Basketball: Invading The Well
By BRANDON HURLEY
What: Iowa Wolves High School Hoop Series
Who: Greene County vs. N. Polk DH
When: 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, downtown Des Moines
It must’ve been a joke.
When the Greene County girls’ basketball team first caught wind of a potential date at The Well, they didn’t believe it.
A prestigious facility usually reserved for state qualifying teams couldn’t possibly host this small, west central Iowa school, would it? With three state tournament appearances in school history between the two boys’ and girls’ programs, a chance to play in Des Moines has been quite the rarity.
Well, despite the dismay to many coaches and players, the Greene County girls and boys basketball teams will in fact partake in the annual Iowa Wolves High School Hoop Series Friday, Dec. 15 at Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Des Moines hosted by the Iowa Events Center.
The event allows select schools from all over the state to play on the pristine court each winter.
The initial disbelief quickly wore off for the girls’ and boys’ team as reality set in and they prepare for a Heart of Iowa Conference doubleheader with North Polk. Even girls’ coach Dean Lyons was a little taken back when he first saw the schedule, but then memories of nostalgia set in.
“When I was told that, I didn’t believe it,” the coach said. “As a kid, it was Veteran’s (Auditorium) for me, but it was playing on this big court in this nice arena, it was awesome.”
Wells Fargo Arena is located on the northern edge of downtown Des Moines, roughly 65 miles southeast of the Greene County High School. The arena plays host to both the boys and girls state basketball tournament each year at the end of February and mid-March. It is also the home court for the Iowa Wolves, a Minnesota Timberwolves NBA G League affiliate and the Iowa Wild, the Minnesota Wild’s AHL minor league affiliate. The arena can hold upwards to 15,000 fans and has hosted big name musical concerts in the past including Drake, Toby Keith, Hall and Oates, and Katy Perry.
The Rams will tip off their doubleheader with the North Polk Comets at 2 p.m. with the girls’ game first up. The boys’ will follow at 3:30 p.m. or 15 minutes after the girls’ game concludes.
The doubleheader provides a chance for Chris Nelson’s guys to get a feel for where the Rams hope to be come March, the Greene County boys’ coach said. It’s not taboo to have eyes on lofty expectations.
“We have a confident team even after getting beat, and one of our goals is to make it to the state tournament,” the coach said. “I think this is a really good test in a situation that will give us a taste of what it’s like to play there and use that momentum the rest of the year.
We will have tasted what it’s like, but if we really want to get down there, here’s our new objectives and what do we need to do to get there. I think it will be good motivation.”
Greene County schools will dismiss at 11:45 Friday, Dec. 15 for the unique showdown. Pre-ordered tickets, which still can be purchased at the high school office, are $8 and allow entry into the girls’ and boys’ high school games as well as the Iowa Wolves versus Northern Arizona NBA G League game at 7 p.m. that night. Tickets at the door will be $18.
A Greene County pep bus, chaperoned by Shannon Black and Donna Carhill, will take roughly 50 students to and from Des Moines.
The enthusiasm has slowly been building for this rare doubleheader. Lyons knows his girls will be ready as they take on their second straight ranked foe.
“They are really excited,” the coach said. “The school is letting out, hopefully we have a nice crowd. It’s great for the program. It’s something that we can say that we played in Wells Fargo and a lot of teams can’t say that.”
The girls square off against the 15th ranked Comets, who enter Friday with a 5-1 record as of Tuesday, Dec. 12 with their lone loss coming to No. 8 Nevada (42-29) back on December first. North Polk is averaging 48.5 points per game with back-to-back wins over Gilbert and South Hamilton by 60 total points. They are led by two double-digit scorers, including Maggie Phipps at 13 points per game.
The boys, while facing a winless Comet team (0-6 as of Tuesday), won’t be caught with their guard down, not after surrendering an 11-point lead to PCM last Friday. North Polk will play a similar style to the Rams, relying on their speed and quickness. The Comets may have a somewhat deceiving winless record, as they’ve played one of the tougher schedules in the conference, including a loss to No. 6 South Hamilton, Perry and Gilbert. There certainly hasn’t been any cupcakes out there, and Nelson is aware of the trap, if you will.
Couple a winless opponent with an unfamiliar, massive arena as the back drop and the coach hopes his guys can avoid a sluggish start.
“We will have to play our game. Yes, because of the size (of the court) and the open background, we may have some ugly looking shots to start off, but we have to find a way to get ourselves relaxed,” the coach said. “The best way to do that is on the defensive end. Once the game really gets going, I think our kids will be fine.”
Nelson plans to ease his athletes into the atmosphere, arriving hopefully an hour prior to the girls’ game to give them a feel for the bigger court and wide open arena. He’s hoping it helps eliminate the intimidation factor and his three-happy team doesn’t fall in love with the NBA three-point line.
“We will go down on the court and walk around, get a feel for what it’s going to be like out there,” Nelson said. “We are going to play our game, and we have to recognize that we are playing on a 94-foot floor and where our actual three-point line is because we don’t have to settle for the long ones.
We’ve got a few that can shoot them but we don’t necessarily need to all the time. I’m hoping we can get down there early so we can get the (aw factor) out of the way.”
The nerves will be there, but its a matter of riding out the initial wave of excitement.
“I’m sure if I was out there, the adrenaline would be pumping and I’d be jumping a little bit higher,” Nelson said. “We have to try and get through that first wave of energy and get to our second wind.”
VIEWING TOP-TIER TALENT
The Greene County athletes, coaches and fans who make the trek down to The Well this week will be treated to one of the highest levels of basketball following the Greene County doubleheader.
The Iowa Wolves, a G League (formerly the Developmental league) affiliate of the Minnesota Timberwolves, hosts the Northern Arizona Suns, a Phoenix Suns affiliate, at 7 p.m. Dec. 15.
“It’s going to be a really good team bonding time,” Nelson said of the pro game. “I know the kids are really excited for it and were asking about it. It’ll be really cool, and it’ll obviously be much cooler if we win our ball game. But regardless, playing and then being able to watch the next two levels above us will be a cool experience.”
The game will be broadcast on Facebook Live on the NBA G League Facebook page.
Former Maryland standout Melo Trimble leads the Wolves in scoring (23 PPG) and passing (6.4 APG). The 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, is a member of the Suns. He’s played in nine games and is averaging 12.3 PPG and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Former University of Northern Iowa star Wes Washpun has played in eight games for the Wolves this year, averaging 5.8 points. Washpun, a graduate of Cedar Rapids Washington, began his career at Tennessee before transferring to Cedar Falls. He averaged 16.3 points per game during his senior year, leading the Panthers to the second round of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Nelson will use Friday’s night cap as a teachable moment, urging his guys to really study the athletes on the floor and how they play the game.
“The G League, they are all really good players, but they aren’t quite good enough for the NBA. Just to see how they move and how they play (will help us),” the coach said. “They are going to do a lot of similar things that we do from a fundamental point, but to have our kids see them do it at a high level will be really good for us.”
Peter Jok, a former West Des Moines Valley star and 2017 first-team all-Big Ten member for the Iowa Hawkeyes, has appeared in just one game for the Suns, attempting just one shot. Jok was the Big Ten’s leading scorer in his senior season (2017-18), averaging 19.9 PPG. He went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft and signed a contract with the Phoenix Suns in September.
The familiar, but not quite marquee names will be an added bonus for those in attendance. And though it will be somewhat of a learning opportunity, Nelson encourages his guys to pay more attention to the college game for fundamental purposes. Many of the athletes on display Friday have played big roles on winning college basketball teams. So in a way, it does fit with Nelson’s philosophy.
“Our kids will know some of those guys so it will be really cool for them,” the coach said. “I tell them to watch more college because I feel like you learn more from college than the NBA because it’s a whole different game.
I tell them to watch how they play. Especially when things aren’t going well, how do they handle the situation. A lot of my guys probably know these guys better than I do.”