
  • Bjorklund mentioned postgame that the Bison had some “seven or eight” early missed opportunities that could have made the game closer. No doubt about that. The Bison had some looks on offense get away from them. But that’s what often happens when a mid-major is on the road taking on a highly ranked opponent. Even if Zeller isn’t there to disrupt a shot, it’s hard for his presence or Christian Watford‘s presence to not enter the back of your mind. That’s what a player like Zeller can do.
  • I’ve been asked a couple of times about the crowd. It certainly got loud in there at times. But my guess is that the 17,145 in attendance are far more vocal when the Hoosiers face conference opponents. The Bison never challenged that much. The loudest it got was probably when NDSU forward TrayVonn Wright got tangled up with Zeller on a rebound, which led to Zeller falling to the floor. The crowd did not like to see that happen to their star center.
  • As for Assembly Hall itself, I love the setup. When attending basketball games, nobody wants to see it on an end behind one of the baskets. They want to sit on the sides. And that’s what this arena brings. Almost all of the seats run the length of the court, which is why the building is so tall and the seating is so steep. I’m a big fan. I’m sure the seating is a little cramped by modern standards, but it’s a great venue for college basketball.

No. 1 Indiana brings experience, and one talented freshman

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The North Dakota State men’s basketball team faces the biggest test in program history on Monday night.

No. 1-ranked Indiana will host the Bison at 6 p.m. CST Monday (no TV – go to www.inforum.com for a live blog before and during the game). The Hoosiers have The Sporting News’ Preseason Player of the Year in Cody Zeller, a 7-foot center with a post game and the ability to run the court. It’s a terrifying blend for a Bison team that – like most teams – just doesn’t have that kind of talent and size in the middle. I covered Zeller and how the Bison are preparing for him in Monday’s Forum.

The Hoosiers return their top five scorers from a 27-win team last season. Yet when I watched Friday night’s Indiana 97-54 victory against Bryant (R.I.) on my DVR, the one player that stood out most to me was a true freshman playing in his first college game.

Point guard Kevin Ferrell – better known as Yogi Ferrell – was a McDonald’s All-American a year ago in high school at Park Tudor in Indianapolis, where he led the school to back-to-back Indiana high school championships. In his senior season, he averaged 18.5 points and 6.6 assists per game.

Ferrell’s court vision stood out in Friday’s win against Bryant, which is a weak Division I opponent, but nevertheless this was Ferrell’s first game with the Hoosiers.

He had 10 points and seven assists in 24 minutes. Solid statistics to be sure, but not the kind that jump off the computer screen at you. He made some impressive passes and showed great awareness. How poised will he be when the Hoosiers face a true test? That remains to be seen. But the talent is there. No doubt about that.

The Bison have some length. And it will be important that they disrupt Ferrell’s passing lanes. The Hoosiers have a talented center and plenty of shooters, so the key to slowing them down might be to contain the catalyst in Ferrell.

A few other notes:

  • While Zeller gets the attention, 6-foot-9 forward Christian Watford is no slouch for Indiana. He had 15 points, but more importantly for Indiana, grabbed 15 rebounds against Bryant.
  • The top five scorers for Indiana from last season – all back with the team – are: Zeller (15.6 ppg), Watford (12.5), Jordan Hulls (11.6), Victor Oladipo (10.8) and Will Sheehey (8.6). Sheehey moved to the bench against Bryant to make room for Ferrell.
  • In addition to the five top scorers returning, also back is forward Derek Elston. He started four games last season. However, Elston is out with injury and will not play Monday night.
  • Two Indiana freshmen – forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea and center Peter Jurkin – are suspended for the team’s first nine games. Read more about it here.

More Bison coverage

Timberwolves move on from Batum

The Minnesota Timberwolves made the shooting guard position a top priority this offseason. But the guy they wanted most of all won’t be going anywhere.

The Portland Trail Blazers matched the four-year, $45 million offer sheet given to Nicolas Batum by the Minnesota Timberwolves, which will keep the 23-year-old Frenchman in the Pacific Northwest.

The Wolves can take some consolation in the fact that they were able to get a conference foe to spend lots of money. But at the same time, Wednesday’s news was no doubt disappointing for the club.

Many experts agreed that Batum’s style of play would have been a great fit for head coach Rick Adelman‘s system in Minnesota. Batum averaged 14 points per game last season, and he has shown the ability to use his 6-foot-8 frame on defense to give the opponent fits.

As the Batum saga has drawn out, the free-agent pool for shooting guards has thinned. Courtney Lee is among the better shooting guards available, having scored 11 points per game and made 40 percent of his 3-point attempts last season for Houston.

With Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio (who is rehabbing from injury), the Wolves have two key building blocks going forward. But I still think they need one more significant piece. Could they go out and trade for Philadelphia guard Andre Iguodala and his massive contract? And would Iguodala be that piece?

Kevin Love won’t win MVP, but he deserves consideration

Chances are that you’ve probably seen the last of Kevin Love for the remainder of the NBA season.

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Timberwolves standout power forward suffered a mild concussion. With the Wolves no longer in serious pursuit of a playoff spot, there’s really no reason to get Love back on the court.

And in the case of players like Anthony Randolph (who has 44 points and eight blocks over the last two games), Love’s injury gives the Wolves an opportunity to get a long look at some of the bench players.

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is averaging 26 points per game this season. Associated Press photo

It’s been a phenomenal season for Love, who just keeps getting better and better with every year of NBA experience. If he really is finished for the season, Love would have 2011-12 numbers of 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. In March, he became the first player ever to lead the NBA in scoring, rebounding and 3-point shooting for an entire month.

He ranks in the top five in scoring and rebounding in addition to his long-range shooting prowess. So it begs the question:

Can Love win the NBA’s MVP award?

Probably not. The award may be an individual one, but it does require team success. And with the Wolves in last place in the Northwest Division at 25-35, it would be pretty stunning to see Love get the nod.

But he is unquestionably worthy of consideration, and a finish outside of the top five in MVP voting would be outrageous.

Garnett always provides great theater

Kevin Garnett was a superstar while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But his abilities on the basketball court might be eclipsed only by his knack for the act.

And that’s not a bad thing. Sports is entertainment, whether we like it or not. And Garnett was a great entertainer during his decade-plus in the Twin Cities. He was “The Big Ticket” for a reason, always worth the price of admission. Whether it was sending rosin dust into the air during his pregame ritual at the scorer’s table or swatting an opponent’s shot into the fifth row, you didn’t dare blink when he was in.

Kevin Garnett dunks the ball in his return to the Twin Cities on Friday. Associated Press photo

Garnett was back at the Target Center on Friday night, leading his Boston Celtics to another ho-hum win against the Timberwolves. Garnett is now 6-0 against his former team.

Distracting from the Garnett vs. Kevin Love matchup was KG’s comments earlier in the week. He threw his former organization under the bus, saying that while he loves Minnesota and its fans, he had nothing positive to say about the organization.

Garnett’s comments added some fuel to a game that otherwise wouldn’t have had much to offer.

I especially enjoyed this give-and-take in Associated Press sports writer Jon Krawczynski’s story:

During the second quarter, Garnett was taking the ball out of bounds and a fan hollered: “Hey Kevin, please come back next year!”

Garnett simply muttered: “No way.”

After tallying 24 points and 10 rebounds in Friday’s win, I was left wondering what Garnett would say after the game.

But instead of sticking around to talk to the Fox Sports North crew, he scurried down the tunnel when the buzzer sounded with a towel atop his head, slowing down only to high-five a few fans on his way out.

Love Garnett or hate him. But at least keep watching.

What can the NIT do for you?

If you opted to read beyond the headline of this post, chances are you are more a Gophers fan than just a casual sports fan.

But if you are the latter, keep hanging with me for a second. Tell me if this makes any sense: A victory in the NIT men’s basketball championship would have an impact on the University of Minnesota program.

Words like “impact” are always open for interpretation. But my point is that prior to the start of the NIT, I thought Golden Gophers basketball was dead. It had bottomed out.

But if the Gophers managed to put together a run of what would be five straight victories against mediocre competition, perhaps that makes the Gophers mediocre, or even a little better than that. And this was done without their best player in Trevor Mbakwe, who has missed almost the entire season with injury.

Mediocrity isn’t much. But considering what I thought of the Gophers before the NIT started, I think fans of the team would be content with mediocrity at the end of this season.

Love says suspension is warranted

The Minnesota Timberwolves will be suffering from a bit of “Love loss” the next couple of nights.

Star forward Kevin Love was suspended for Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s games after stepping on the chest and face of Houston Rockets forward Luis Scola.

The incident was just the latest sign of chippy play between the two players. And Love in particular has been involved in a number of physical plays this year.

But after watching the video, I was surprised Love got two games. It didn’t appear to be blatantly intentional. Love proclaimed his innocence following the Saturday game, but wasn’t exactly doing so in today’s story about the incident, calling the suspension “warranted”.

Love is averaging 25 points and 13.7 rebounds (2nd in the NBA) per game this season. The Wolves are a surprising 12-12 this season.

Love gives Wolves a chance, which is all they can ask for

Prior to the start of the season, I didn’t think Kevin Love would be willing to sign a contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

That would have been a huge loss to a Twin Cities fan base, much of which is still bitter about the Kevin Garnett trade of a few years ago. Love is one of the best post players in the NBA, and the Wolves could ill afford to let the restricted-free-agent-to-be get away.

Turn the calendar back to August, and it just didn’t seem like he was staying. But after signing a four-year contract extension with the team on Wednesday, Love has agreed to stick around as the Wolves try to climb out of the rebuilding process.

Timberwolves forward Kevin Love scored 31 points on Wednesday. Associated Press

So what has changed in the last few months?

Well, the new collective bargaining agreement helps to a degree. Nobody knew what direction the CBA was headed in during the lockout. But there are still financial benefits to players who choose to re-sign with their teams.

What has also helped is the improvement on the court. The Wolves now have a proven head coach in Rick Adelman and a flashy point guard in Ricky Rubio. An 8-10 record may not sound impressive, but it’s a vast improvement from last year’s 17-65 showing. The team is not a playoff contender yet, but it does have a pulse again.

Fans have been patient with the organization for awhile, and that patience is starting to show signs of paying off. The Wolves are young, and thus, inconsistent. But they have some impressive wins under their belts, including two against the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. The Wolves beat the Mavs again on Wednesday, just hours after Love signed his new contract.

It’s worth noting that Love’s four-year deal does have an opt-out clause after three years. But that really doesn’t matter. He is giving the Wolves a chance to become playoff contenders and maybe more over the next few years, and considering where the organization has been, that’s all it can ask for.

At the very least, Wolves are exciting

I did something on my night off Monday that I hadn’t done in what seemed like years: Watch a Minnesota Timberwolves game … front to back.

The Wolves pulled away late to beat the Sacramento Kings on Monday.

I was at work tonight when they picked up another victory, rallying to defeat the Detroit Pistons. I wouldn’t say basketball fans have visions of playoff berths dancing in their heads, but at least the team is fun to watch.

The Target Center crowd – after years of turning its collective back on the team – has returned. And the fans hang on every Ricky Rubio no-look pass. And I continue to marvel at the dominant post presence that Kevin Love has begun. This team has a couple of building blocks and just needs to build upon the foundation.

I’m heading down to the Twin Cities next month for the first Timberwolves game of my life, and I’m really looking forward to it. For whatever reason – is it Rubio alone that’s responsible? – the product on the court seems vastly improved from a year ago.