PREP BOYS BASKETBALL / WISCONSIN STATE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW
When basketball season tipped off last November, the cards appeared to be stacked against Northwestern.
Not only were the Tigers coming off a mediocre 12-12 record in 2017-18, but they had graduated leading scorer Kade Bartelt and were set to introduce their third head coach in as many years.
Fast-forward to March, and the real madness is that Northwestern is one of four Division 3 teams still alive in Wisconsin.
"We've always been known as a football school, but this year we turned it around in basketball," said 6-foot-4 forward Brody Payton, a Minnesota Duluth gridiron recruit who will play safety for the Bulldogs.
The fourth-seeded Tigers (21-5) face top-seeded Martin Luther (23-3) at 1:35 p.m. today at Kohl Center in Madison.
Payton is one of nine Northwestern seniors, a group that spent the summer badgering new coach Nolan Graff to open up the school's gym so they could get in their shots. Given that context, maybe it shouldn't be such a big surprise that the Tigers followed up their Heart O'North Conference-winning regular season with - thus far - four consecutive playoff victories.
"I knew coming in that we had a really special group," said Graff, a seldom-used sophomore in 2010 when Northwestern, behind the likes of Steve Tecker and Donnie Hissa, finished runner-up at its second straight state tournament. "I knew we had a lot of returning players. I saw what happened last year and these guys had a bitter taste in their mouths when it ended."
During practice Tuesday on the Wisconsin-Superior campus, the Tigers concluded their workout with a scrimmage against a handful of college players, including the Yellowjackets' Montroy Scott. The idea was to simulate the longer court and cavernous shooting backdrop they'll encounter in Madison, as well as Martin Luther's talent and up-tempo style.
If the cards were stacked against Northwestern early on, the Tigers must be playing with house money now? Not quite.
"Like Brody said, we're going down there to get a win," Jenner Graff, another senior, said. "We're not going down there expecting to lose and to just enjoy the time there."
Today's other semifinal pits No. 2 Waupun (25-1) vs. third-seeded Denmark (22-4). The winners meet in Saturday's championship.
What's up, bro?
It's not uncommon for a player to be coached by his or her father. But by an older sibling? Well that's unique.
Jenner Graff said he was ecstatic when big brother Nolan landed the gig.
"I wanted him to be the coach," Jenner said. "I knew we'd have a good team and that he could do something special with us."
Nolan is only 25 years old, and it's a baby-faced 25. But he's a well-known commodity among the Tigers, having worked with many of them on the AAU circuit and while serving as an assistant on Steve Lahti's staff a year ago.
He likened his on-court relationship with Jenner to that of a father-son.
"I know growing up whenever my dad said something, right or wrong, I wasn't going to necessarily listen to him. Sometimes it's like that with Jenner," Nolan said. "Communicating with Jenner, a lot of times I'll have an assistant coach say it, or even another player say something. It's not that Jenner doesn't respect me as a coach, but you get tired of hearing the same voice all the time."
There's another element that mirrors the father-son dynamic.
"I'm on him a little bit harder than I might be some of the other guys," said Nolan, who attends UWS. "He's been up for the challenge all year long."
The Graff family connections don't end there. Their father, Joel, calls all the games on iFan.tv. And one of Nolan's assistants, Trevor Paulus, is a cousin.
Tall task awaits
During Tuesday's practice, the Tigers were working on a zone defense. Maybe "learning" is a better word. Nolan has a strong preference for a man-to-man scheme in the mold of University of Virginia coach Tony Bennett. Basically, pressure the heck out of the ballhandler while sagging off the others and daring teams to shoot from the outside.
That could be a dangerous proposition against Martin Luther, though. Hence the zone cram session.
Asked about the defense, Tigers assistant Ken Bartelt, who coached the school's girls team to the 1999 state tournament, joked: "Well they're faster than us at every position, so we don't have much of a choice."
Indeed, the Spartans are the top seed for a reason. Their 10-game winning streak includes a 76-41 rout of Beloit Turner in the teams' sectional final.
Northwestern, making its fourth trip to state, is ready for the challenge.
"It's been kind of that underdog mentality all year - us against the world," said senior Sam Risley, the Tigers' top scorer at 16.1 points a night.