2013-14 Winter Preview: Keenan-Knupp form formidable inside-out combo for East Ridge boys basketball team
East Ridge’s coaches will tell you they’re a deep team full of talented players far beyond the starting five — and they are. However, make no mistake, much of the Raptors’ success in 2013-14 lay in the hands of seniors Jake Knupp and Ryan Keenan.
Knupp is a quick 6-foot guard with vision, handles and an ability to shoot long-range. Keenan is a big, 6-foot-11-inch center with post-up moves and the knack to rebound and block shots.
On paper they couldn’t be much different, but their importance to the East Ridge boys basketball team is pretty much the same.
Keenan and Knupp give East Ridge an inside-outside advantage few teams in the Suburban East Conference and in Section 3AAAA can match.
“We’re really emphasizing working it down low,” said Keenan, who recently signed to play Div. I basketball at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “With the great guards we have we really have a great opportunity. We just have to have team chemistry and we have to share the ball. We can score both ways — inside and out.”
East Ridge was 18-9 last year and earned the second seed in the Section 3AAAA playoffs. The Raptors return four starters from last year’s squad, including their top three scorers — senior forward Brian Ishola, junior guard Sid Tomes and Knupp — and are ranked as high as ninth in the state by some publications in preseason polls.
East Ridge head coach Paul Virgin, entering his fifth year with the Raptors, said he’s modified the offense to highlight the team’s inside-outside strength.
“We changed up a few things,” Virgin said. “We’re going to try to do more three-out, two-in and try a little double post to try and make teams honor our big men. If they do that, we hope Jake, Sid and Brian can hurt teams from outside.”
Knupp, who is playing his third year of varsity basketball, was voted as a team captain, along with Ishola. He said he’s worked on building a rapport on the court with Keenan. The two played AAU basketball against each other this summer, but teamed up more than once at camps and open gyms.
“He’s really improved,” Knupp said of Keenan. “He makes it a lot easier. You can just throw it up there sometimes and he’ll catch it and finish. It helps us go inside-out because he can pass it out for threes. It’s just nice to have that big body in there.”
Like last year, Knupp and Tomes will rotate at the point guard and shooting guard spots. Virgin said Knupp is one of the top guards in the conference.
“He has everything,” he said. “He’s six feet now, so he’s not small anymore. He has a great outside shot and can take it to the hole. What stands out to me, though, is his leadership.”
Knupp averaged 12 points a game as a junior with a season-high of 26 against Mounds View. He said he’s tried to model his game after NBA star point guards Steve Nash and Chris Paul.
“I think I’m a good 3-point shooter and can handle the ball and set up the offense,” Knupp said. “I have to command the team more this year and lead by example in everything I do. It starts with hard work.”
Even though his skills are impressive to watch, what Virgin said sticks out to him is Knupp’s basketball IQ.
“He’s a basketball genius,” Virgin said. “He eats, sleeps and drinks basketball. It’s all the time - 24 hours, seven days a week. It’s just so much fun to watch him out on the court. He’s very passionate about the game and is like a coach on the floor.”
Knupp has grown three inches since last year and has gotten looks from a lot of Div. III teams, but said he holds outside hopes of playing Div. I basketball like Keenan.
Virgin, for one, thinks he could.
“Jake is not done growing,” Virgin said. “He’s going to be an absolute steal for someone, wherever he goes. By the time he’s a senior that school will look back on when they signed him and say ‘wow.’ He’s a very good high school player, but he’s going to be an even better college player.”
Virgin said, like Knupp, Keenan has the potential to be the best player in the Suburban East at his position, but he still needs to prove it.
“I think what Ryan Keenan’s goal is, at the end of the year, for people to say he’s the best big man in the conference,” Virgin said. “Right now, he’s not, because he hasn’t done anything yet. Nobody has. We haven’t won a conference championship or a section game, yet. Once we do that we’ll feel like we’ve arrived.”
Keenan backed up 2013 graduate Conrad Sexe last season, averaging 5.2 points per game. However, after becoming more comfortable with his sprouting frame, and through hard work in the offseason, Keenan progressed to become a Div. I player.
Virgin said Keenan gives East Ridge a bruising inside presence it hasn’t had since Adam Schwartz graduated in 2011.
“Ryan is going to command a lot of respect down low,” Virgin said. “Teams are going to have to honor him. If they don’t, he’s going to score a boatload of points. If they do, I think we have enough tools around him to make it hurt. People are going to have to worry about Ryan Keenan.”
As recent as two years ago, Keenan was more focused on baseball, where he was a standout pitcher and first baseman, than on basketball. But, due to an elbow injury and a growth spurt, Keenan decided hoops should be his No. 1 sport.
This offseason, Mitch Ohnstad, former Mr. Basketball Faribault and Golden Gophers guard, was Keenan’s personal trainer. Keenan also played for Ohnstad’s Minnesota Select AAU team.
“That was 100 percent the difference,” Keenan said. “He took my game to a whole new level. He exposed me to these college coaches and was the reason Pepperdine contacted me and am going where I’m going.”
Keenan said he and Ohnstad worked mainly on post moves and finishing at the rim.
“We really worked on having my back to the basket,” Keenan said. “I have all new moves compared to last year. I’m a lot better runner this year, too. I’ll be able to get up and down and score some fast-break points.”
Virgin said he’s seen potential in Keenan since his freshman year and he’s happy the big man is realizing it before he graduates.
“He’s really done a great job from the end of last year to the beginning of this year of improving and, most importantly, working on his weaknesses,” Virgin said. “Everything he was weak at last year are strengths this year. He’s a force.”
This year East Ridge will have Knupp and Tomes in the backcourt, Ishola on the wing, Keenan in the middle and senior Ryan Mathis at the power forward spot. Leading the Raptors strong bench will be seniors Parker Moquist and Xavier Cole and sophomore Seth Green, among others.
East Ridge isn’t the top-ranked team out of the SEC to start. Cretin-Derham Hall has been ranked as high as eighth in some publications. Other contenders for the conference crown include last year’s co-champions Roseville and Woodbury.
In Section 3AAAA awaits defending state champion Apple Valley and Duke recruit Tyus Jones. Last year, East Ridge was upset in the opening round by Rosemount, which should be tough again. Eastview and the aforementioned Cretin-Derham Hall are other section teams to beat.
“We want to go for it all and think we have the team that can,” Keenan said. “We’re really physically gifted. We just can’t have the mentally we had in sections last year when Rosemount upset us. That can’t happen. We can’t overlook anybody. But, in my head, it’d definitely be fun to get to a section championship against Apple Valley. With that atmosphere, that’d be an event.”