See more of the story

Thank you for checking out Basketball Across Minnesota, my weekly look at some of the state's top hoops stories, from preps to pros. — Marcus Fuller

Former Minnesota high school stars Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson didn't know anything about Utah women's basketball when coaches started recruiting them from Salt Lake City.

Now the second-year starters are vital pieces on the Utes' highest-ranked team in program history at No. 8 in the Associated Press and coaches' polls after a 14-0 start, including 3-0 in the Pac-12 through Thursday.

Kneepkens, from Duluth, and Johnson, from Medina, were immediate impact players in the Pac-12 as all-league freshmen last year. And Utah has built on a program-record turnaround from 5-16 before they got there to 21-12 and an NCAA tournament berth under coach Lynne Roberts last season.

Now the Utah women are vying for their first Pac-12 women's hoops title behind Kneepkens (14.1 points a game) and Johnson (11.6), the team's second- and third-leading scorers.

"I feel like last year set the stage, getting that experience to be the best version of ourselves," Kneepkens said. "We gained great players like [leading scorer and USC transfer Alissa Pili]. Being able to grow and keep reaching places that Utah has never reached is an awesome experience."

Kneepkens, who scored a state-record 67 points in her last high school game for Duluth Marshall in 2021, ranks fourth all-time in Minnesota girls history in career points. But the 5-11 sharpshooter didn't commit to Utah until after Johnson, a top-50 recruit and 6-2 forward, picked the Utes as a junior at Wayzata.

"It's a thousand miles away from home, and not too many people have gone here from Minnesota," Johnson said. "But we just built a great relationship with the coaching staff. They liked how we played and fit their system. They took a chance on us, and we took a chance on them. It worked out."

Ben Carlson (top) and Gabe Madsen are two more Minnesotans who’ve given Utah basketball a big boost this season.
Ben Carlson (top) and Gabe Madsen are two more Minnesotans who’ve given Utah basketball a big boost this season.

Associated Press photos

Similar story for Utah men

Kneepkens and Johnson share a Minnesota connection with another Utah basketball program.

Gabe Madsen (from Rochester Mayo) and Ben Carlson (from East Ridge) are starters for the Utes men's team, which opened Pac-12 play 4-0 through Wednesday under second-year coach Craig Smith, a Stephen, Minn., native. The best moment this year was Madsen and Carlson combining for 22 points in an upset of then-No. 4 Arizona.

"I was looking for a good opportunity to have a big impact right away and play a good amount," said Carlson, who spent his first two seasons at Wisconsin. "The coaching staff was really involved with their players. That's something Coach Smith really takes personally, and the rest of the staff does. That's been clear since I've been here."

Madsen, who scored a career-high 26 points vs. TCU last month, experienced a tough stretch last year after transferring to Utah from Cincinnati, where he was with his twin brother. He had a hard time leaving and then punctured a lung in his Utes debut, missing a month.

"I kind of got my footing the second year and got consistency with the guys coming back," said Madsen, now Utah's second-leading scorer. "I always knew since I got here this was the place. I enjoy these coaches and the way we play. I enjoy living in Utah. We're hitting our stride in the beginning of the year."

Last season, Austin native Both Gach played with Madsen after transferring back from the Gophers. The Utah men have already matched last season's win total with an 11-4 start. Madsen is impressed with how quickly the women's team turned the program around as well.

"It's cool that two Minnesotans are doing so well over there with the women's team off to a historic start," he said. "Hopefully, they keep it going. We're cheering them on."

Johnson agreed that it's fun to have several hoopers in Salt Lake City from her home state having success this season — and she hopes more players will follow.

"Prior to us not many from Minnesota had really gone here," Johnson said. "The University of Minnesota has gotten a lot of [in-state] players in the last year, but there is a decent amount of people who leave and play Division I. It's kind of a hotbed."

Fuller's Five ballers

Raheem Anthony, St. Mary's (Minn.)

The No. 1 scorer and No. 3 rebounder in the MIAC, Anthony had 25 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in Wednesday's victory vs. Hamline. The senior from Chicago had a career-high 41 points on Dec. 22.

Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies

The former Duke and Apple Valley star kicked off 2023 impressively with 18 points on a season-high five three-pointers plus eight assists and six rebounds to complement star Ja Morant in a win vs. Sacramento on Jan. 1. He was averaging a career-high 10.1 points through Wednesday.

Brylee Miller, Fairmont

The freshman guard scored a school-record 36 points on 15-for-16 field goal shooting to go with 10 steals in a victory last week in the Windom Holiday girls tournament.

Jayden Moore, Hopkins

The top freshman in the state led Hopkins to the TCO Holiday Classic title last week at Augsburg with a career-high 34 points plus 11 assists and seven rebounds vs. Osseo in the championship game for the Royals' seventh straight win.

Adalia McKenzie, Illinois

The sophomore guard from Brooklyn Park had 16 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals to help the Illini upset No. 12 Iowa 90-86 on Jan. 1 in Champaign.

Statistically speaking

400 — Career wins for Melrose boys basketball coach Ryan Dusha with his team's victory vs. Concordia Academy last week.

29.4 – Points per game for Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards in the past 10 games through Wednesday, which includes five 30-point games.

10.1 – Assists per game through eight games for New Life Academy senior Max Briggs, a figure that leads the state. He had 42 assists in a three-game stretch last month.

2 – Minnesota women's teams in the Division II Top 25 this week with No. 5 Minnesota State Mankato and No. 23 Minnesota Duluth. Their combined record is 22-3.

Basketball Across Minnesota will be published weekly on Don't be a stranger on Twitter after reading, as chatting about these stories makes them even more fun to share. Thanks, Marcus (@Marcus_R_Fuller on Twitter)