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April 12, 2013

Courrier: College basketball offseason can be exciting, too

— This is an unusual time in the college basketball world.

The season has just ended, and coaches are evaluating which players are coming or going and trying to convince the top recruits that they have the best spot for them.

And most coaches are free agents, too. As Steve Alford showed last month, a 10-year extension with your current employer means nothing when a better opportunity arises. Richard Pitino didn’t seem to have much trouble leaving Florida International after one season to try to boost the University of Minnesota back into the top tier of the Big Ten.

With each open job getting filled, another one usually pops open, leaving an employment frenzy that lasts until May.

This was a great season for the Minnesota State men’s basketball team, which rebounded from a seven-win nightmare to tie the program record with 28 victories and advance to the regional championship game, one of only 16 programs in Division II to get that far.

There was only one senior on that team, though Jarvis Williams will be tough to replace. There were three redshirts on the bench — T.J. Okafor, Michael Busack and Grant Pope — who could make an impact on the lineup. One high-schooler has already joined the program, guard T.J. Lake of Dubuque.

So it seems as though the Mavericks will be one of the favorites to win another Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship, if not the region.

But it’s never that easy, and last year rarely guarantees next year in any program.

Last week, guard Jimmy Whitehead announced that he’ll be leaving after four years at Minnesota State. He was a valuable member of the rotation last season, and when he played well, the team was much better. He was often in the games at end, helping the Mavericks secure a victory with a key basket or defensive stop.

But he didn’t want to be a backup again, even on a squad that has potential to win a national championship, so he gambled team success for a bigger role elsewhere. That’s his right.

So the Minnesota State coaching staff now must replace two guys, which isn’t a monumental task. College coaches see opportunity in adding new players, and extra scholarship money at this time of the year is intoxicating.

You can be pretty sure that there will be some unhappy Division I players touring campus in the next month, or maybe a junior-college kid who didn’t qualify for a Division I scholarship and needs a new home. The coaches will be trying to decide which ones fit the program and which ones they can get.

In a month, offseason workouts will be in full swing and rosters will be set, for the most part. College basketball will return to normal.

But this part of the season can be just as much fun to follow as the games.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com, check out his local sports blog at www.mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.

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