The second stop on this year's Iowa High School Basketball Coaches Postseason Tournament Tour took me to Rockwell City to watch Coach Jake Mohling and the AC/GC Chargers take on the South Central Calhoun Titans. While the final score (a 57-43 loss) may tell one story, my eyes saw another on my trip to Northwest Iowa last night.
In 2012, the Chicago Cubs went 61-101. This was the Cubs first year under Theo Epstein. They weren't the championship caliber team that Theo and company has built them into today. They were still the "loveable losers" back then. But that was the first year I remember thinking, they may have something here. All the pieces probably aren't in play yet, but you can see the foundation being set. From there, you get to enjoy a watching a team grow and build and learn and adjust in front of your eyes. You are aware of the progression taking place and are able to watch that develop. I remember that feeling with the Cubs that year even though I didn't really care for them. Then in 2013 they went 66-96. The next season they went 73-89. The following season they made the leap and went 97-65. And if you weren't aware of this already, the Chicago Cubs actually won the world series last year.
That was the same feeling I got last night watching Coach Mohling and a young AC/GC team. Like Theo, Coach Mohling is just getting started with these guys. In the first year as a combined school district, AC/GC struggled for most of the season to find wins. Never seeing the AC/GC play yet this season, I had a preconceived notion of what type of basketball team I might see on the floor from the Chargers knowing that they went 3-19 in the regular season. I didn't see that team last night. I saw a team that knew what they were suppose to be doing and battled to execute all night.
AC/GC starts only 1 senior and routinely plays a lot of sophomores and a freshmen. Physically you could just tell the difference between them and their senior-heavy opponents from South Central Calhoun. My program says the Titans have 8 seniors on their roster. So having a team filled with 15-16 year olds competing against a team of 17-18 year olds and giving up at least 30 lbs. per player almost all the way across the roster is a tall task.
When you have the age, experience, and size deficit it really reduces your margin of error you can have and still have a chance to win. It reminds me of when you are playing Mike Tyson's Punch Out on the old Nintendo. When you're Little Mac, you're smaller than every single one of your opponents. Especially when you get to the bigger guys in the World Circuit, you just don't have much margin of error to make many mistakes. You really have to stick and move with your punches and avoid the knock-out blows from Bald Bull or Soda Popinski. You can do 10 things right in a row but you slip up once and they will knock you to the ground. You almost have to box a perfect match just to give yourself a shot in that 3rd round.
And for most of the night, the Chargers did a great job of "sticking and moving" and giving themselves a chance to pull the upset. Playing a team with more experience and maturity than them, I was impressed with how well AC/GC moved the ball on offense, didn't turn the ball over, and handled themselves on the defensive glass. That is normally where you see young teams struggle: turning the ball over too much and getting hurt on the offensive glass. But not Coach Mohling's squad. He's got a gritty bunch of kids on his team that did not allow those things to happen for the majority of the game last night. I didn't see the stats for those two categories but I'd guess in the first half those key areas were really low. The Chargers really limited the amount of possessions the Titans had with those two areas and allowed them to stay in the game. They rode some hot shooting to cut the lead to 5-7 on multiple occasions but could not get over that hump.
Then eventually after grinding so hard for most of the game, the weight of having to battle that more mature and more experienced squad looked like it finally caught up to the Chargers. After cutting it to 7 a couple minutes into the 4th quarter, the Titans extended the lead with consecutive 3-pointers and extended that lead in the final minutes.
But I really think the building blocks are there. This AC/GC team wasn't scared of the moment and really executed their stuff. They moved the ball really well on offense and appeared to be running the system Coach Mohling has in place. Could be exciting times in the future for the Chargers. I don't know if a championship is in their future like it was for that young Cubs team in 2012 but the improvement will come. Another year in the weight room and another summer in the gym for those guys could lead to brighter days next season. It's like when I lose to Piston Honda in Punch Out. I restart that game and give the big brute another shot. I'll be excited to see how AC/GC's second shot turns out next season.
After reading the blog post about my experience at West Central Valley on Saturday night I know most of you readers are interested to hear how the popcorn situation was in Rockwell City last night. I am pleased to report that popcorn was only $1 last night. Maybe not great quality but it was great to get back into a gym with it's popcorn priced at a reasonable amount. I still haven't completely gotten over that $2 bag in Stuart this weekend. Unbelievable. So, the updated Popcorn Power Rankings after two trips in my #IHSBBCPTT:
1. South Central Calhoun
2. West Central Valley
With two Bachelor posts and an Elimination Chamber post on Monday there was no room for any Wisconsin basketball talk on Monday, so we better hit it here quick. A lot to talk about after losing to Northwestern at home on Sunday. Just an ugly display put forth by Bucky on Sunday evening.
I'm not going to dive too far off the deep end here though for two reasons. One, I think Wisconsin's value this season is a little inflated due to the Big Ten being down this year. And two, Bronson Koenig being hurt really hampers what they can do offensively.
I think Wisconsin is a Top 10-15 team this year. Most years, this Badgers team would probably be the 3rd best team in the B1G. Anywhere around there really, could be 2nd best could be 4th best...probably wouldn't be worse than 4th best though since Wisconsin never finishes below 4th in the Big Ten conference standings. But this year without a dominant team in the conference Wisconsin has slid into that "best team in the conference". I think even just through perception that's made us think the Badgers are a little better than they really are.
Also, Bronson Koenig is trying to play through his injury because he's a tough kid but you can tell it's really restricting what he can do on the court at times. I said in a previous Three Count that I'd be more than comfortable pushing my money to the middle of the table on the Koenig/Hayes/Happ trio against any other trio in the country, but when one of those three are not at 100% health then it changes the outcome quite a bit. Right now Wisconsin just doesn't have the quality bench to supplement a Koenig that's only playing around 75%.
This may come as a shock to some people but Wisconsin isn't exactly explosive on offense. They grind you down defensively, make you work for everything you get on both ends, and try to out execute you. When Wisconsin is really good some years is when they have playmakers that can take traditional Wisconsin basketball and then add that individual spark on offense. Koenig has that when healthy but he's not healthy right now. Therefore, he's missing shots and not able to create opportunities for him and his teammates on the offensive end nearly as often as he was earlier in the year. Without that aspect of the Badgers offense, they can bog down and struggle to score points like we've seen the past couple weeks. Not a lot of other playmakers on that Wisconsin roster, especially in the backcourt.
So it's almost a waiting game right now for Wisconsin to wait and see if Bronson can get healthy. The Badgers have an important stretch to end the regular season to see if they can man the fort while Koenig works his way back to full health. If he can do that by March, I'll still like the Badgers chances in the tournaments. I'll still take Happ/Hayes/Koenig against almost anyone in the country. Without part of that trio though, could be tough sledding for Wisconsin the rest of the way.