We’re heading towards the end of February, which means March Madness is just around the corner.
It’s the time of year where the important athlete steps up for their team in a key spot. Or if you’re just getting a season started, you find out as quickly as possible who you can lean on, who will step up when you need a big game.
Many of Minnesota’s winter teams are at a crossroads. The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team is on the verge of securing its first NCAA Tournament bid in four years. The Minnesota Timberwolves return from the NBA All-Star break later this week absolutely still in contention for a playoff spot. The Minnesota Wild is one of the hottest teams in the NHL and looks to be a Stanley Cup contender.
The Minnesota Twins just started Spring Training and are looking for a big bounce back year after losing 103 games in 2016. Here are four players from each team who it can be argued are their most important, most pivotal for their team to have long-term success.
Oh my! 😮 pic.twitter.com/DSWjCZR78I
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 11, 2017
Gopher Basketball – Jordan Murphy
The Gopher basketball team has a lot of depth and skilled players, and that’s huge when somebody is having an off night scoring or in foul trouble. But it’s no secret lately that sophomore forward Jordan Murphy has been a big reason for their recent win streak. Minnesota got its fifth straight Big Ten victory Sunday night, beating Michigan 83-78 in overtime. Murphy led the Gophers with 16 points and 15 rebounds, and it was his fourth straight double-double.
Murphy started the Big Ten season with 12 points and 21 rebounds in a loss to Michigan State. Then the struggles came, and coach Richard Pitino told him to focus on rebounding and defense, and the scoring would come. The talked worked, he’s been unstoppable since. If Murphy plays like this the rest of the season, the Gophers are not only a lock for the Big Dance, they might have a chance to make the second weekend.
— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) February 16, 2017
Minnesota Timberwolves – Andrew Wiggins
The Timberwolves went into the NBA All-Star break at 22-35, and 3.5 games out of the No. 8 spot in the playoffs. With 25 games left, getting to the playoffs is doable. They’re going to need Andrew Wiggins to help them get there. The Timberwolves are 4-6 in their last 10 games, and Wiggins has been the leading scorer in half of them. He put up 40 points in a win at Denver last week, and had 41 in a loss to Cleveland. His other three nights leading Minnesota in scoring were all victories.
Wiggins is a huge piece for the Timberwolves and he’s arguably their most important player because when he’s committed and engaged on the court, he’s one of the best players on the floor. The problem is he can be a defensive liability at times. The Timberwolves know what they’re going to get nightly from Karl-Anthony Towns, but Wiggins taken his game to another level on both ends is a must if they want to be considered a playoff team.
Minnesota Wild – Devan Dubnyk
The Minnesota Wild is the best team in the Western Conference, and it’s largely because they’re getting some of the best goaltending in the NHL. Yes, they’re balanced in scoring and there’s not one offensive player you can key in on. But Devan Dubnyk is playing arguably the best hockey of his career, and keeping the puck out of the net is the biggest reason the Wild are winning games.
The Wild leads the Western Conference with 84 points. They have a seven-point lead on Chicago and will likely be at worst the No. 2 seed for the playoffs. Dubnyk leads the NHL with 32 of the Wild’s 39 victories. He also leads the NHL with a .934 save percentage and a 1.97 goals against average. It’s impossible to keep that up, but the Wild defenders aren’t afraid to take a few chances now that they know Dubnyk will likely save any puck he sees. He’s the most important piece if the Wild make a playoff run. The best way to do it is with a hot goalie, and Dubnyk is the best in the NHL right now. Wild fans hope it says that way into the playoffs.
Minnesota Twins – Phil Hughes
Anyone who watches and follows Major League baseball knows that a team is only as good as its starting pitching. When a starter takes a game into the seventh inning or even later, you have a much better chance to win. The Minnesota Twins are coming off a 103-loss season, largely because their starting pitching struggled. Ervin Santana was the only consistent starter last year with an 11-7 record in 30 starts and a 3.38 earned run average.
The guy right behind him in the rotation, Phil Hughes, had a tough 2016 filled with injuries. The Twins need him to be at his best if they want to be competitive this year. It may not mean a playoff spot, but they at least need to be relevant after July. Hughes made just 12 starts last year and had a 1-7 record with a 5.95 ERA. He allowed 76 hits in 59 innings pitched, including 39 earned runs and 11 home runs. That’s not going to cut it for a guy who is in a three-year, $42 million contract. He’s due to make more than $13 million this season. The Twins would love for Hughes to revert back to his 2014 season, his first in Minnesota, where he went 16-10 in 32 starts with a 3.52 ERA and 186 strikeouts.
So while these four are arguably the most important to their teams to have success, they need help. After all, having multiple athletes step up is what makes a team… A team. But if these four can be consistent, it’ll go a long way towards a fun finish.