As St. Paul Johnson prepared for this season, coach Vern Simmons felt his players weren't buying into his program. So he did something he had never done in his previous 19 seasons as coach of the Governors: he took his hands off the wheel.
He quit holding his players accountable for the on-court actions that ate away at the style of team-oriented basketball he wanted his team to play. The result was predictable, as the Governors lost six of their first seven games.
"When we got to 1-6, they wanted to talk," Simmons said. "They were thinking they were not a good team."
It was at rock bottom that the Governors (10-6, 6-0) discovered themselves and what they could be when they played as a team, Simmons said. A 55-52 victory at Northfield on Jan. 4 kicked off a nine-game winning streak that turned Johnson's season around.
The Governors host St. Paul Central (7-9, 5-1) on Tuesday, in our Top Game of the Week, with the opportunity to take a commanding lead in the St. Paul City Conference standings.
"Winning breeds confidence," Simmons said. "Going through that losing streak made the guys question themselves. This is a team game, and the group of guys who play as a team, rather than a bunch of individuals, is the group that's going to have success."
To be fair, Johnson played a difficult nonconference schedule featuring teams such as Robbinsdale Cooper, St. Croix Prep, which is No. 5 in the Class 2A rankings by Minnesota Basketball News from Jan. 29, and Esko. But during the 1-6 start, the Governors surrendered an average of 74 points a game. In their nine-game win streak, however, they're allowing just 56 points a game.
Johnson won 67-61 at Central on Jan. 9, the third game in the winning streak. Senior Jesse Foster had 15 points to lead the Governors in that game, when Johnson's pressure defense in the final minutes shut down Central.
Stopping Central's Caron Crowe, a senior forward who Minutemen coach Scott Howell calls a conference player of the year candidate, will be a priority for the Class 3A Governors. Crowe, who averages 20.9 points a game, recorded 28 points the last time these teams met.