Alexandria boys basketball coach Forrest Witt gathered his players together at the end of practice on the afternoon of April 2 to go over some details in their preparation for facing a 16-4 Richfield team in the state semifinals this Thursday.
Witt talked about ways to defend a player like Spartans’ senior guard Lamar Grayson -- one of five finalists for Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball Award that goes to the top senior in the state. There would be more time to fine-tune those details in practices this week leading up to the 1 p.m. tip off at the Target Center on Thursday, but Witt really wanted to emphasize how this is where the Cardinals deserve to be. That if they execute like they have done in the past, Alexandria can absolutely win this game and play for a championship on April 10 at 6 p.m.
“We’re having intense practices like we have all year and a focus on defense like we have all year,” Cardinals’ junior guard Wyatt Odland said. “There’s an excitement with all of us. Just getting to play at the Target Center on Thursday and having the opportunity to win a game and play for a state championship if we win this one.”
Witt said coaches had watched three games from Richfield as of last Friday and would likely go back over those again, along with trying to get their eyes on a few more.
The Spartans have talented players across the board. Ryan Miles (17 points), Mitchell January (17) and Jaden Wollmuth (10) all had double figures when Richfield upset top-seeded South St. Paul (19-2) 93-90 in the Section 3-3A championship on March 25, but Grayson, a 6-foot, 1-inch lead guard, is this team’s engine.
“He’s kind of the guy who really gets them going, a high-volume shooter who attacks the basket really well,” Witt said. “He’s really at the top of the scouting report, and then they really look to post inside. They try to isolate mismatches. They did that a lot in the games we’ve seen so far.”
Witt said Grayson will certainly be the best guard Alexandria has seen this season.
“But to be honest, I love what Kristen (Hoskins) and Colton (Roderick) bring to the table defensively,” Witt said. “It’s not going to be an easy task by any means, but I feel pretty good about our plan against him. He’s going to get some points. He’s a really good player, but I think we can challenge those shots and make it difficult.”
Grayson had 37 points in the section-championship win over South St. Paul as he consistently got to the basket against multiple defenders and finished through contact. He added 29 points in Richfield’s 67-63 win over Mankato West (16-5) in the state quarterfinals.
The Cardinals will take a team approach in trying to slow Grayson down, but they can throw a couple different styles of defenders at him up top. Hoskins has athleticism and quickness that matches up with anybody, and at 6-feet, 4-inches, Roderick has length and instinct that has made him one of the best defenders in the area.
“(Our) on-ball defense has to be really good,” Witt said. “Then also that help-side defense has to be really good. Just being in position before he puts the ball on the floor is going to be critical to try to contain him...Get the ball out of his hands as much as possible. Then when he gets it, challenge shots as much as possible to make it difficult.”
Richfield has a lot on its plate too in trying to figure out a way to beat Alexandria. The Cardinals are 21-1 behind a defense that allows just 50.9 points per game and an offense that has grown to feature a lot of depth around Hoskins, Roderick and Erik Hedstrom.
“Thinking back to the summer practices that we had, Forrest said it was some of the best summer practices that we’ve ever had,” Odland said. “I think that building up through the summer and the fall, just all that coming together this winter kind of set the stage for this.”
Witt lauded the way his players have come to practice each day and how their focus has gone to another level down the stretch of this season.
“These guys understand that it’s fun when you work hard and you see the rewards that come from it,” Witt said. “Everything we’re going to do today, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is going to be a direct reflection of Thursday’s game. They understand that. They have fun at the same time, but they’re focused and dialed in on what needs to get done.”
Guys have bought into their roles on this team and how they can impact winning. For players like Odland and fellow junior guard Carter Steffensmeier, that means scoring when opportunities arise, but focusing on other areas like rebounding from the guard spots and defending.
Richfield won its state opener in part because it outrebounded Mankato West 35-22. The Cardinals will give up some size in their starting lineup to the Spartans, so which team has an advantage on the glass will be an area to watch.
“We know they’re a little more lengthy than we are,” Steffensmeier said. “It’s going to be boxing out, getting boards and then getting out in transition and running. That will be a really key part to our success in this game.”
A state power waiting in the championship
Alexandria is focused on Richfield in the semifinals, but players are also not naive to who else is playing in the other half of the bracket in DeLaSalle (15-5) and Minnehaha Academy (18-1).
Both are two of the biggest names among boys basketball programs in Minnesota. Minnehaha Academy features a loaded roster led by the No. 1 ranked recruit in the country in 7-foot center Chet Holmgren -- a player projected to be a top pick in the NBA draft in a couple of years.
“(The mind) definitely does wander. We try to stay focused as much as we can on this game, but I know we’ve all talked about and thought about how cool it would be to play against the No. 1 player in the nation, one of the best teams in the nation,” Odland said. “But just focusing on the task at hand is what is most important for us right now.”
Witt is not concerned about his guys looking ahead. The Cardinals have been a focused group almost every game this season, and he expects the same on Thursday afternoon.
“I think we’re focused on Richfield,” Witt said. “We’ve never been here before, so it’s not like we’re looking over anybody by any means. This team has been pretty good about staying focused on the opponent that’s ahead of us right now. It’s Richfield, and there’s nothing else on our minds except them.”