I f there’s been one positive from the condensed and fluid scheduling in this pandemic, it’s what Tuesday has given us: No. 1 Escanaba (11-0) at No. 2 Iron Mountain (11-0).
There’s Foster Wonders facing Escanaba’s 6-foot-7 frontcourt duo of Carter and Colin Hudson.
Esky’s backcourt of Brandon Frazer and Erik Victorson versus the strength and athleticism of Iron Mountain’s shutdown defenders.
It’s the best regular-season game of the season between two of the most athletic teams in the UP.
Here are three things I’ll be watching for. I’ll also give my pick for who I believe will win. If I’m wrong, I expect to hear it from the winning team, which is fair.
Wonders has been on a tear this season, averaging 34.6 points per game. He’s coming off a 34-point outing in a 67-24 win over Negaunee on Thursday before scoring a season-high 45 against Ishpeming in Iron Mountain’s 64-42 victory on Friday. The crazy part of his scoring is his average would be higher if Iron Mountain had more competitive games, allowing him to stay in games longer. Most of his work is done in just over three quarters with the Mountaineers defeating their opponents by an average of 37 points this season.
No team has found a way to slow down the 6-foot-5 Wonders. Some have tried putting guards on him in hopes of playing into him and making him uncomfortable. But this hasn’t worked — at all. Wonders has simply shot over smaller defenders and goes up with enough height you wonder if they even get in the way of his vision.
There is another subtle feature Wonders does when he shoots that helps him see past defenders. Every basketball player falls into two categories when they shoot: those who keep their eyes on the rim and those who watch the ball leave their hands. It’s just a preference thing, and even guys in the NBA vary on what method they use. Wonders watches the ball, and I have about 1,000 photos in our archive to prove it since we’ve got the same pose of him shooting over the past three years. But with him watching the ball on release, his eye level is already elevated more so than someone who watches the rim. This allows him to see over and past defenders and decreases the chance an arm restricts his sightline to the rim. It’s a small thing, but I feel that it matters.
One thing Escanaba does have going for itself is its personnel. The Eskymos have the best combination of size and athleticism to throw at Wonders and have numerous ways they could attempt to defend him. It’ll be a fun matchup and whatever Tracy Hudson decides to do will be worth monitoring.
It could be interesting if Escanaba goes to a straight 2-3 zone with matchup principles wherever Wonders is. This will put the onus on Iron Mountain’s Ricky Brown and Caleb Evosevich-Hynes to make shots from the perimeter and could limit Wonders’ ability to attack with the two 6-foot-7 Hudsons around the rim.
A box-and-one remains a possibility. Coach Hudson could use Colin, the more perimeter-oriented of the brothers, on Wonders and keep Carter down low, or throw Victorson on Wonders and use both Hudson’s around the rim.
If Escanaba goes man, it’ll be interesting to see who will be assigned to Wonders. Victorson could be a candidate, despite fitting into the category of being a smaller defender on him. Besides Wonders, Marquette’s Kam Karp is the best player in the UP, and Victorson put on a defensive clinic in limiting Karp to just 12 points on 3 of 13 shooting back on Feb. 11. But Victorson dealt with an ankle injury earlier this season that forced him to miss some games, so he may not be completely healthy enough to run around and chase Wonders.
If the Eskymos do go man, I would expect to see Colin on Wonders. He’s 6-foot-7 and athletic. He does give up some strength and weight to Wonders, but you take what you can get because there simply isn’t an ideal defender for him in the UP, and probably not even in the state in Division 3.
Still, whatever Escanaba throws at him, it won’t be anything he hasn’t seen before. He’s played on the top AAU circuit the past few years against some of the country’s best recruits. He’ll still get his. It just will come down to if Escanaba can do enough to slow him down from going off and taking over the game.
Much of the attention on Iron Mountain goes to Wonders for his offensive exploits, and deservingly so. His step-backs are near unguardable, and the continued development of his fundamentals allows him to create space in numerous ways thanks to his sound footwork. He’s also simply stronger and more athletic than in previous seasons.
But another part of Iron Mountain’s success has been its ability to stifle teams on the defensive end of the floor. Through 11 games, the Mountaineers have surrendered just 33 points per contest with no team yet to reach the 50-point mark.
Much of Iron Mountain’s ability to defend comes from the team’s strength and athleticism. Evosevich-Hynes and Bryce Pietrantonio are All-UP football players and look every bit the part the way they fly towards the ball on defense.
The win over Negaunee was a defensive clinic. In the full-court, Iron Mountain’s pressure contributed to force the Miners into 28 turnovers. Negaunee was also never able to take advantage of its post offense with the Mountaineers helping and closing off passing lanes. Negaunee shot just 10 of 29 from the field and could never establish an offensive rhythm.
Of course, it’s not reasonable to expect Escanaba to struggle in the same way Negaunee did. Frazer and Victorson are experienced guards who make up one of the top backcourts in the UP. And sure, much of the attention will go to how Escanaba defends Wonders. But this might be where the game is decided. If Iron Mountain’s defense wins out on the perimeter and can contain Escanaba’s dribble drives, the Eskymos would need a big offensive outing from Carter Hudson to record a victory.
So far, Wonders has been enough to carry the Mountaineer offense. But tonight could be the first time where other players will be required to make shots around him, given Escanaba’s ability to defend.
Twice against Negaunee, we saw what it looked like when other players can make defenses pay for the attention given to Wonders. Each time, Wonders drove from the top of the key to the lane, only to be met by a wall of defenders. Ricky Brown was in the corner ready to shoot, and Wonders saw him and dished to the corner. Brown converted 3-pointers on each occasion, and when he’s making shots like that, Iron Mountain becomes unguardable.
“We’re gonna need that throughout the playoffs,” Wonders said of his teammates hitting shots. “We got some big games coming up. We got Esky, and we’re going to need that all year. Ricky did it last year and did it here tonight against Negaunee. That was big.”
Based on superstition, Iron Mountain is a clear choice.
The running joke between Tracy Hudson and Upbeat is that he hates seeing me at the games, but loves it when Eden goes. Apparently, Escanaba is unbeaten, or close to it, when Eden covers the Escanaba boys. But the Eskymos have had no such luck when I’ve been there, losing almost every single time. The only instance where Escanaba won with me covering the game was the first Marquette meeting in Escanaba when Eden was there to shoot photos, too, offsetting whatever bad voodoo I place on the team. But unfortunately for Escanaba, Eden will be in Menominee to cover the matchup between the Maroons and Braves.
On a serious note, it’s hard to pick against Wonders right now given how he’s lit up every defense he’s faced. Escanaba may have the best size and personnel to match up with him, but it’s nothing unique that he hasn’t seen at the AAU level. Iron Mountain’s perimeter defenders will have to win the battle against Frazer and Victorson, but there’s a better chance of that happening than Escanaba containing Wonders.
Another interesting development with the game is that 375 people will be allowed to attend, creating the first semblance of homecourt advantage this season for the Mountaineers. For an Escanaba group that’s yet to face a raucous environment this year, the crowd and its energy could give Iron Mountain an edge.
Prediction: Iron Mountain 62, Escanaba 58.
Well, 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...
If you listened to a podcast or have followed Eden and me long enough, you’re aware of how plenty of our conversations during a season revolve around high school basketball. Teams, players and storylines are regularly discussed, and for the most part, we tend to agree. But of course, there have been points of contention — moments where my stubbornness...
If you despise the All-UP selections for their occasional reliance on stats, then do I have some bad news for you. Due to the unique circumstances facing our society, the format for the 2019-20 All-UP basketball selections will be changing. The Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association will not meet to make the annual selections, but instead, the preliminary plan...