Kansas State, Minnesota programs on the rise

The revival of Minnesota women's basketball began when a 5-foot-9 point guard named Lindsay Whalen from the small town of Hutchinson decided more than four years ago to play for the Gophers.

Around the same time, Laurie Koehn -- a widely recruited sharpshooter out of Moundridge High School in Kansas -- chose to sign with struggling Kansas State. The 6-foot-5 Nicole Ohlde, another Kansan from Clay Center, did the same.

Minnesota plays Kansas State Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. in a second-round NCAA tournament game televised by ESPN2 at Williams Arena, a matchup of resurgent programs that will send one school to the Sweet Sixteen next weekend in Norfolk, Va.

Listening to and looking at these two teams makes it obvious that a commitment to attract in-state players was _ and continues to be _ the keystone behind building a perennially successful program.

"That's where you have to start," said Gophers coach Pam Borton, whose first recruiting class was all Minnesotan: Jamie Broback, Liz Podominick and Kelly Roysland -- freshmen who are the first three off the bench. "You need to get those kids that already bleed the maroon and gold or the purple and white."

Whalen's high school was about an hour away from the Twin Cities. Only three players on the Gophers' roster are from outside the state.

Koehn, Ohlde and forward Kendra Wecker, who is from Marysville, are the Wildcats' stars. They're all from Kansas.

"It has a ripple effect in the high schools, the junior highs and the elementary schools," said Kansas State coach Deb Patterson. "It really helps build the excitement and the dreams of kids across the state."

Wecker, a junior, remembers as a high school student when Koehn and Ohlde signed to Kansas State. She was a year behind the two.

"It was just exciting for me finding out that they made that commitment," she said.

Second-seeded Kansas State (25-5), which beat Valparaiso in the first round on Sunday, went 2-14 in the Big 12 when Ohlde and Koehn were freshmen in 2001. (Koehn was redshirted because of a foot injury.)

The Wildcats had made the NCAA tournament in Patterson's first season, 1996-97, but they went the next four without an appearance until finishing 26-8 and advancing to the round of 16 in 2002.

Despite the struggles, the potential for success was there as well as respect for Patterson and her staff -- big reasons why Koehn, Ohlde and Wecker picked K-State.

"They knew the game so well," Koehn said, "and were so good at designing offenses toward players' strengths."

Minnesota went 8-20 when Whalen was part of an eight-member freshman class of which only three remain on today's team. (Starter Kadidja Andersson is the only other one who plays.) Cheryl Littlejohn was fired following that dismal 2000-2001 season for NCAA rules violations, and Brenda Oldfield (who now coaches at Maryland under her maiden name, Frese) arrived and guided the Gophers to a 22-8 finish and their first NCAA tournament in eight years.

This is their third straight appearance, just like Kansas State.

"Kids want to stay close to home," Borton said. "If you build something great to stay home for, other kids in the state will want to stay."

Plenty of potential future Gophers will be watching Tuesday night, undoubtedly offering their loud support for seventh-seeded Minnesota (22-8).

Ohlde, the Big 12 Player of the Year who scored 25 points on Sunday, will have her hands full in the post with the Gophers' Janel McCarville _ and vice versa.

"I'll just try to take away her strengths," McCarville said. "She's got a lot of them, so I think it's going to be kind of hard to do."

The Wildcats, who lost in the second round to Notre Dame on their home floor last year as a No. 3 seed, have certainly played in front of unfriendly crowds before.

"It will definitely be challenging," Wecker said. "They pack the house every game."

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