Five thoughts on the 2021 basketball season

2/8/2021 | Column | By Bryce Derouin
Bryce.Derouin@TheUpbeatSports.com

W ell, we made it. Through the postponements and cancellations, basketball season is here. More than any other year, this is filled with unknowns. Uncertainty about how many games each team will get in, and uncertainty about the overall product out on the floor. With no summer camps and limited physical contact practices, it’s anyone’s guess how this season will play out.

Here are five quick things to watch for this season.

1. Experienced teams should have an edge

The lack of practice time and summer camps should give the teams with returning cores an edge. Menominee girls, Marquette boys, Calumet girls and the St. Ignace girls are four of the best examples of teams with established groups who are accustomed to playing with each other and having success. There will be less of a learning curve and I would expect those teams to start off better than some of the others. 

It also helps that each team has All-UP talent returning. Menominee’s Emma Anderson is the reigning Ms. UP Basketball Player of the Year, while the other three have All-UP guards with Kam Karp at Marquette, Elli Djerf at Calumet and Division 4 All-UP Player of the Year Hallie Marshall at St. Ignace. 

Teams with reliable backcourts and playmakers who can get their own shots can overcome certain challenges quicker than other teams who lack those traits.

2. Foster Wonders

Iron Mountain’s Foster Wonders is going to go down as one of the best players in the history of the UP. He’s coming off a season where he averaged 27.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game and he sits just 382 points away from reaching the 2,000-point mark. The Southern Illinois commit deserves to be on every shortlist for Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award. 

It will be interesting to see how teams attempt to defend Wonders, who increased his weight up to 205 pounds during the offseason. Iron Mountain will be without Marcus Johnson for the first time in four years, and both he and Wonders benefitted from having the other so defenses couldn’t focus exclusively on one of them. But now it’s open season on Wonders, and it’s worth watching how many defenders teams are willing to throw at Wonders in hopes of stopping him. Double teams should be regular occurrences, but will likely depend on how far out teams are willing to send the extra defender. When he drives, he’s likely to draw nearly the entire defense to him. 

The main factor for Iron Mountain in recent years was having its role players step up around Johnson and Wonders. But now that Johnson is gone, it puts the onus on the rest of Iron Mountain’s roster to alleviate some of the attention Wonders will receive. 

Ricky Brown will be looked at as a key scorer for Iron Mountain. He had three 3s off the bench in Iron Mountain’s 69-51 win at Negaunee, and if a player can succeed in a packed Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium, then he’s ready for any environment going forward. His ability to convert from the perimeter will be vital for Iron Mountain to have offensive success.

But back to Wonders, it’s interesting to think what he could possibly average this season. He’ll likely handle the ball more and there may not be a single defender in the UP who can guard him straight up. Averaging 30 points per game isn’t out of the question, nor is a double-double with 10 rebounds. The assists number is intriguing. If he’s forced to pass out of double or triple teams and his teammates can convert, that number will obviously rise. Could he average a 30-point triple-double? It’s obviously not likely, but if there was someone I wouldn’t put it past, it would be Wonders.

3. Who’s going to score for the Negaunee boys?

Jason Waterman, Jakson Sager and Drew Lindberg are gone, in addition to Drew DuShane, Chas Kumpula and Alex Munson. That’s Negaunee’s top six rotation players, with Will Luke the only returner to have seen actual meaningful minutes. 

Negaunee’s primary scorer appears to be senior Eli Luokkala, who previously played at Republic-Michigamme. Last season, the 6-5 guard averaged 16 points and nine rebounds a game. Based off his highlight reel from last season, he looks to have a solid jumper with good form from the perimeter and has the ability to get downhill to the rim. But the obvious question will be how his success at Republic-Michigamme translates to the Division 3 level against the harder competition on Negaunee’s schedule. 

This will be an interesting season for Negaunee. It went from an experienced core that could run through coach Dan Waterman’s offensive sets and execute numerous options off of each one. But the luxury of a group with three years of varsity experience playing together is gone, and how the Miners adapt going forward will be interesting to watch.

4. The returning talent on the girls side

Nine of the 16 girls who made All-UP Dream Team or All-UP First Team in Division 1-3 or Division 4 are returning for 2021. Back from the Dream Team are Menominee’s Anderson, Escanaba’s Nicole Kamin, St. Ignace’s Marshall and Ewen-Trout Creek’s Elise Besonen. 

On the Division 1-3 First Team, it’s Gladstone’s Megan Crow, Negaunee’s Alyssa Hill and Djerf from Calumet. Meanwhile, on the Division 4 first team, St. Ignace’s Ally Schultz and Carney-Nadeau’s Tessa Wagner are back. 

Kamin and Crow will be teammates next season at Grand Valley State University, and Anderson has signed on to play at Wayne State. Besonen is also signed and is headed to Wisconsin-Superior. 

Hill is a Division II level prospect given her size and athleticism. Last season she averaged 15.9 points and 11.2 rebounds and should continue to develop with another year under coach Mike O’Donnell. 

Meanwhile, Marshall and Schultz, along with Emmalee Hart, make the Saints a favorite in the UP once again. Their collective hard-nosed mentality perfectly fits St. Ignace’s aggressive defensive style and they’ve already experienced success together after reaching the state finals in 2019.

5. Dollar Bay goes on without Jesse Kentala

Jesse Kentala’s resignation was a bit of a shock, but the opportunity to take the principal position at Hancock Middle School can easily be understood for the betterment of his career. Now the attention will turn to how Dollar Bay will attempt to continue the winning tradition Kentala established. The Blue Bolts will have the benefit of having someone who has been with Kentala and also deserves credit for the team’s past successes in Jake Stevens. 

Stevens has led the JV program so he’s familiar with the makeup of this roster, and the kids are accustomed to his coaching and expectations, so the transition shouldn’t be that big of a change. And my intuition tells me that Kentala won’t be completely absent from the program going forward. I’m sure he’ll be giving his input or helping when he can. 

Stevens does have the luxury of two All-UP caliber talents back with Davin Hill and Connor LeClaire, in addition to two other returning starters in A.J. Datto and Bradley Myllyoja. Hill has the ability to create his own shot and be a threat from 3-point range, while LeClaire can be a defensive stopper and an athletic force on offense around the rim. 

Those four returners and their experience will have Dollar Bay as one of the early Division 4 favorites in the UP, even as the Blue Bolts look to move on from their former coach.

Bryce Derouin

Co-founder
Bryce is a co-founder of Upbeat. He earned his journalism degree from Grand Valley State and served as the sports editor for three years at the Daily Mining Gazette in Houghton after working one year as a sports reporter at the Daily Press in Escanaba.

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