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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Light Snow
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Spartans at the gates
Memorial High is the team to beat in state championship
coach Steve Collins: 'You have to adjust every year.'
Spartans coach Steve Collins: 'You have to adjust every year.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

On a basketball court, Steve Collins has no problem communicating. The Madison Memorial boys coach possesses a foghorn voice which he uses often during the course of a game to get his team's attention.

But away from the gym, Collins grapples with technology and new media to focus the minds of his young players. The Wisconsin State Journal revealed that Collins sent a motivational text message to Jeronne Maymon, his star forward, a few hours before the Spartans dispatched Waunakee last Saturday night to earn a trip to the state tournament this weekend.

"They live in a different world than I do," says Collins from his Memorial High classroom. "I don't feel like I'm 41, but I'm definitely not where they are when it comes to this stuff. It took me until about a year ago to get the whole text messaging thing, and I fought it. But if they're communicating that way, then I need to communicate that way. Now they all say I need to set up a Facebook profile."

It's clear from Memorial's record, however, that Collins and his players understand each other perfectly. Thursday's quarter-final game against Lake Geneva Badger paved the way for Memorial's fifth straight trip to the Kohl Center for the state tournament. The Spartans won it all in 2005 and were runners-up in 2004 and 2006.

Perhaps more than any other sporting event, the Division 1 state basketball tournament pits the state's major communities against each other. Oshkoshians and Eau Claireites can claim bragging rights over the larger metro areas if their teams manage an upset or two. And with Wauwautosa East and Germantown dispatching schools from the Milwaukee City Conference in the sectional finals, Memorial will assume the role of big-city favorite - and wear the target that goes with it.

Of course, the state tournament also includes three smaller school divisions, each with its own story. The Monroe Cheesemakers will try to repeat as Division 2 champs, and Randolph will seek the Division 4 title for the sixth time in the last seven years. In Division 3, Iola-Scandinavia faces an uphill fight against three Catholic schools from larger communities.

But Division 1 dominates prime time on the TV broadcast of the tournament and draws the largest crowds to the Kohl Center. Even the most devout hoop heads who seek out rivalry games in tiny gyms throughout the winter and frequently visit, will admit to favoring the big-school match-ups.

The Spartans are a young, athletic team that likes to run. Even Maymon, whose 6'5" frame wouldn't look out of place among college power forwards, handles the ball on fast breaks.

"You have to adjust each year," says Collins. "With the guys we have, we're probably not going to play a half-court, grind-it-out game. In a lot of ways, this group reminds me of the first team I had that made it to state with three state Mr. Basketballs on it."

That was the 2003-04 squad, which lost only once, in the state final to Milwaukee King. It had Michael Nelson and Wesley Matthews at guard and Keaton Nankivil coming off the bench as a freshman to anchor the post. All three are now playing Division I college ball.

Maymon likewise plays at a high level, and has attracted interest from big-time college programs. But among his teammates, only his brother, senior guard Devonte, played significant minutes last year. They are joined in the starting lineup by sophomore guard Vander Blue, who is beginning to generate some interest from college scouts himself.

In playing an up-tempo style, Memorial leans heavily on its reserves. Collins has been rotating three junior guards - Ace Davis, Xavier Jones and Fred Ringhand - in the sixth-man role this season. Jones, in particular, is fun to watch. He's built like a bulldog, but has a quick release and makes defenses pay for not marking him on the perimeter.

"I think it's a compliment to our kids that I don't think it matters who we bring off the bench," Collins says.

My predictions: Memorial, Germantown, Bay Port and 'Tosa East will advance to Friday, with 'Tosa East and Memorial meeting in the final game on Saturday. There's no clear favorite between those two squads, but I'll be rooting for the home team.

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