When the boys’ high school basketball season begins, most coaches already have a pretty good idea of the type of players they’ll have on hand. Between summer workouts and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) games, they know who can shoot, who can drive the lane and who can pass the ball. That leaves one key facet of the game: who can stop opponents from scoring.

“When you play two or three AAU games a day in a tournament, defense tends to get lost. They’re trying to outscore the other side,” said Cretin-Derham Hall coach Jerry Kline. As a result, Kline and his assistants spend a lot of early practice time working on defense.

“Defense is all about limiting opportunities,” said Saint Thomas Academy coach Khalid El-Amin. “It’s difficult, but what you want is to influence the ball.” El-Amin’s North High School teams did more than score. Their constant pressure often forced bad passes, which led to easy baskets going the other way.

Two Rivers coach Doug Linton said the difficulty for JV players moving up, especially on defense, is the need to adjust quickly to the faster pace of varsity ball.

Highland Park coach Saladin Wright put it succinctly. “Defense is hard because kids are often taught only to shoot,” he said.  

central basketball
Central senior Tage Johnson nabs a rebound over Nate Gervais of River Falls in the Minutemen’s 73-70 loss at home to the Wildcats on December 13. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Highland Park coach Saladin Wright put it succinctly. “Defense is hard because kids are often taught only to shoot,” he said.  

That’s particularly pertinent to guys like Nova coach John Carrier, who has a team with no seniors and not a lot of size. “We need to be patient and opportunistic at the same time,” he said. Thus, steals and defensive rebounds will be a more important statistic for Nova than points.

Here’s how local boys’ basketball teams stack up in 2022-23:


League: Saint Paul City
Previous record: 11-15
Coach: Scott Howell

Key players: senior guard PJ Blakey, sophomore guard Allen Langford, senior center Henry Acker.

Outlook: With four starters returning, Howell is looking for his team to be competitive in what he said will be a very good conference. Offense is not an issue, with the Minutemen averaging 67 points in their first two games, but defense is. “We’ve been starting slowly, but we get better as the game goes on,” Howell said. Against River Falls on December 13, Central trailed by 19 points in the first half and then went ahead by five in the second before falling 73-70. One fresh face who may contribute a lot is 6-foot-1 freshman guard Eli Moseman. 


League: Suburban East
Previous record: 21-11
Coach: Jerry Kline

Key players: senior guards Adam Tauer and Luke Jacobson, junior guard Miles Bollinger.

Outlook: Tauer and Bollinger are the lone returning starters from a CDH team that took third at state last season. Kline hopes this year’s Raiders will be “scrappy.” It’s a smaller CDH  team than in the past, but guys like Bollinger, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds in a season-opening win over Minneapolis South, represent what Kline wants to see. “We’ll need to be opportunistic,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who’ve been around the program at the lower levels. It’ll take a while for them to get up to where we want to be. Eventually, we’ll be good offensively.” 


League: Saint Paul City
Previous record: 8-19
Coach: Saladin Wright

Key players: junior guards Andrew Bacigalupi and Xavier May, senior guard Ishmael Powell.

Outlook: “We’re not big, but we can run,” Wright said. Though May and Powell are listed as guards, Wright said they can also play upfront. Both are 6-foot-3, as is Bacigalupi. “We have the capability to score,” Wright said, noting Highland scored 71 in its five-point loss to Saint Thomas Academy in the season opener and had 68 in a win over Hill-Murray three nights later. “If we improve on our defensive play as the season goes on, we’ll be difficult to beat,” he said. 


League: Independent Metro Athletic
Previous record: 19-11
Coach: Lance Johnson

Key players: senior forward Rolyns Aligbe, junior guards Jerome Williams and Lorenzo Levy. 

Outlook: The traditionally strong Redhawks may take a while to get in gear, despite being ranked among the top five teams in the state in Class AA. “We’re a work in progress,” Johnson said. Minnehaha opened the season with a 74-33 win over Rochester Lourdes, but lost the next day to Maple River 68-63. “We didn’t push the pace,” Johnson said. “We need to do that.” The Redhawks apparently got the word; they scored 92 and 97 in their next two games. Williams is a threat to score from anywhere, averaging 22 points in the early going. He also can rebound. Aligbe is a 6-foot-9 force in the middle who can also score. Levy missed the first two games of the season, but is now back and is also a scoring threat. 


League: Skyline
Previous record: 7-21
Coach: John Carrier

Key players: junior guards Alex Ehlebracht and Omeed Tabrizi, sophomore guard Mason Engelking, junior forward Silas Revenaugh. 

Outlook: This is possibly the youngest varsity hoop team in the state. There are a handful of freshmen, including Caleb Taylor (averaging nearly 10 points a game), and an eighth-grader on the 17-man roster. “But we’ve got very smart kids,” Carrier said. “They’re learning quickly.” Revenaugh, who is 6-foot-6, has been sidelined with an illness early, which has hurt the Knights (1-3) on the boards. “We shot better than our opponents in two of our first three games,” Carrier said. “We gave up too many shots and had too many turnovers, but the execution of plays has been better every game.” Nova got its first win on December 12 by limiting Trinity to 28 points. 


League: Independent Metro Athletic
Previous record: 16-10
Coach: Kevin Keto

Key players: junior forward Tysen Hayes, junior guard Ethan Carter, senior center Maverick Wolff.

Outlook: The Spartans have some size up front with 6-foot-5 Hayes and 6-foot-7 Wolff, who is an excellent shot blocker. In all, there are seven players who are 6-foot-3 or taller in the regular nine-man rotation. Keto said Hayes is the team’s most versatile player because he can rebound and shoot three-pointers. Carter is the ball handler and was averaging 20.3 points in the first three games. The goal is to improve on offense to compete in a small but very good conference that includes undefeated Blake and perennial power Minnehaha.


League: Metro East
Previous record: 16-12
Coach: Khalid El-Amin

Key players: senior guards Michael Kirchner and Jack Chamberlain, junior guard Luke Dobbs.

Outlook: In his second year at the helm, El-Amin has a veteran returning cast with 11 seniors. “I’m excited about the season,” he said. “I expect we’ll be really competitive.” Kirchner is a three-year starter who averaged 15.1 points last year. Dobbs is averaging nearly 18 points a game in the early going for the Cadets, who were ranked among the top 10 in the state in Class AAA. Chamberlain’s return in January from injury will add more speed and strength to the lineup. “We’ve had some very good moments early, but we still need to get better organized,” El-Amin said. A rugged nonconference schedule that includes games against Princeton, Eagan and Cretin-Derham Hall this month should aid in that process.


League: Metro East
Previous record: 16-10
Coach: Doug Linton

Key players: senior guards Carson Christiansen and Keeshaun Powell, senior forward Thomas Lutz.

Outlook: When you lose six of your top nine players from the year before, you know you’re going to have some work to do in the early part of the season. Fortunately, Christiansen and Lutz are accomplished scorers and Powell is an excellent playmaker. “We lack varsity experience,” Linton conceded, “but the kids are adjusting to the speed of the game and the defensive intensity at the varsity level. Our second game against Fridley was better than the first (against Irondale).” Linton is now looking ahead. “February is more important than December,” he said. “We have to get quicker to be successful.” 

— Dave Wright


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